John Duffy
Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy

John Duffy
Photo by Glen McClure

American composer and beloved new music advocate John Duffy, who founded Meet The Composer in 1974, died in Virginia this morning after a long illness. He was 89.

In 2011, Meet The Composer and the American Music Center merged to form New Music USA. Ed Harsh, current president and CEO, reflects on Duffy’s profound impact on the field in the post below. Many in our community will feel this loss deeply. We encourage you to share your memories of John in the comments section.

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With John Duffy, everything was possible. He radiated an optimism as forthright and clear as it was free of guile and self-importance. Though the limits of observable reality might be challenged, audacity never distracted from core purpose. His optimism happily went about its business. It lived solidly on terra firma. It got things done.

In the immediate aftermath of a person’s death, we can feel an urge to sum up their impact and role and even character. We want to come to some kind of conclusion about what their life may have “meant,” perhaps as a benchmark against which to take some measure of our own. I certainly don’t propose to do that here. It’s a shaky notion in any case to impose a stable unity onto a life’s complex assemblage of experiences and relationships, joys and sorrows, narrative through-lines and irrational disconnects over time. Summing up any life is foolhardy—especially one as rich as John’s was.

My aim is something more modest and personal, though it’s certainly still daunting. I want to reflect on a few of the characteristics I treasured in John that I feel are his legacy to New Music USA, the second incarnation of his visionary creation Meet The Composer. Mine is just one perspective. I hope others will share in the comment section below their own personal perspectives and stories. John meant so many things to so many people. The more we share, the more we’ll be able to appreciate him.

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

This omnivorous openness was paired with a healthy disregard for conventional hierarchies. He didn’t recognize them as valid, so he ignored them. For John, the idea that a “classical” symphonic work was, by nature, automatically worthy of higher status than the work of, say, Ornette Coleman or Burt Bacharach—to use two of his favorite examples—was simply bunk. He was quick to fight the ingrained privilege and prejudice that often hide behind those hierarchies. The energy and self-assuredness he brought to such spirited struggles embodied for me a muscular, practical, American blue-collar view of the value inherent in solidly workmanlike effort, no matter its form.

The exploding variety of creativity we’re blessed with in 2015, which blows through genre categories like so much thin air, may obscure for us now the uncommon character of his views. It’s worth pausing for a moment to make sure that we don’t take John’s openness for granted. Because we shouldn’t. His views were decades ahead of their time and distinctly radical when Meet The Composer was founded in the 1970s.

We should likewise not underestimate the quality of courage he showed in standing up for his own convictions. The name of his organizational creation is its own example. He frequently told the story of thinking deeply about the name for his then-new program. He scribbled one possible name after another on a big yellow legal pad. Under the influence of the direct, human immediacy of Walt Whitman’s poetry, he wrote down “Meet The Composer.” When he finally chose that name—against the advice of many, let it be noted—he was met with a lot of resistance. “The higher ups” at the New York State Council on the Arts hated it, writing letters to him explaining that it wasn’t classy enough. He said he read the letters and just put them away in a drawer, figuring that people would come around to his view sooner or later. Which they did.

John embodied faith, broadly defined; faith in himself and in his fellow artists. This is the fuel that powered his will. And what a will it was, able to conjure abstract vision into very real being. For years in the late 1970s and early 1980s he enthusiastically regaled anyone who would listen with his idea for putting composers in residence with orchestras around the country. We can only imagine how many dozens (hundreds?) of indulgent smiles or blank stares he had to suffer. What an improbable idea it was for a little nonprofit with a tiny budget…. By 1992—ten years, several million dollars, and one transformed orchestral new music world later—it wasn’t improbable anymore. It was obvious.

That was a big victory, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also the MTC commissioning program, the composer-choreographer program, the New Residencies program. So many new realities conjured, to the benefit of so many. Yes, that’s the thing: to the benefit of so many. No one I’ve met more exemplified generosity of spirit than John. He used the term “angelic spark” relating to people who helped others in the spirit of pure common service. The term fits him so well.

