Strange Times: William Duckworth (1943-2012)

This morning I lost one of my dearest friends and most important musical role models, and the world lost one of its best composers. Bill Duckworth was diagnosed with pancreas cancer a year ago last February. He got into a state-of-the-art therapy program, and had the disease in remission, and for quite a few months it looked like he was going to beat one of the fastest and most lethal cancers there is (and the same one that killed Morton Feldman). But he finally started having bad reactions to the chemo, and it wore him down. I had heard about a week ago that he had decided to go off chemo, and he went fast after that, slipping away about midnight last night, according to his wife Nora, who called this morning.

I’ve written many, many composer obituaries, but I don’t know if I can do Bill justice, at least not so soon. He was a quietly upbeat character, a Buddhist with a cynical but philosophical approach to life. I thought of him as a classic Capricorn, restrained and a little impenetrable, but mischievous and loyal. He had a tough early life. His father abandoned the family and never wanted anything to do with Bill, and his mother died, of cancer, while he was in high school. He was able to chuckle at adversity, and you got the feeling that whatever happened, he’d seen worse. He got all his degrees in music ed, because he had started out in that major, and (as he told me) it was the late Vietnam era in which, if you changed your major, the government suspected you were trying to extend your education to avoid the draft, so they drafted you. He taught at Bucknell from the mid-1970s on, loved by students (including my son, who studied composition with him), though considered a loose cannon by the administration, who couldn’t seem to deal with their nice young music ed guy becoming a famous composer. Bill gave me advice about surviving academia that I quote to myself every week: “Don’t talk to the adults.” Of the undergrads, he liked to say, “Everything you tell ‘em is news.” He also said “We’re living in strange times” often, the whole 25 years I knew him, a phrase I associate with him. He was just about to retire from teaching when he got the cancer diagnosis.

Bill’s most famous piece is undoubtedly The Time Curve Preludes, and he seemed to always think it was his best as well, along with Cathedral, the huge interactive internet piece he spent his late years on. (Hard to talk so soon about those having been his late years.) The Time Curve Preludes is indeed a wonderful piece (there’s a lovely new recording by pianist Andy Lee on the Irritable Hedgehog label) and one of those pieces in which the way its composer thinks crystallizes and becomes indelible, but I never thought it was fair for Bill to come off as a one-work composer. Later pieces of his, I think, have more depth and dimension: Blue RhythmsImaginary Dances, Mysterious Numbers, Simple Songs about Sex and War, Gathering Together/Revolution, and, of course, Southern Harmony, which was kind of the choral companion piece to Time Curve. After he married technology genius Nora Farrell, Bill took on a new life as one of the pioneering internet composers; I wasn’t always tech-savvy enough myself to follow along, but he became famous in Australia and gained a worldwide following. I have frequently described Bill’s music as Mozartean, by which I mean it has a clear right-brain logic that is difficult to pinpoint but easy to hear. If the culture ever changes so that elegant design is once again as highly valued as macho eclecticism, I think it will be realized that Bill is a truly major composer; even as it is, there are many younger composers who think so. As far as I know, I’m the most Duckworth-influenced composer alive. Back when my music was rather impractically caught up in Herculean rhythmic complexity, Bill’s ensemble music gave me a new model for streamlining and spreading out the rhythmic interest for more grateful performability. Several of my pieces (Private Dances, New World Coming, movements of The Planets and Implausible Sketches) were explicit attempts to compete with him on his own territory and learn from him.

Bill hired me to teach part-time at Bucknell in 1989; without that early foot in the door, I would almost certainly not be in academia today, because everyone else in that world considered me a dangerous radical. For several years while I was at the Voice Bill and I had lunch at Bennie’s Burritos in the West Village almost every week. That was a fun time. “We’re living in strange times” was the final cadence to many a topic of conversation. Summer of 2011, after his diagnosis, we spent a couple of afternoons together and I recorded some long interviews about his life and music, so that he would have his own input to an eventual biography. We joked about death being the last desperate career move a composer had, because they never seem to take us seriously until we’re dead. After that, as recently as last spring, I really thought he was going to make it and we’d be able to have those lunches again.

Bill worked with Relache in the old days, and we’ll dedicate tonight’s performance of The Planets to him.

The times suddenly seem a lot stranger.

 

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Comments

    • David Thomas Roberts says

      This is staggering news and as important a milestone as music is likely to see for many a day.

    • Lois Svard says

      Bill was a mentor to me, as he was to many others. He showed me that it was possible to exist as a musician in academia without becoming an academic musician. For the last eleven years that we were both at Bucknell, we occupied adjacent offices, and I would know whenever he was in his office because the squeak of his rocking chair traveled through the floor into my office – always with a certain rhythm. I will wonder about the music that Bill’s too short life left him unable to write, and I will miss knowing that Bill is in the world.

  1. says

    What terribly sad news. I met Bill several times way back when Relache first did his music, then got to hang out with him and Nora in San Francisco in ’97 when Tom Buckner did Bill’s “Their Song” and my “Reading.” He was warm, funny, and generally a pleasure to be around. And “The Time Curve Preludes” continues to be one of the pieces I listen to most often. “The Planets” will be a fitting tribute. I wish I could be there.

  2. says

    Oh Kyle, this is just awful news. Strangely enough, I always think of Bill when there are problems in the middle east, since we all learned of Rabin’s assassination at Bill and Nora’s wedding. Bill and I were also taken on by Peters at the same time, as a kind of not-so-academic experiment, only for Peters to scale down shortly afterwards. Wow, what a loss.

