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Flight Studies: The Swift and the Kestrel

for basset clarinet

When, back in 2016, I had my first opportunity to write for basset clarinet for Mark Simpson during a 2016 residency with BBC Radio 3, I quickly fell in love with the instrument and its possibilities for creating a full-bodied sound, without the need for any accompaniment, across its extended range. The piece I wrote imitated the strange and unusual dance that the Red Crowned Crane performs when socialising with other birds of the same species, and occasionally alone (for reasons that are not understood).

When presented with the opportunity to write for the instrument again, I set about creating a ongoing series of Flight Studies that further explore its remarkable ability to soar across its register, and the huge variety of tone colours it can produce within them, in order to imitate the flight patterns and behaviours of various different birds. (My own yearning for wide-open spaces during the first Covid-19 lockdown partly inspired the decision to write about birds swooping and diving across vast aerial spaces.) The swift is remarkable for its incredible speed and agility, reaching up to 70 miles per hour, and for remaining in flight for great lengths of time, including while sleeping, only leaving the air to nest. The piece depicts the graceful swooping and soaring motion of these birds from the very start, along with the idea of never landing; while the music slows at times, it remains in near-perpetual motion from start to finish.

The kestrel is perhaps best known for its remarkable ability to hover, keeping its head entirely still, even in the wind, whilst tracking and hunting its prey. Eventually it will begin the attack by swooping downwards, before finally making the kill with a firm peck to the back of the neck. The music depicts this behaviour as a narrative sequence of events, with long pedal tones to suggest the bird’s motionless hovering and ‘swooping’ playfully into the lower register as it explores its territory and seeks its next target. The prey (a jittering insect or lizard of some kind) eventually shows itself and the kestrel pursues it with ever increasing energy, leading to an inevitable conclusion. Finally, the kestrel flies away and into the distance. 

The Swift and The Kestrel were commissioned as Sinfonietta Shorts by the London Sinfonietta.

Recording available on Matthew Kaner: Chamber Works released by Delphian Records. Performed by Mark Simpson.


24 March 2021 Mark van de Wiel (London Sinfonietta), Kings Place, London

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