I feel sure that in John’s case the spark was inherent and inborn. Life experience just as surely brought it brightly to the fore. John cited a key moment during his naval service in the Pacific during World War II. As he related the story, his ship was attacked and a number of shipmates were killed. He and another sailor stood guard over the bodies through the night. In the morning, with a few Old Testament words from the ship’s captain, the bodies were slid into the sea. That stark demonstration of life’s fragility seems to have inspired in John a permanent commitment to make a difference, to live a life of value and of service.

Future years would determine the focal point of that service: composers. You could talk to John for only a few minutes before feeling the energy, the power, the almost talismanic specialness that he conferred on composers. In truth, John felt this way about all artists, but when he spoke of composers the magic was palpably electric. The more society could come to put composers to work, the more society would benefit. Composers were the greatest national resource imaginable.

And composers deserved to be paid like the professionals they are. John’s experience as a composer in a broad range of marketplaces gave him a tactile understanding of creators’ economic value. He was an Emmy-winning composer for TV with deep experience in music for the theater as well as the concert hall. He understood the worthiness of matching appropriate money to appropriate work, and his perspective generated the ethos of MTC, which raised the consciousness of subsequent generations.

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy, September 13, 1998. Left to right, seated: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, John Duffy; standing: Cecil Taylor, Billy Taylor, David Lang, Steve Reich, and Alvin Singleton.
Photo by Peter Serling

To artists given less than their due attention and appreciation by their culture, John’s valuation of composers, both figurative and very literal, was manna for the starving. Like an oasis, John’s championing leadership brought new life and new energy to a community of composers who felt like creative travelers crossing a vast desert. His vision inspired high hopes for what might be built, in fact built together, on the other side. My vaguely Moses-like imagery here is intentional. On a less cosmic scale, John’s positive vision commanded deep reverence and even deeper human attachments. The theologian Forrest Church wrote that although agnostic on the subject of life after death, Church was completely convinced on the subject of love after death. He believed the most profound measure of the wealth of our lives to be the love we leave behind when we die. By this measure, John was a wealthy man indeed.

So IS everything possible? No. Not really. If it were, John would still be with us, having fought back like a champ once again, overcoming the will of the misguided cells in his body. There are certain rules we can’t change. One is that people die. But John’s life leaves a resilient legacy, especially precious at moments when our courage and faith are tested. John reminds us that what’s possible goes way beyond the horizon we see, and maybe even as far as we dare to dream.

John Duffy was featured by NewMusicBox in October 2003. Read the full hour-long conversation John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman.

50 thoughts on “Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

  1. Nancy Clarke

    He was, and remains, important to all of us. He literally changed the way people think of, compose, perform, and listen to music. With his leadership, and his grace, so much was accomplished for New Music, in ways that following generations will never realize. He opened doors for us then, now, and in the future.

    Reply
  2. Donald Knaack

    I remember working with John and Carl Stone in the very early 1980s to bring the Meet the Composer organization into the State of California. I remember John’s patient, yet very steadfast determination to make things happen. He was a true beacon for new music and its composers. RIP.

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  3. Frederick Peters

    Ed, thanks so much for this beautiful piece. I first met John in the late 70s when I was a young composer. Over a decade later, I was fortunate enough to join the Board of MTC, on which I serve to this day. John was always such a force for good in our world. He was determined and forthright and incredibly kind. An evening spent in his company was pure pleasure. The world is certainly a richer place for his having visited it, and a poorer one for his having left it.

    Reply
  4. Heather Hitchens

    You really said it all Ed! A visionary and a wonderful human was lost today! He will be missed terribly by so many of us, but his legacy lives on. I think the thing that was coolest about John was the fact that he embraced excellence without aesthetic prejudice and as a result infused the repertoire with bold and exciting new work that reflected such a broad diversity of the musical styles and voices. What a gift he gave to the world!

