Saturday Sounds: ‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’ by John Mackey

A week of snow and cold brings a Saturday of coffee and music. With things warming up it is a great time to listen to John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire.

What a week it has been! After two separate winter storms trudged through the area, schools were out for six days. Five snow days and Martin Luther King, Jr. day. School out and poor roads meant my kids were home most of the week. And I with them.

I took advantage of the time at home to listen to a wide variety of music. One piece stuck with me all week was a favorite: Kingfishers Catch Fire by John Mackey.

In 2005, I was introduced to Mackey’s music when Redline Tango was part of the repertoire for the Georgia State University Wind Ensemble. Soprano saxophone was the part I was given, and I loved it. The ensemble was able to rehearse with Mackey before the Southeastern CBDNA conference in Nashville in 2006. Afterward, the graduate assistants under Dr. Robert Ambrose ate a meal with Mackey.

Now, Mackey is one of the leading composers of music for wind ensembles. Compositions like Aurora Awakes and his symphony Wine Dark Sea have solidified his place amongst the most important composers of our time. Additionally, he continues to write for younger ensembles.

About Kingfishers

Mackey premiered Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2007, and it was completed as part of a commission from ensembles in Japan. As the program note states, the kingfisher “is a bird with stunning, brilliantly colored feathers that appear in sunlight as if they are on fire.  Kingfishers are extremely shy birds and are rarely seen, but when they are seen, they are undeniably beautiful.”

The composition consists of two movements. Opening the work is “Following falls and falls of rain” calls on the bird’s shy side, using suspended tones and quiet dynamics, giving the listener the impression of the kingfisher emerging from its nest. The second movement is fiery, filled with activity and flourishes from the woodwinds and percussion. Powerful brass shows the kingfisher’s sparkle and beauty.

Two aspects of the work are rather unique. First, the second movement requires an antiphonal trumpet choir to play from the back of the concert hall. These players add to the brilliance of the bird. Secondly, Mackey references Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” at the end of the piece. The ending of the second movement draws from the end of the “Berceuse and Finale” from Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is available for rental from Mackey’s website (ostimusic.com). A score and recording are also accessed here. Additionally, records of the work can be found through Naxos.

I was able to work on this piece while attending the University of Southern Mississippi as a doctoral student under Dr. Thomas Fraschillo in 2011.

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