Remembering William Duckworth (1943-2012)

William Duckworth

William Duckworth
Photo by Paula Court

Over the last few days, the music world has learned of the death of one of our most significant composers, writers, and educators, William Duckworth. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer that had been diagnosed about 18 months ago. Of course everyone who knew and loved Bill expected and dreaded this news.

Bill and Nora Farrell, his wife and close collaborator, covered some of the same musical territory as I did, especially in the early 1990s, and we met at a small house concert performed by pianist Joseph Kubera at the home of Robert Ashley and Mimi Johnson. But we were real opposites in many ways: Bill had a broad knowledge of musical style, a patient understanding of the human condition, and a clutter-free apartment. (I had none of those things.) In fact, I don’t exactly know how to describe my friendship with Bill, other than much of our time together was spent in dining rooms and automobiles. We discovered our mutual affinity for culinary splurges. I could pick wine and Bill could pick restaurants–a dangerous combination–living beyond our means for at least a couple of hours at a time.

Bill with Tom

Bill and Tom after lunch. Bill’s Australian collaborator, music technologist Paul Draper, was with us and took the photo, July 5, 2011.

In about 1991, to add to my patchwork freelance life, Bill invited me to work at Bucknell University in a loosely defined job running their computer music studio, teaching some private lessons, and occasionally guest lecturing in various music classes. (He said, “You can call it anything you want.”) I would usually visit the campus for a week each semester, and we would ride back and forth to Lewisburg, catching up on music news and planning our “fine-dining” adventures for the week from the temporary comfort of a depressing Interstate diner.

From this vantage point I was able to watch Bill interact with students in a variety of class situations. Whether it was presenting a new piece, a point of music theory, or guiding a student composition, he enjoyed it all; it was as if all musical sensation gave him a particular take that could be passed along to the next person. Very often, my visit would coincide with a visit from another artist, sometimes in his Gallery series, and for a little while there would be this coalescence of new and old friends of new music. My ambiguous presence at Bucknell lasted for about 11 years. As much as I had enjoyed the community that he had included me in, I knew it was time to go. Bill was very gracious about it, and of course we managed to keep our feeding schedule pretty well intact, if a little less frequent.

Bill had active relationships with many friends, preferring to find ways to visit in small, concentrated encounters. He was obviously much more interested in a way to get beyond the chitchat and into the details. He was a composer who lived in a world of composers, and just as his own music and writing had taken him in several directions over the years, so had his interests in his friends’ work. He loved to hear the details, whether they were related to concept, production, or performance. Every conversation about music was a mini-interview, with its unstated goal being to extract clear and candid expression. Though my own workaday life has given me a few different hats, Bill always related to me specifically as a fellow composer and looked for those opportunities to support me in my own career, especially when I was starting out in New York.

A consummate networker before the term gained fashion; he was always looking to spark fruitful connections between friends and acquaintances. In the 90s, quite often Bill would call me on the spur of the moment to have lunch at a now-defunct Thai restaurant on 8th Ave. I thought he was being considerate of me, since I lived right across the street. But it also turns out that he had made it his unofficial Manhattan “office” and had many of his mealtime appointments there, both social and business. I can still remember him right there, sitting in the corner next to a giant tropical fish tank.

There are many places to go for evidence of Bill’s far-reaching musical activities, and his own website offers a wonderful glimpse of his musical activities. There are sound clips of pieces for traditional instruments and videos of the large-scale projects that he and Nora collaborated on in Australia and elsewhere. In the former, you can hear nuanced patterns that sound familiar but just out of reach; in the latter, the fascination with humanizing technological context by organizing experiences that, in his words, “blur the distinction between the amateur and the professional.”

Duckworth - Time Curve Preludes Book 1 #6

An excerpt from the sixth prelude in Book One of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1978)
© 1979 by Henmar Press, Inc. Sole Selling Agent: C. F. Peters Corporation.
Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

Bill’s close friend, Kyle Gann, posted a beautifully written tribute on his PostClassic blog. Written several hours after his passing, the comments section quickly developed into a remarkable collection of testimonials from all over the world—Bill’s world—of friends, colleagues, and students. My favorite is this one, from a former high school and college friend: “…so glad to have heard his wonderful music and the great contributions he and his wife made together in kicking intentional music into the next dimension.”

These last 18 months, Bill was part of an experimental treatment program, and the early results were indeed promising. He looked good and his appetite was up a lot of the time. We had two extravagant lunches within the first 6 months, carefully scheduled in weeks where his medications and chemo didn’t severely affect his ability to get out in the city. He was very candid about his condition yet enthusiastic about his progress. After that, I received some update emails sent out to his friends. But with his generous spirit, I knew that his buoyant tone was really for us – to help defer what we all knew to be the worst news imaginable.

I’m listening again to my Bill Duckworth CDs, and I imagine many other friends must be doing the same these last few days. As I sit here listening to Lois Svard play one of the Imaginary Dances, I just found an entry on Bill’s blog, dated March 24, 2012:

“It’s been a good year for writing music.”

Duckworth - Southern Harmony (Cheerful) p11

An excerpt of the a capella hymn “Cheerful” from William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony (1981)
© 1993 by Henmar Press, Inc. Sole Selling Agent: C. F. Peters Corporation.
Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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