    Reply
  5. Chen Yi

    Remembering during a short visit to the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in Oct. 2009, John led a group of our composers to visit the grave of Charles Parker, which he helped to build in Kansas City, to honor and remember the great jazz musician for his contribution to American culture. What a sincere heart and great mentor he is for our next generation! He really cared about the cultural heritage and the development of our bright tradition in the new society. We will miss John tremendously.

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  6. Signe Mortensen

    I met John when singing his opera Black Water in Seattle…I fell in love with how he composed “Haggen-Dazs” and he fell in love with how I sang it! Lucky me, because I got to sing some of the most beautiful new music for the last decade at his New Composer’s Institute at the Virginia Arts Festival. The family he made in Virginia and the legacy he left will forever be in my heart. He inspired us all to be not just better musicians and artists but better and kinder people…a kinder man could not be found. Thank you John! I’ll keep the homefires burning in Harlem for you!

    Reply
  7. Charles Amirkhanian

    John was the kind of man you couldn’t help but love. He could create a friendly bond instantly, and with most anyone he encountered. I believe he took Henry Cowell seriously as a role model, supporting other composers generously and with a more catholic approach than any of the rest of us who have followed in his wake, or who preceded him, and that includes Jesus Christ himself. When John turned 60 I did an interview with him that was aired on KPFA Radio in Berkeley. It’s here, if anyone has time and interest:
    http://radiom.org/detail.php?omid=MC.1988.12.23.c2
    Program Description: Charles Amirkhanian interviews composer John Duffy, whose television series soundtrack “Heritage: Civilization & The Jews,” has been reworked into a suite for orchestra with narrator. Duffy, the founder of the Meet the Composer organization, which assists groups in bringing composers to meet their audiences, has had a revolutionary impact on the American music scene of the late 20th century. Now Charles Amirkhanian plays turnabout and brings you John Duffy himself, interviewed shortly after his 60th birthday in his Manhattan studio on October 9, 1988. In this wide ranging interview Duffy discusses the role of religion in his life, his early studies with Henry Cowell and Luigi Dallapiccola, and the philosophy behind the Meet the Composer series.

    More recently in 2009, John Duffy participated in Other Minds’ Henry Cowell festival in San Francisco. Here he is speaking on a panel that includes George Avakian, Anahid Ajemian, Cowell biographer Joel Sachs, and pianist Sarah Cahill.
    http://radiom.org/detail.php?omid=MC.1988.12.23.c2

    A fond farewell, dear John.

    Reply
  8. Ursula oppens

    John Duffy enriched the lives of all musicians. His generosity will forever color our existence; his belief that music is still alive and being created anew at every moment is an essential part of our world.
    With love,
    Ursula

    Reply
  9. Michael Spudic

    A beautiful portrait Ed, captures the essence, the warmth and spirit of the one and only John Duffy.
    I will cherish his memory.

    Reply
  10. Paul Dresher

    John was a visionary who did an amazing service to the music community and all composers in the US with the creation of Meet The Composer. But personally, he was also a generous and gentle person, open to new ideas throughout his life. We will miss him immensely.

    Reply
  11. Dan Welcher

    Thank you, Ed, for this beautiful piece. John Duffy changed my life in a very big way: when I was named Composer in Residence with the Honolulu Symphony in 1990, (a program funded by Meet The Composer), I was no longer just another academic—I was a Professional Composer. As one of the original group of composers placed full-time within major US orchestras, I learned very quickly how lucky I was. John showed us all how to be professional: how to respect each other and all musicians; how to believe in our own work and to advocate for fair payment for it; how to be a public figure and not be shy about what a creative person can provide for a community. Without John Duffy’s guidance and insight, the career called “composer” would be a very different thing today. I miss him already, and I hope we can all continue to help his flame burn brightly.

