Academie d’Underrated: William Duckworth

I’m out here in the wilds of Devonshire, lecturing at Dartington College of the Arts, a school that resembles my own home institution in many ways: rural setting, size, priorities, student interests. As with all such liberal institutions, technology is not at the top of its priority list, and it took me a few days to get fitted with my own internet connection, one that would allow me to e-mail and blog comfortably and at leisure.

In the process I missed a very important American-musical birthday this week: William Duckworth turned sixty. [Oops – 61. Is this 2004? Why wasn’t I informed?] One of the first postminimalist composers, possibly the first depending on how you define the style, Duckworth remains one of the best. (By the way, unlike some writers I don’t use “postminimalist” to refer to general minimalist influence, but as a very specific American style of the 1980s. You can read my New Music Box article on postminimalism for details.) Duckworth’s music is elegant, logical, tuneful, and yet leaves room for improvisation, dissonance, collage, and chance techniques without losing its own identity. His break-through came in 1979 with his hour-long piano work The Time Curve Preludes, a subtle, mesmerizing cycle of pieces weaving together bluegrass banjo techniques, chant, Erik Satie’s Vexations, quasi-Indian modes, Messiaen-like rhythmic structures, and subtly veiled minimalist processes into a smooth fusion. I first heard it at New Music America in Minneapolis in 1980, which might pinpoint the true beginning of Duckworth’s public career. Everyone I’ve ever played the CD for has expressed a desire to run out and buy it. It’s a classic.

And it remains Duckworth’s signature work, though I feel he’s surpassed it. His choral cycle Southern Harmony drew on shaped-note hymn-singing techniques from early rural America, and shaped it with a minimalist ear. His Imaginary Dances is another stellar piano cycle: charming, more nuanced than The Time Curve Preludes, its liveliness begging you to analyze the tricky rhythmic devices through which he creates it. Blue Rhythms is a delightful trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, with a springy jazz feel. Mysterious Numbers, with its syncopated counterpoint of melodies rising and falling against each other, is the piece with which he started transferring that aesthetic to orchestra. If there is any composer from the 1980s and ’90s whose music is sturdy, enduring, and universal enough to go into the standard repertoire, it is Duckworth’s. In fact, come to think of it, if you’re a Lou Harrison fan looking for who might follow in that tradition, Duckworth is a logical next step.

In recent years, Duckworth has divided his career between composed works and his massive internet project, Cathedral, which you can access here. Cathedral has drawn him into the world of listener-contributed sound samples, improvisation, and DJ-ing: live performances of his Cathedral Band are grounded in the disc-spinning of Seattle’s DJ Tamara. One of the main features of postminimalism, though, and especially in Duckworth’s conception of the style, is that it can draw so many disparate elements into a smooth fusion that doesn’t seem eclectic at all. As I’ve written before, everything Mr. D eats turns into Mr. D. Now that he’s past 60, it’s time to recognize him as one of America’s leading musical statesmen, a major influence on a generation or two of younger composers (myself included), and someone whose music elegantly crystallized a refreshingly calm moment in the otherwise chaotic late 20th century.