  3. Iris Rifkin-Gainer says

    A beautifully written memorial to Bill, as will be the continued performance of his music and your music, Kyle.

  4. says

    I am SO sorry to hear this. Thanks for the heads up and your moving remembrance of him. Back in the dark, old days at the College-Conservatory of Cincinnati of the early 80s where the serial line was mainly being fed to us like spaghetti, Bill’s music — specifically “Southern Harmony” actually — was like a beacon to those of us who felt that there ought to be better.

  5. says

    Damn! Damn!! Damn!!!
    I have been in touch with Nora, so I knew Bill’s death was imminent, but it still comes as a shock to the system.
    Bill was so very youthful in his outlook.
    Life can be so very painful and difficult to understand at times.
    But thank you, Kyle, for this loving and beautifully-rendered portrait and obituary.
    Best,
    Guy

  6. John Kennedy says

    Thank you, Kyle. I’ll be with you in spirit tonight and living through much memory, regret, and gladness to have known Bill. Mary Jane, I had forgotten about the news at the wedding…what a day…strange times.

  7. says

    So sorry to hear about these news, Kyle. I never met William Duckworth, but I got to know his music in very large part because of the section you devote to it in your book on American music in the 20th century. Godspeed to him and my condolences to his family and friends, yourself included, whom he leaves behind so suddenly.

  8. says

    I apologize that I had not heard MUCH of his music– but what I DID hear I thought was wonderful — and besides the idea of the man’s work– such a tragedy that one is taken so young. A lovely piece of obit journalism here Mr. KG.

  9. says

    So sorry for music’s loss as well as his loved ones’. I unfort. have not heard a TON of his music, but what I HAVE heard I thought was wonderful. Tragic to leave this world so young. A lovely piece of obit journalism Mr. KG– ( P.S. I have tried to post once before I am not sure it went through– trying here again)

  10. Kevin Parks says

    I am very sorry to hear this news. Bill was always very nice to me and I enjoyed a bunch of his music. I have a long 20-30 page paper about his Time Curve Preludes that I always meant to get back to. In fact the last time we talked was by phone when i was wrapping that analysis up and he was very kind and generous with his time. I imagine he was a pretty great teacher for young folks as he was very patient with me. I remember a big topic of conversation was TCP #6. I loved that one and could not figure it out. I think he was about to tell me when I stopped him and said I would work on it some more and call him back. Well, I never could figure out the structure of that one. ha! and wimped out on calling him back. Wonderful music though. I will try to teach the TCP this term here in Korea again in his honor. Would love to hear more of his music. RIP. Thanks for the great music.

  11. Joseph Frankliin says

    I heard about Bill’s passing from Guy Klucevsek. Like Guy I spent much time with Bill, mainly during the days I was associated with the Relache Ensemble. Memories of talking, drinking wine, joking merge with those when he was working out some new ideas with the ensemble on a new piece. Among my favorite memories is hanging out with Bill at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida during one of our weekly residencies as part of the project Music in Motion. We were drinking a nice Sauvignon Blanc, sitting at a bar looking out on the Atlantic Ocean exchanging stories about our early lives. I too remember him saying “…Joe (he always called me that) …we’re living in strange times.” I’ll miss him. But we have his great music that will live on.

  12. says

    Kyle, Arthur and I are just devastated of course, after waiting for this news since Bill went home, but hoping it wouldn’t come. Arthur has to go into a class and teach right now. Don’t know how he will do it, he is so broken up. Nora must be numb. Will you do another obit for OBIT mag?

  13. says

    Very sad to hear this, I have been thinking about him a lot lately and wondering how he was doing. His amazing creative work will live on it its many forms, but the loss is painful for anyone who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him.

  14. says

    “His father abandoned the family and never wanted anything to do with Bill, and his mother died, of cancer, while he was in high school.” this was a life scenario we shared and what gave us our connection. Oh man. WTF?

  15. Janice Mann says

    What a loss for us all. It’s a sad day even for those of us who are more visual than musical.
    I think of Bill every day when I walk into my office which used to be his. I can only dream of making the kind of contribution to the world that he did.

  16. Jackson Hill says

    Beautiful tribute, Kyle. Such sad news. Bill will be missed. Our 30-plus years as colleagues will be richly remembered.

  17. says

    So so sad to hear that Bill has passed away! Bill and Nora lived just a couple buildings down from us for quite a few years so we’d run into them regularly. We think of them often and have been wondering how Bill was doing.

    We appreciate reading the obituary, Kyle.

    Lois and Bruce

  18. says

    William Duckworth was my favorite modern composer and I am shocked and saddened to see this. I discovered his music listening to a Cleveland Chamber Symphony recording of “Mysterious Numbers.” I bought the album to hear another piece and had no idea who Duckworth was but when i heard his piece I went in search of other recordings.

    Kyle Gann’s excellent posting covers the music about as well as a anyone could, but it should be noted that Duckworth also was a lucid author of several valuable books on music. His “Talking Music” book of interviews is a great introduction to many modern American composers. “Virtual Music” is a wonderful book that covers everyone from Brian Eno to Erik Satie. It’s a great read for anyone interested in music, not just musicologists.