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  12. Bernard Rands

    Dear Friends,
    John was the most generous spirited person I have ever met.
    His calm, kind demeanor, belied a burning passion for the art of music in all its manifestations to which he contributed significantly through his own creative talents.
    John’s enthusiasm for the success of his fellow musicians was unmatched.
    He gave us so much and our profession will rarely seek the likes of him again.

    Reply
  13. melanie white

    I was privileged to work with John on two different productions of his opera, Black Water. First as an assistant director on the premiere, and, nearly 15 years later, as director on the West Coast premiere. It says everything about him that when I contacted him and asked if our little shoestring opera company could stage his work, he embraced the idea with enthusiasm and energy, corresponding with me throughout rehearsals and traveling to Seattle to attend the opening – and writing me a lovely and effusive thank you note when it was over. He was unfailingly gracious, generous, and invested in the work. He will be deeply missed.

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  14. Jeff Fuller

    Had the privilege of playing in the orchestra for John’s off-broadway show, “Horseman, Pass By,” then later became the recipient of several Meet The Composer grants. John was always gentle of spirit yet strongly encouraging to young composers like myself, and to singer-songwriters like Mike Glick, with whom I did a great deal of work. Such a nice man, with the strongest of convictions about the power of music to make humanity better.

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  15. John Kennedy

    Thank you, Ed. It’s touching to read these lovely remembrances which show how broad was his reach and how deep was his effect. All of John’s optimism, generosity, and vision were also evident in his music.

    Reply
  16. Laura Kaminsky

    Ed, you could not have said it better; thank you for this moving tribute.

    John’s quiet dignity belied a forceful, positive energy, and his profound vision and supreme generosity have had a profound impact on the musical world in which we find ourselves today. I am among so many who are grateful for all his magnificent efforts on behalf of new music. With love and respect for his deep humanity,

    Laura

    Reply
  17. George Cisneros

    Ed, this is a moving tribute that celebrates John’s mentoring and guiding wisdom. John provided encouragement for many of us here in Texas. He was instrumental in supporting the URBAN-15’s Third Coast New Music Project from 1978 to 1989. John and Nancy Clark shared their resources and knowledge for Meet the Composer-Texas to nurture many young composers. We have lost a international treasure.

    Reply
  18. Heather Larson

    To world he was John Duffy. But to me he was my Great Uncle Jack. Thank for the beautiful tribute to him. He is greatly missed by many. He is one Man that left his mark in world. He left the world with the beauty of music and his kind and Jolly soul. In my hear I know he is in heaven composing music for a heavenly choir. Our family appreciates all your kind works and prayers during this time of loss.

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  19. Rachel

    I always saw John as a sort of magical person who would live forever. And in a way he will, in all of us, and in those who come after us, even if they don’t know it.

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  20. Tom Sunderland

    How in the world was I ever given the privilege to work with him? I did nothing to earn his generosity but he gave freely and happily and deeply, a secure soul in a morass of fear. The world is poorer for his loss and I am richer for having been a very small part of his life.

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  21. Maurice Creuven

    I am sure John was a great human and a wonderful composer. Also a great protector of the young american musicians. I am sure he will stay with us, not only with his music but also with his spirit.
    My deep sympathy to his family, his students and his friends.
    Maurice.

    Reply
  22. Alberta Arthurs

    John’s vision for music and for composition was original and deep and never-ending. He believed in creating music for every outlet – foursomes to film to full orchestras and festivals – and he believed in organizing on behalf of creators, so they could do more work and have more force and presence among us. At the Rockefeller Foundation, Meet the Composer became a template for much other work that we did – it was so right and radical an idea.
    John believed – and persuaded the rest of us – that art could change the world. Like other masters of music, and makers of institutions, he will live beyond his lifetime. Alberta Arthurs

    Reply
  23. Ted Wiprud

    So many beautiful tributes here, which itself speaks volumes about who John Duffy was. As Charles says above, he created instant bonds through his genuine curiosity about what each person thought and cared about – and especially his curiosity for whatever somebody was composing. I am particularly in John’s debt for the years I spent working with him at Meet The Composer. His open-hearted, inclusive, assertive style of supporting composers and those who work with them – including community agencies – was so fresh and powerful, and presaged so much of what we see today in both musical aesthetics and scope of musical impact. I’ll never forget John pondering a name for the new incarnation of the essential program for commissioning music, as MTC joined forces with the NEA. “Why not, Commissioning Music USA?” Direct, optimistic, patriotic, focused on composer livelihood and creativity. That’s John.

