Warning Colors is a piece for orchestra scored for three flutes (second flute doubling alto flute in G and third flute doubling piccolo), two oboes, one english horn in F, two clarinets in Bb, one bass clarinet in Bb, three bassoons, four horns in F, three trumpets in C, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, tuba, timpani, three percussion, harp, piano doubling celeste, and strings. The title is a phrase used in evolutionary biology in relation to the behavior of mimicry which is the core musical concept of the work. While writing a piece called Desert Miniatures: Insects for three bassoons in the summer of 2012, I learned about a butterfly, the Arizona Red Spotted Purple from the Sonoran Desert in Arizona which employs mimicry. The physical appearance of the butterfly has evolved to resemble another, noxious species of butterfly in the region, the Pipevine Swallowtail. The Red Spotted Purple is attacked far less because it has developed similar warning colors to the Swallowtail that predators have learned to recognize and avoid.
Warning Colors employs three types of musical mimicry. The first is harmonic mimicry in which a stable harmony is presented in either the winds or brass. The strings mimic the harmony by sliding around it using microtones. These moments of harmonic mimicry serve as structural pillars. Second, rhythmic mimicry occurs when a melody or line is performed simultaneously against itself, the mimicking melody having different rhythmic values. The two lines intertwine rhythmically, come into unison, and break away from each other in a heterophonic texture. The third, melodic mimicry, occurs when two or more lines mimic a source by matching its contour. However, these mimics are not the product of a simple transposition because they retain their own internal intervallic characteristics. The concept of mimicry informed many of the musical characteristics displayed and heard in Warning Colors.