  19. says

    Time just stopped still for a moment when I heard about Bill’s passing. An amazing spirit with exceptional perspective and depth of character. My heart goes out to Nora and the Duckworth family. We shared wonderful conversations and meals and I had the privilege of playing at Bill and Nora’s wedding. I will remember him always with a smile on his face.

  20. Richard Kessler says

    I am terribly saddened to learn of the death of Bill Duckworth. Kyle, thank you for writing this. I was fortunate to have gotten to know Bill when I worked at the American Music Center. He was a great guy, a gifted composer, an open and truly innovative figure in music.

    Bill Duckworth, Rest in Peace.

  21. Roberta Sims says

    I’m so sad about this news. I work at Bucknell and had the great pleasure of taking two compositions classes from Bill. He was a great teacher. He also introduced me to one of my closest friends.

  22. Katie DeBonville says

    I am so sorry to hear this news. I had the priviliege of studing with Bill and being his teaching assistant. The first year I studied with him, Rolling Stone Magazine named his “Music for Non Majors” class one of the best college classes in America. Rolling Stone was right. Bill opened my ears to a whole new world of music, and for that I will be forever grateful. The world has lost a wonderful musician and an outstanding educator.

  23. says

    Condolences to all those who knew him well. His place in history is assured thanks to his wonderful music and your passionate writing.

    He truly made a dent in the universe.

  24. says

    Just reading of this sad event while in Paris. Like Armando, I did not know William Duckworth personally, and only learned of his Time-Curve Preludes through your various writings, Kyle. I’ve since gotten to know that piece pretty well through the original recording and it’s a great work. There aren’t a lot of new music composers around, especially postminimalists. Like I sad, sorry to hear of this.

  25. Bill Boswell says

    Only two nights ago I had the privilege of spending time with Paavali Jumppanen, the pianist whom Bill requested to perform his Time Curve Preludes in one evening as Bill’s a retirement tribute at Bucknell, an event which occurred somewhat sooner than anticipated because of Bill’s diagnosis. I remember Bill saying that a great performance can result in the composer hearing things in his own music that he had never heard before. In the months after this concert and even though he was ill, Bill listened repeatedly to the recording and sent Paavali comments and suggestions. I hope Paavali will keep this piece and others by Bill in his repertory and programed Bill Duckworth’s best music — and much of what he wrote was his best — will remain as a legacy and a reminder of what the world lost too soon. We no longer have Bill, but we do have some beautiful and unique music, music that is inconceivable to think of as coming from anyone else. I consider it an honor to have known him and been befriended by him.

  26. says

    Thanks, Kyle for a beautifully written and extremely heartfelt obit for our dear Bill. He had a profound impact and influence on me, from the time I first met him as my Music Theory prof, freshman year (39 years ago) when he’d also just arrived at Bucknell. Within a few moments, he sold me (for a buck) 2 Stan Kenton LPs! . I remember your great VOICE review of Time Curve Preludes, when I had the honor to present Neely Bruce performing it at Riverside Park so many years ago. I join the greater community in celebrating his spirit, and send love and condolences to Nora and to all of Bill’s family and friends.

  27. Cynthia Peltier says

    Beautiful tribute Kyle. We are all so very saddened by the loss of a very special human being. I am sure he is remembered today by so many who have similar stories of wisdom whispered to us in times of perceived crisis in the world of academia. One of the things we remember him saying was how funny it was that people took things so seriously when we all know how low the stakes really are in the fish bowl of academia. Much love and sadness.

  28. says

    Thanks, Kyle, for this poignant and seriously personal living portrait of a very special music-maker, to give us a sense of what he means to you, and thereby, at least through you, to all of us. I have been engaged by his music, but your insight is far deeper than anything I’ve gotten on my own – this is something I want to thank you for, very particularly.
    Best,
    Ben

  29. Allan J. Cronin says

    Thank you for this beautiful and sensitive little obituary. I found the man’s music to be a revelation and a delight. I am pleased to know that he supported your work as well. He left us too soon but left behind a legacy and a body of work that will sustain his memory.
    His work, like all great art, made our strange times a little more bearable.
    Condolences to you, Nora and all who were touched by his gifts. RIP, Bill.

    Allan J. Cronin

  30. says

    Bill was always such a delight, so generous, so impishly mischievous, with the wisdom and awareness of a much older man but the spirit, fire, mojo and curiosity of a teenager. I just can’t quite accept he’s gone.

  31. Ritsu Katsumata says

    What a tragic loss for the world of music, and a tragic loss for all who knew him. Bill made my four years in Central Pennsylvania one of the most musically inspiring times of my life. He was a great mentor to me, and will forever hold dear the music, the conversations, and the friendship he shared with us.

  32. says

    Once upon a time, a long time ago, I tried to raise funds for a cd of his music. Looking at my tapes, I see that only “Simple Songs about Sex and War” has been released (sung by the inimitable Barbara Noska) – maybe now someone will be interested, I hope.

  33. Anthony B. Creamer III says

    I am extraordinarily grateful for all the wonderful times I spent with Bill, starting in the early 80s with Relache. It’s no wonder Rolling Stone called him one of the coolest teachers on the planet. Bill loved all music (our last two outings were to hear Chubby Checker and Billy Bragg) and he was tuned-in to it all. What I wouldn’t give to travel back and see him playing chess with Cage – - as he often did. TCP will be on continuous rotation in my home for the next week. I love you Bill. The world is not the same without you in it.