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  24. Neva Pilgrim

    Beautiful tribute, Ed. John was indeed a visionary and a real ‘mensch’. He traveled the country encouraging new music groups way back in the early 70s, groups like the Society for New Music, now in its 44th season. Not many composers would have sacrificed their time doing that. But because he did, the face of new music in America was forever changed, and definitely for the better. We’re very grateful to John and his Meet the Composer org. for all the good they did, and the exciting new works he/they helped bring into being. Life is much the richer for it.
    Neva Pilgrim

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  25. John Luther Adams

    Thank you, John Duffy, for your life and your work. Thank you for your music. And thank you for all that you have done for your fellow composers.

    Your singular vision and your tireless activism made it possible for me to make a life as an independent composer. And I know I’m not alone. There are many of us out here, all over the map, making music of all kinds.

    You changed the public profile and the professional landscape for composers in the USA. Thanks to you, Dear John, the lives of composers are a little less difficult, and our music is more and more widely heard.

    May your own music continue to resound. And may your spirit live on in the vibrant musical community that you envisioned and worked so hard to create.

    Reply
  26. Maura Duffy

    What a beautiful and right on article and I love so much reading everyone’s comments. I am so awed at reading such moving testimonies on the impact my father’s work and vision had on the world and for all of us. I can remember as a girl in high school having written a poem that the literature teacher chuckled at saying it had much to be desired as far as rhyme. I poured my heart into that poem and was suddenly so ashamed. At home I told my father and he asked to read the poem and he then said he thought it was perfect and pointed out other poets and poetry and taught me the true meaning of giving deep expression and its value in the world and for humanity. It is true that I was raised believing anything is possible and knowing that just as Ed wrote—composing, singing, playing an instrument, writing, painting–one’s opinion and the dignity of earning a living is not the realm of the privileged but for all of us willing to work and dream and make what sacrifices we must in order to continuously reach for our goals.

    Reply
    1. Jerry O'Sullivan

      Hi Maura,

      I was so sorry to hear of John’s passing. John was my mother’s first cousin. Your grandfather, Tom Duffy, was the older brother to my grandfather, Andrew Duffy. I had the great honor to meet your Dad in 2000 in Maine. I too am a musician and play Irish folk music and your Dad graciously came to see me at a performance that I was giving. I was enchanted by his company and I am incredibly grateful that I had the blessing of meeting him, even for a short time. I am sorry for your trouble.
      All the best,
      Jerry O’Sullivan

      Reply
    2. Irene Hopkins

      Dearest Maura,
      I think of you and hold you in my heart as I do John. We shared lovely times together when John lived in Camden. I miss him and cherish the memories made. He spoke fondly of you and your son. If you are ever in Camden,Maine you have a place to stay. With love, irene Hopkins

      Reply
  27. LaDonna Smith

    Thank you John Duffy, for your wisdom and will to forge a path for those whose work was known and unknown, for being inclusive, and creating a safe space to create. Thank you.

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  28. Michael Robinson

    When I first moved to Los Angeles, it meant a lot to me to receive a series of grants from Meet the Composer California. One cherished memory is playing music for disadvantaged children who danced and laughed to instrumental sounds from foreign lands with unabashed joy. I can still picture the colors of their brilliant clothing forming synesthesia with the rhythms and melodies, bouncing up and down and all around with vocal exclamations. I never had the pleasure of meeting John Duffy, but he certainly touched my life in important ways through his vision and ingenuity.

