John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 5 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.

Mackey wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire in 2006-2007 on commission from a consortium in schools in Japan.  Says Mackey:

A 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 first movement, “Following falls and falls of rain,” is suspended in tone, but with hope, depicting the kingfisher slowly emerging from its nest in the early morning stillness, just after a heavy rain storm.  The second movement, “Kingfishers catch fire,” imagines the bird flying out into the sunlight.  The work ends with a reference to (and a bit of a pun on) Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Mackey himself provides even more program notes on this piece, both on his website and in more colorful detail on his blog. You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece (first movement, then second movement) there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Kingfishers Catch Fire, or at least the 2nd movement, via YouTube here:

In case you were wondering what bit of Firebird Mackey is referencing, you can find out on my post about that piece.  For the link-challenged among you, here’s the video clip.  It’s one of the greatest conducting videos ever made, so it deserves reposting.  Listen to the very end of both pieces and you’ll hear the reference for sure.

And now a bonus image: a Kingfisher!

Kingfisher!