  34. Deborah Campana says

    What a terrific guy and what sad, sad news. I enjoyed his impish sense of humor and very caring manner. Thanks, Kyle, for this heartfelt tribute to a sweet man. My thoughts go out to you and his family.

  35. Anthony Paul De Ritis says

    I was at Bucknell University from 1986 to 1990. Bill Duckworth was my first music composition instructor and the most influential compositional influence in my life. I wanted to be like him so bad. To me, he epitomized “cool” — I owe so much to him.

  36. Christian Tordahl says

    Bill Duckworth may just happened to have gotten a music ed degree, but I must say as one of his students from Bucknell in the mid to late 80s that he was an amazing educator, in addition to his prowess as a composer. The man equally excelled in both, and I am grateful he was my teacher, because I learned so much about music theory and how to be a good musician from him. The care he took and interest in our musical lives as his students was evident, and I always felt he pushed us all in the right direction. Very few educators have that gift, and he has touched countless music students lives, and we will never forget him…his teaching lives on in us. Thank you Bill.

  37. Stuart Dempster says

    Kyle, you have written a masterful gem of a tribute. Thanks so much. I owe Bill a lot; we both do. He was so supportive of me in my participation in Cathedral Band. Lots of wonderful concerts in the New York area, and in Brisbane. And various events in Seattle as lead-ins to Cathedral Band era that, while relatively short, was a big deal.

    Nora called us on the day after he came home to begin hospice. I was at the airport on the way to New York and, fortunately, was able to dedicate my concert (with Loren – “Double Dempster Dive Duo” at The Stone on 31 Aug) and have the audience involved.

    With all those “Ds” the concert title expanded to include “Do it for Duckworth (Nora’s suggestion). Loren and I also included “Didjeridu-it for Duckworth”. We involved the audience and it became a collective effort that was all at once reflective, humorous and serious. The next day I visited Nora and Bill and gave them a rundown of the concert and did what turned out to be my final didjeridu healing.

    Thanks again, Kyle. Very moving
    Stuart (& Renko)

  38. John Luther Adams says

    Bill was a very special composer and a wonderful human being.

    Heartfelt condolences to Nora, to you, Kyle, and to all those who loved him so well.

    His life and his music will reverberate for a long time to come.

  39. Vincent Plush says

    What a lovely obit, Kyle, thank you. (I hope I can do as well in what I am writing for the national newspaper in Australia right now.) I’ve known Bill for almost 30 years now and he remained my closest and most loyal friend from my nearly 20 years in North America, visiting me in many places – Charleston SC, Seattle, and more recently in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra. He and Nora were always delightful visitors, filling the day with sunny asides and witty aphorisms. And such wonderful music! I’ll leave that to more eloquent people now; I can barely find the words. We last saw each other late last year when we took a walk along a windswept ocean beach on an island just off the coast of Brisbane. We knew what lay ahead, it was only a matter of time, ultimately. Typically, he was concerned about others, and about Nora, in particular. On that trip, they both became Permanent Residents of Australia, although we knew that it was highly unlikely that Bill would make that leap himself. So we now prepare to welcome Nora to Brisbane, which will become my home again too, come December. Before that, i have to write a new orchestra piece for Canberra’s centenary next March. There’s no question as to its dedication. More when I can assemble my thoughts coherently …

  40. says

    I wept uncontrollably for the first time in a decade on hearing the news of Bill’s passing. It had been a number of years since I had last seen him and met Nora. She was the third of Bill’s wives that I knew.

    He was my teacher when I was at Bucknell in the mid to late 70′s. He was my friend. He was the greatest and most important influence in my life. He introduced me to John Cage who came to Bucknell and who Bill convinced to conduct. I was in the orchestra trying to interpret Thoreau drawings. That evening I got drunk with John and Bill. It was a life changing moment.

    Bill introduced me to David Amram’s music and he told me how influential Amran had been on him. In his music class I learned about Harry Partch, Stravinsky, and privately at his house later he would invite me back to listen to Tom Waits.

    I remember him sitting down at the piano and playing the Time Curve music for me. It was just written or he was in the process of writing it.

    I’m flooded with so many memories of him: driving with him to New York and watching him flirt out the window to pretty woman as we drove through manhattan. One time I was in Sam Goody buying records and met a mutual friend. Bill was involved with the woman who would be his second wife and I met a mutual friend in the store. We exchanged gossip about Bill and when I got back to campus Bill came up to me and said with a smile: “I hear you’ve been talking about me all over New York. ” A friend of his had been in the aisle across from us.

    On my sight singing test he said: “how do you think you did. What should I grade you.” Nervously I said “a C” . He said, ” I was going to give you an A but we’ll split the difference and I’ll give you a B”.

    Years later I was able to tell him that the lesson he taught me that day helped me become an entrepreneur and I never sold myself short again.

    Just a few weeks ago I tried to reconnect. I feared the worse when I hadn’t heard.

    Rest in peace my friend and teacher. You changed my life completely.

    Bil McCloskey

  41. says

    I think this is the first time I’ve ever gotten 50 comments in one day. I am thrilled and gratified to see this amount of love and appreciation for Bill. He deserved so much, and received, in life, so much less than he deserved.

    • says

      I didn’t know about his difficult childhood and as the grateful recipient of his academic career, I can’t speak to that.