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  29. Charlie and Beverly Trimble

    We met John Duffy at our son’s wedding to Loretta, his niece. Although it was a short encounter, he warmly greeted us as though we were members of his family. We immediately embraced him as a member of OUR family. What a sweet soul. Kindred spirits walk among us. God has taken His music maker, Uncle Jack, home. Listen to the sweet sounds of Heaven!

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  30. Barbara Drucker Smith

    Dorothy was so special to me. When she was editor of the Daily Press she took me under her wing and published my articles. My brother Erwin was Dorothy’s age and a long time friend. Erwin’s obituary was in the Daily Press on the exact same day as Dorothy’s. I met John through Dorothy and attended many of the Composer Institute of the Virginia Arts Festival presentations at Old Dominion University. John was totally there for Dorothy during her lengthy battle with cancer. I phoned John and sent him a condolence note. He was so gracious and sent me a sincere note of appreciation. John led an amazing life and is cherished for what strides he made for the composers and others.

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  31. Ashraf Fouad, composer based at Cairo, The American University in Cairo

    A great loss to the world, art, and to music. I was a member of The American Music Center an organization that I cherished. I was introduced to it and joined it and ASCAP in the 1980’s at Juilliard School where I had my music education. John Duffy is a great man who gave us composers and music lovers what would make us enjoy life more than the ordinary. From Cairo, Egypt, where I am based, I send my sympathy to everyone in the field.

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  32. Rosalie Calabrese

    It was lovely to read all the foregoing tributes. I, too, remember John as a warm, wise, and talented human being. I feel lucky to have known him.

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  33. Emily Bookwalter

    Ed, this is super beautiful. And it’s a beautiful thing to be affected so deeply and so unquestioningly by a man that brought this entire community of people together. He really “got it;” that the success of one paves the way for the success of many, and that art, while often created in isolation, is inherently communal. I often find myself asking “What Would John Duffy Do?” in difficult situations, because his wacky dreaming turned into reality spoke for itself. What a wonderful man. I’m grateful that everyone here has played a small part in his vision.

    Reply
  34. Phillip Bimstein

    What wonderful memories and tribute to John. I remember how kind and friendly he was when I interviewed him for an article about his “Symphony No. 1: Utah.” Then several years later he was given an artist residency in Springdale (Utah). He loved and was loved, as he embraced the whole community with his generous spirit, and was in turn embraced by us. He even made a surprisingly large donation to a quixotic campaign for the state legislature (by a liberal in a VERY conservative district!); when the funds were offered back to him as being too generous, he insisted they be kept. One could say he put his money where his heart was. One could also say he LOVED people, animals, plants, the world—and certainly music. And we all know what he—with great heart, vision and imagination—accomplished for new music, composers, musicians and music lovers. I will miss his smiling face.

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  35. Jesse forst

    He was all that and much more,especially if you were his nephew…..what style he had,….what composure,what depth,oh my god what a sense of humor…I can’t tell you how he loved to joke around…potatoes in my winter gloves,bathroom scale under the pillow,….on and on till late,into his own wee hours,…ever the joker.As we all know men like him are few and far between and the world IS a lesser place without him,…as he prepared to conduct at the Pearl Harbour Memorial,alone just moments before he took the stage ,entirely absorbed in his role,I approached him and pined a small American flag on his lapel…he neither looked or acknowledged me ,,his eyes were far away ,far away & deep in thought.That was him,passionate and patriotic,graceful ,poised & totally committed to the work he loved.He was loved to the very very end…trust me on that one.

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  36. Nancy Patricia Barry

    John Duffy was, and will always be one of my heroes. I met him in my late 20’s when I was helping to organize the ISCM World Music Days in Boston. We had an office at the AMC then, where he worked. So many people have spoken about his extraordinary talents, but for me what always came across was his humility and gentleness. And, of course, his humor. We would always salute eachother as fellow Irish Americans. He was a great force for freedom of speech and artistic freedom. That we must always cherish in his memory. God Bless you, John.

    Reply

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