Meet Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s First Composer in Residence
Michael-Thomas Foumai, whose music is lauded on the global stage as “vibrant and cinematic," is the first person to hold this post.
Composer Michael-Thomas Foumai spends his days and nights immersed in music, composing, arranging and teaching. In April, the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra concludes a five-concert series he’s leading at the Hawai‘i Theatre that explores the intersection of Hawaiian culture and symphonic music with the Honolulu Jazz Quartet (April 15) and Raiatea Helm (April 29). Foumai, 35, who left Hawai‘i in 2009 for graduate school and work, then returned to the Islands in 2015, also teaches at UH West O‘ahu. He’s written music celebrating Polynesian voyaging as well as calling attention to climate change. We grabbed coffee with him to learn more.
Composing is what I do the most of, it’s what I get the greatest joy out of. Much of my work with the symphony is also to engage the community, to open up the mysteries of music to our community, at large, but also at the university where I teach students.
I had gotten a lot of success with many performances and orchestras wanting to perform my music, asking me to write music. But the music that I was writing was, I felt, not authentic to who I was, because I was always writing about music from another culture. I asked myself, is this all a musical career is, studying, writing music, going through performances, entertaining people and going home? And repeat. I slowly began to realize that there was a purpose for me here at home. There were stories that I could tell that were not being told in the symphonic realm of my Polynesian heritage, of Hawai‘i. My return home has been one of finding purpose in my music identity.
I’m generally writing a lot of music every day, both for our guest artists with the HapaSymphony series, listening to music and finding ways, how the orchestra could fit into, say, the music of Raiatea Helm. But I’m also working on things far into the future, next season or next year. Basically, brainstorming ideas of what the orchestra can do.
“I’m kind of the wizard behind the scene. I don’t have to be in front of everybody.”
The biggest highlight was the Hōkūle‘a premiere of Raise Hawaiki, which was for choir and orchestra, that premiered in 2019. It was quite a spectacular show. We had projections, we had almost 200 people on the stage. It was a very inspirational blending of music, and other different things around our community coming together, which I’ve never really seen done with orchestral music. I realized that it was a tool that can bring people together that have never talked to each other, to make something very beautiful to bring awareness. And it was also something that I could finally share with my family here.
I grew up on O‘ahu, mostly Makiki, went to Roosevelt High School. Before that I was at Kawānanakoa Middle School. That’s actually where I started music. They had an exploratory program that included orchestra and band. So I signed up for band because my sister was a clarinet player. And she said, “you got to go to band. Don’t go into string instruments. You don’t want to be with the dorks.” For some reason I got placed into orchestra. That kind of set me off to learning the violin, taking lessons, and it led me to compose. … I’m kind of the wizard behind the scene. I don’t have to be in front of everybody.
I had earlier had some piano lessons I didn’t enjoy at all. Violin, it was easier. Piano, there were two hands involved, I couldn’’t really coordinate and then also performing in front of everybody gave me a fright. I got nervous. But for some reason with the strings, I might have been older, eventually finding composing.
If we can really embody the idea of pono, of living righteously, to ourselves and to our environment, that is just one way I am using music to shine the light. Think about the ancient Hawaiians and that they sustained themselves precontact. So, it can be done. We can live simply again.
If we look 30 years from now, when we have that deadline, where it’s a point of no return, will we look back to now and say, did we do enough with the artists, did the composers say something to correct the path? That is what I’m trying to do with my music, to tell stories through a Polynesian lens, returning to Indigenous practices, which very often give us the answers: to live simply, to live righteously, to do what is right. And a lot of that has to do with battling climate change.
I love film music. The music of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, but also the Golden Age composers Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North. For the concert music folks. I really love Stravinsky, the music of Samuel Barber—his “Knoxville” is something that always speaks to me.
At West O‘ahu I teach for the Academy of Creative Media. It’s a course called Music, Sound & Media. It basically is a survey of the basic music elements: How to work with sound in all kinds of different media, so podcasts, movies, creating all the sound effects, the Foley sound design in addition to the music.
I’ve grown to love teaching. I know when I started out teaching, I was actually terrible at it. [Eventually] I found the joy of casting down, ensuring that our future music students have a pathway to become musicians and it really speaks to our symphony’s mission to educate and really perpetuate the legacy of symphonic music here in Hawai‘i.
I’ve just come across the words of our new poet laureate from Hawai‘i, Brandy Nālani McDougall. And I just find her words, the way she puts them together and the way she connects them to a love of Hawai‘i, and Hawai‘i itself, speaks music. I’m very inspired and hopefully we’ll see a collaboration in the future. That’s a dream.
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How was I named? It’s a family affair. So obviously my last name, Foumai, for my father, Samoan. My first name is two first names, Michael-Thomas. Thomas was my grandfather’s name on my mom’s side and he really wanted my name to be Thomas. But my mom really wanted to name me after the archangel. So they split the difference, gave me two names.
And my middle name is kind of an interesting story. Alexander. My sister, I think she was responsible for that. There are two stories that I’m told: one was after Alexander the Great. But she loved books. She has an English degree, she’s a librarian, so I think one of her favorite books was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I imagine me coming into the world was a very bad day. She’s a few years older.
I love watching movies, being swept up by the story. I used to love going into a Blockbuster just to be able to physically touch the movie. I guess for me, it’s kind of like recreating that experience by having my own library, my own Blockbuster.
Be humble about what you do. But also take pride in the work that you put out and do your best. Be humble and have patience.
His hobby is collecting physical media, such as CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. He started with VHS tapes.