      But I do know that he changed my life forever. I don’t know if he ever had to deal with a “It’s a wonderful Iife” moment, but I do know without Bill’s connection to my life, I would not have had as deep and interesting life. and thinking tonight, I realize that my children absorbed Bill’s teaching through me.

      Hard to believe that when I knew him best he was only in his early 30′s. And yet, now at age 58, the man in his early 30′s still teaches me to this day.

    • Michael Taylor says

      Kyle
      Thank you for what wrote about Bill. I was floored when I saw this posted last night and I my heart just sank. Like others had mentioned I have countless memories with Bill, and that was just in the span of 5-6 years. He was truly and wonderful person.

      His quote of “Everything is news” was completely true. One of the best times I had at Bucknell was taking his composition class (which I did twice). It was a totally different atmosphere from the music theory classes as it was geared to any student and it seemed there were no boundaries or rules. It was such a safe environment to be truly creative and explore. However, it seemed that the best time each week was at the end of class. This is when Bill would share with us music he was currently listening to. It was stunning the diversity of it, and it opened all of our ears to worlds we had never dreamed of in addition to some surprises (Music for Wounded CD, I am Sitting in a Room, Yanni!). For all of us in class he was a walking encyclopedia. Plus, you had to love the Elvis lamp on his piano.

      As for his music… I wish there would be performances of Southern Harmony down here in Atlanta. I tacked together the Time Curve Preludes, Imaginary Dances, and Tango Voices into one giant book and can honestly state that collection is truly the most weathered as I have played those pieces more than anything else.

      One last memory: I joined in Bill’s 24 hour Cathedral concert as he invited me to be chair of the Pitch Web lounge for one of the time slots. A friend of mine, Jennifer, and I signed in to play during our time slot: 3 AM. As we played, the music became a lot richer than we could ever anticipated with just the two of us. It was then that on the instant messenger Bill jumped in to say hi. He joined in from Galapagos in NYC (where the Cathedral Band was performing during the festivities). It was so fun, and looking back, so forward thinking.

      I’m still stunned as I sit here typing this. Bill was an amazing person. He will be deeply missed.

  42. Paul Taub says

    Make it 51, Kyle. First, my thoughts go out to Nora… We (the old New Performance Group at Cornish in Seattle) had a wonderful year with Bill during the great Music in Motion project, resulting in Mysterious Numbers; at least a couple of visits to Cornish with concerts and residencies; and a version of the Cathedral Project much more recently with the Seattle Chamber Players Icebreaker Festival. I remember Bill’s liveliness, spirit, generosity and a musicality that really resonated with me.

  43. Rob Riker says

    I am stunned, shocked, and deeply saddened by the loss of the man who made such an indelible impact on my life. As an impressionable college student, I turned to the music program at Bucknell to escape from my various mismatched major choices, first taking Bill’s twentieth-century music course even before I took the theory courses that would seal the deal for me. I have long since forgotten much of the course work that defined my non-musical existence, but very little has left me where Bill Duckworth is concerned. I think, compose, and teach music the way I do largely due to his influence. He was forever challenging “norms,” was enormously curious about just about everything, and was at all times focused on as much music from as many sources as he could get his hands on. I took every class he offered, and found myself drawn to more than a few of his many ongoing projects as a fascinated observer. He had a killer sense of humor, and he knew how to poke you in just the right way to get you back to work when you were slacking off. At the beginning of each new year, he would give a speech to the new first year theory students that was absolutely priceless for its humor and its piercing truth regarding just how difficult it is to be a successful musician. I deeply respected Bill Duckworth for his candor, his passion for creating something new, and his genuine love of teaching. He was a conduit, connecting us all to this remarkable world of modern composers by celebrating the unique qualities of their work while at the same time demystifying them as people with his folksy charm and his impish grin. For those out there who remember his office/studio in the old music building at Bucknell, i offer you this: turn out the Elvis lamp on the piano, please. Bill Duckworth has left the building.

  44. Devon English Colby says

    Another Bucknellian, Michael Morris DuFermont sent me this link to join in the touching tributes to Bill Duckworth and all the lives he has profoundly touched, mine included…memories of those weekend car rides with a load of undergrad music majors (1975 – 1978), from Bucknell to NYC…the concerts of John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Jazz at the Blue Note, Village Vanguard…Bill seemed to know everyone in the music scene and had a unique way of teaching us…he drew us all close into his personal life, I being one of the babysitters of his first wife’s children; he shared many of his deep passions and secrets with us. Remembering the twinkle in his eyes, his mischievous laugh and alluring smile…. Sympathy extended to all of his family and close friends.

  45. John Kennedy says

    These very personal, heartfelt, and beautiful reflections about Bill share the warmth that he generated. His music had a lot of love in it. I will add to the personal memories: I fell in love with his “Meditation Preludes” while in college, and played them on my senior recital not knowing who he was or knowing that one day we would be friends. Years later in New York, it was his encouragement and generosity of spirit that gave me what I needed to define myself as a composer and the courage to take plunges. Conducting the premiere of his “Ghost Dance” in 1998 (which may well have been the first live Internet broadcast of an orchestra concert) was a huge privilege for me.

    In this year of Cage where every percussion group seems to be playing “Credo in US”, I wish some of them knew about Bill’s “Gathering Together/Revolution” from 1993, a tribute to Cage which is a mutation of rhythms of “Credo” and Cage text. It has Bill’s mojo.

  46. says

    I know his wonderful music for piano (Time Curves Preludes above all), his music and his figure deserve more attention. I never met him, but – because of his music – I felt him very close to me. What a sad news, Kyle.

