Red-tail and Hummingbird program notes


Commissioned by Orchestra 2001 and Piffaro, the Renaissance Band for joint concerts on February 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, 2013. They asked me for a short piece to contrast the sound of the modern and early-instrument ensembles.

From our front porch last summer my wife and I witnessed a young hawk attacked and chased by a hummingbird. The musical depiction of this beleaguerment became Red-tail and Hummingbird. A lazy afternoon’s peaceful reverie of chirps and replies is shattered by the two feathered protagonists. In canon, one voice closely chases the other, filling the human and avian observers with both awe and humor. As the hawk vainly attempts to flee its tormentor, an aerial tango is imagined, then a waltz. They leave and—breaking the false hope of peace—return, but do, finally, leave for good.

I first toyed with the idea of a work the groups would play together, but leaving aside the pitch differences of the instruments (Renaissance instruments are generally pitched a half-step higher than moderns), I decided that it was important for the players to feel comfortable within their own tuning systems. Musicians have performed exclusively in equal temperament for more than a century, but historical music specialists now play in a variety of just-intonation sound-worlds. Mixing them, I felt, would only make some instruments appear to sound “off” to the audience. So each group played the work by itself in each concert.

Red-tail and Hummingbird is written for three matched duos, but any six instruments that fit the ranges may perform this. As much as is possible, pairs of same or similar voices may make up each of the three duos. At the premieres the instrumentation was:

Orchestra 2001: 2 Trumpets in D, Horn in F, Bassoon, Trombone, Tuba
Piffaro: 2 Soprano Shawms in D, 2 Tenor Sackbuts, Bass Dulcian, Quartbass Dulcian

The duration is about 6 minutes. A four-part series on the writing of Red-tail and Hummingbird begins here.

There are now six versions of Red-tail.
The two listed above, plus
brass sextet with two horns (2 tpt, 2 hn, tbn, tba; trumpets in C or D)
brass sextet with two trombones (2 tpt, hn, 2 tbn, tba; trumpets in C or D)
brass quintet, high version in C (trumpets in C or D)
brass quintet, low version in Bb (trumpets in C)


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