  47. says

    Kyle, let me add to the list of folks thanking your for your loving obituary. A small musical tribute to Bill on my website http://www.warrenburt.com – written yesterday evening on the commuter train after I heard about Bill’s passing just before boarding the train. We all share our great loss, and wish much love and healing to Nora for the difficult days ahead.

  48. Joce Wolfe says

    Bill will be sadly missed in Brisbane. We were looking forward to a time when we could say “Bill’s from Brisbane”. Sorry! We were looking forward to his taking up residence here with Nora and becoming part of a ‘new age’ at Queensland Conservatorium (sharing him with the rest of Australia of course). What a privilege it is to have known his wit and turn of phrase, his humour, charm and kindness; and to have come to know his music. Happily Time Curve rests on my piano as a lifetime project (summoning a return to serious piano practice). And happily, I think Nora will come into our fold and Bill will never be far away in spirit.

  49. says

    I am deeply privileged to have known Bill. My thoughts and prayers go to his wife Nora. Bill gave me valuable insight as a young conductor into what he believed was a creative life. Bill also inspired me to be a writer. He also introduced me to composers that have shaped our world, Neely Bruce, John Cage and many, many others.

    His was a life well lived, taught and sounded…….

    The world, indeed, is a strange place, but Bill made it less so…..

  50. says

    We’re fortunate in having two wonderful incarnations of The Time Curve Preludes, the original landmark recording by Neely Bruce and the recent one by Andy Lee. I lived with Neely’s for so long that it became definitive, so that when I heard Andy’s for the first time, with its subtle interpretive differences, I was amazed that the pieces could be played in any other way. I now alternate between the two, loving both and loving the music all the more.

    • says

      Paul, there are actually three recordings, if you count Bruce Brubaker’s recording of the first 12 preludes (paired with Philip Glass’s “Six Etudes for Piano”). It’s a good record, too, and it’s different from the Neely Bruce and Andy Lee recordings that you mention.

      • says

        Haven’t heard the recording yet, but I heard Bruce perform some of the Preludes at the minimalism conference in Belgium last year. It was very strong playing, yet I felt the use of rubato was at times excessive – to the point where the pulse was lost. On the other hand the more recordings of a piece like that the better.

  51. Patti Flowers-Coulson says

    My heart goes out to you and to all who mourn his death. I wasa student at Bucknell from 1977-1981and participated in what was then a new program called Freshman Humanities Semester. Professor Duckworth taught, not music, but philosophy. When I say taught, I mean guided us and in my case dragged me kicking and screaming, out of our comfort zones to tear apart and rebuild our belief systems. I will forever carry in my mind the image of him sitting on a table in the front of a classroom in Marts or Vaughn, not sure which, swinging his legs and saying in response to our questions: well….what do YOU think? He changed my life and I will forever be grateful for that.

  52. Richard Carlin says

    As Bill’s editor at Schirmer, Routledge and Pearson publishers, I was incredibly lucky to know and work with this great composer and thinker. Bill was an original as many others have commented, with a wonderful spirit and great sense of humor. Even in the hospital he continued to compose. Bill taught me an incredible amount about living well and also facing death stoically but with the same grounded humor and strength that he brought to all challenges. I will miss him deeply.

  53. says

    What terrible, terrible news. I have been sadly out of touch with Bill and Nora these last years so had no idea that he was ill. Thank you, Kyle, for this beautiful tribute to such a remarkable man. I am so very sorry for your loss, for Nora…. my sincere condolences to you both.

  54. says

    Sorry to hear of his passing.
    Beautifully written tribute that appears to have come
    so naturally and effortlessly from the heart…
    which is really the best form of tribute.
    He left us some beautiful works – ones that came from a man who
    seemed to always look for the new and interesting juxtapositions.

    ®ø∂

  55. Mary Rowell says

    Kyle. Thank you for your beautiful obituary. This is such sad news. I have always admired his work and am greatful to have had the chance to work with him. My sincerest condolences.

  56. Peter Gena says

    So sorry Kyle, this is very sad news. I do remember a year ago in Pittsburgh when we spoke optimistically about Bill’s chances of beating this virulent cancer, given the medical advances made since it took Morty’s life. It’s clear that through your touching tribute, close friendship and devotion to championing his life and work, plus all the sincere wishes expressed here, Bill’s music and memory will indeed live on.

  57. Werner Strobel says

    Not only do we live in strange times, but the cosmos works in strange ways. Yesterday I pulled the Time Curves Preludes album out of my vinyl archive for the first time in many years, for no particular reason but that it happened to catch my attention. Then I got a call this morning from Joseph Franklin about Bill’s passing.

    I feel privileged to have been able to capture a few live performances of Bill’s work while doing recordings for Relache in the 80’s. The most remarkable of those to my ears was an extraordinary performance of Pitch City Breakdown in June 1982, by John Dulik on piano. I’ve digitized it and I still listen to it frequently. If anyone should ever get around to doing a compilation of Bill’s best work, this piece should definitely be included.

  58. Barry Hannigan says

    Thank you for the lovely obituary, Kyle……so many thoughts fly through my mind of the many years spent together at Bucknell…..I’ll miss Bill very much. He was a mentor to me in my early years and a remarkable teacher.

  59. says

    Kyle,
    Thank you for your heartfelt notes and for allowing for a place where we can remember Bill. My deepest feelings right now are for Nora and his family and their loss. We go back a long way – to the days of Relache concerts last century – and spent a lot of time together working on Cathedral and just hanging out over the past decade or so. Bill’s generosity and unassuming brilliance as a composer, teacher, writer and friend will be a great loss to all who knew him. For me, Bill’s love and friendship, his steady, creative intensity – and his and Nora’s beautiful ways of working and getting along with people – were a sustaining joy. His life and music provided grace, spirit, intelligence and meaning. I will miss him.

  60. Martin Rubeo says

    Bill Duckworth had a profound effect on me. As an educator, he combined encouragement with necessary honesty. He allowed students from non-traditional backgrounds to gain entrance into a first-rate composition program. He pushed students from a traditional background to expand beyond routine. He had a way to get the very best out of everyone. For that, I am forever thankful to Bill Duckworth.

    I wish you all peace in your time of grieving.

  61. Bob Taylor says

    At Bucknell, back in the 70s when we were both young, I had the privilege of teaching alongside Bill in an experimental program known as the Humanities Semester. He was the guiding light in that program–for students, of course, but just as significantly for those of us who taught in the program, and in the years that followed, he continued to inspire just about everybody lucky enough to know him. I was honored by his friendship and am deeply saddened by his passing.

  62. says

    There are so many ways in which Duckworth touched people’s lives. As one who has come to contemporary classical music only in the past few years, his book Talking Music was an indispensable guide. His own experience and understanding enabled him to question other composers deeply and incisively, not to mention with humor. One of my favorite quotations from that book is one Duckworth drew from Ben Johnston: “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.”

  63. says

    Kyle,

    Thank you for this touching tribute. I knew Bill Duckworth best through his eloquent writings and music, but my
    Limited communications with him made me grateful to have gotten in touch and sad that I didn’t get to know him better. Thanks to those who have shared so many wonderful memories here. My condolences.

    Kyle, We linked to your article on Sequenza21 here: http://www.sequenza21.com/carey/2012/09/rip-william-duckworth-1943-2012/

    Best,
    Christian

  64. lydia pearson says

    Bill and Nora arrived on my shore on the wave of IOrpheous ,the interactive I pod opera timed to mark the 400th anniversary.
    For me, and for many of us, this was the first introduction to a cross media interactive performance, and yet it was completely demystified, and a tangible, inclusive, exciting experience.A timely and vivid exploration of a new world order in which music, technology ,dance ,place and community wove a new web, and wrapped us all inside.

    Biil seemed the epitome of New York intelligentsia.., black Japanese clothes, Buddhist philosophy,moral vegetarian ,sophisticated stories of a rich even more sophisticated life.
    Yet as we came to know him, his gentle humour and modesty left us with the impression of an old fashioned southern gentleman, and it is the wonderful quirky mixture of all those traits that made him at once inscrutable, intriguing and adorable.
    We were so looking forward to adding an Australian accent to that lilting southern burr,and will keep him in our ears and hearts.
    Bill wrote a beautiful song for our a capella group in Brisbane, (of which Nora is an essential component).
    “Sweet my Dreams…”. It is a delicate complex piece, and we will render it a fitting tribute to a wonderful friend.

    KG replies: An admirably nuanced word-portrait of him, and entirely accurate.

  65. Susan Stenger says

    So very sorry to hear of Bill Duckworth’s passing. I spend most of my time these days in rural Ireland and not much online, so was not aware that he had been ill. Coincidentally though, I revisited his music recently after working on a piece inspired by idioms of Appalachian fiddle and vocal music. It was thrilling to re-experience what an exceptionally fine composer he was…and I felt myself wishing I could sit and have a drink with him.

    Been playing Southern Harmony non-stop since I heard the news…thanks, Kyle, for your heartfelt obit. R.I.P.

  66. Jon Wallis says

    That’s extremely sad news. Sincere condolences to all family and friends.

    I emailed him a few years ago (via his website) with a question, and also commented how much I liked the extracts from Time Curve Preludes that are on the Brubaker CD (along with some Philip Glass), and that I was looking forward to getting the full version by Neely Bruce.

    Mr Duckworth sent a very prompt reply, answering my question, and also asking for my address – he’d got some spares of the Bruce CD, and very generously sent me one. From reading the above comments, it was clearly just one more small act of kindness by a very kind and generous man, as well as a great composer and teacher.

    I’ll be listening to the CD he sent me later today, in commemoration.

  67. says

    So sad and shocking to hear this. Bill was such a lovely man. I had no idea he’d been ill…

    I remember once asking Cage for recommendations of composers to seek out, and he said Bill Duckworth. I did contact him, and he sent The Time Curve Preludes (I think this was before they were much, or ever, played). I can’t recall why I didn’t learn them at the time, but I did very much enjoy performing the song cycle he wrote with Tom Buckner.

    Bill, we will miss you..

  68. says

    Sad news. A great man and a great composer and educator. I had the great pleasure of knowing Bill through supporting and assisting his work in Australia. He will be missed, and my heart goes out to Nora and to all who were touched by his excellence and generosity.

  69. Sue Punshon says

    My heartfelt sympathy to Nora, Bill’s family and friends. Thanks Kyle and others who have given me a fascinating and insightful insight into Bill’s American life. I had the honour of working closely with Bill and Nora, as the Project Manager, for iOrpheus in Brisbane, their patience and calm in a chaotic environment was amazing to watch. I have many fond memories – late nights speaking to Bill prior to their arrival with the inevitable visa problems, collecting them from the airport with the description of “they will be wearing New York black” and many wonderful conversations over a glass of wine in the months leading up to the day of performance. What a truly remarkable event. RIP Bill, you are truly one of life’s gentle men.

  70. says

    Bill Duckworth was a friend in high school and college at ECU and was most annoying by being very much as you say. I had reconnected with him briefly via the internet and 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. I am so saddened by his death.

  71. Carla Teixeira says

    Nora,
    I’m so sorry to hear you lost your soul mate Bill. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Australia. I know you are a very strong woman but remember to ask people for help when you need it. Lots of love,
    Carla.

  72. Paris says

    Kyle,
    We don’t know each other personally but I have admired your work and writings for years. Thank you for these words about Bill. As all of these comments make clear, he was an inspiration and touched so many people. I was fortunate to have met Bill and Nora during Cathedral and even more fortunate and frankly, blown away, when they asked me to create visuals for podcast of the iPod opera and what would become iOrpheus. I had only recently started creating visuals and still wasn’t sure what i was doing, yet they believed in me. So much so, that if it wasn’t for their encouragement and faith, i probably wouldn’t have continued making visuals and music. While I never will feel like I had “enough” time with them, I am filled with great memories of the times we had together. I can’t express it enough, how fortunate I feel that our paths in life intersected. My heart goes out to Nora, to family and everyone of us who Bill touched.

  73. says

    Thank you Kyle, for such a touching and heartfelt tribute. I wish I’d known Bill as well as you did… When the Fitzwilliam Quartet first came to Bucknell, back in 1978, he made an enormous impression on us all (as did so many people right across campus). But we were hungry for New Music at that time (and still are!), so conversations with him during those five weeks were particularly probing and stimulating. Since latterly we have only been on campus for two weeks in the year, and he was invariably in NYC, we only rarely met up during the past few years. But I occasionally checked into Cathedral, and always enjoyed it whenever we ran into each other. Let’s hope he receives his full due posthumously – as he led us all to believe! Times are indeed strange….

  74. Adam Silverman says

    I am so saddened to hear this news. Thank you, Kyle, for your beautiful words. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know him through Ben Johnston and my subsequent analysis of “Southern Harmony,” a piece that transformed me like no other and set me on a path of great discovery. Bill and I also used to meet up at the Johnstons and fight over who would get one or another of Betty’s beautiful paintings. This is a terrible loss.

  75. Fukutoshi Ueno says

    My fondest memory of Bill was that morning when we all sat in a pavilion overlooking the rock garden at Ryoanji. It was just after dawn, so still, no tourists but a handful of us, with wisps of morning must rising through the trees and a chorus of birds to celebrate the start of a golden day. We had come to Kyoto as sight-seers a night or two after a performance of CATHEDRAL in Tokyo; Bill had asked me to be the ‘Kage’, the Japanese-shadow of Arthur Sabbatini who read his texts in English while I read mine in Japanese. It was a wonderful experience for us all. Yes, the stillness of that morning in Kyoto gave me insight into Bill’s soul. So many other trips together- throughout southern Queensland, the beaches of Byron Bay where they spent several weeks at the glorious Linneaus estate, and even the drive across the north island of New Zealand – all were wonderful times for me, and I shall cherish those memories of a very special friend in my life. It will be lovely to have Nora back in Brisbane. We both love shopping!
    Itte rasshai, Nora. Okakare, dear Bill.

  76. says

    Kyle, thank you for your wonderful memorial. Bill was also one of my most important musical role models: his first year of college teaching (at then-Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina) was my freshman year as a music major. He was my first composition teacher, and he opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world. He introduced me to John Cage and Morton Feldman and Ben Johnston and many others. I followed in his footsteps for many years: When I graduated (with a degree in music education), I went to the University of Illinois to begin graduate studies at the same time Bill left his teaching job to return to Illinois for his doctoral residency year. I eventually switched from music education to composition, and studied with Ben Johnston, as he had done. I accepted my teaching position at Shenandoah Conservatory the year after Bill started at Bucknell, and spent several years travelling back and forth between Lewisburg and Winchester, visiting and working on joint projects.

    In recent years, we lost touch with each other, so I’m sad to say this news caught be by surprise. Yet I still count Bill as friend and mentor, who helped me find my path in these Strange Times.

  77. says

    Rest in Peace Bill Duckworth! I heard Neely Bruce play Southern Harmony and Time Curve Preludes years ago in New Haven. I never forgot the wonderful music, the composer, and the performance. Thanks, Kyle, for setting this touching thread in motion.

  78. says

    Kyle, thanks for the wonderful write up on Bill. When I recently heard of him not being well, I sent this correspondence over to a friend of his who I’d recently met. I thought it was good to share with others who knew him. – mike

    *
    A little backstory while we’re sharing stories. I first met Bill at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2006. I was only slightly familiar with his work at the time, but found myself there as an invited artist associate for a few weeks that summer. He was the master artist, and brought along Nora for the residency. I was hoping to get a little career guidance since I had just finished graduate school a few months prior.

    Our group, handpicked by Bill, was amazing. He invited a group of 8 musicians from around the world – Australia to Ireland to Amsterdam to Canada to Austin. In hindsight, I think it was a kind of outward projection of his musical mind, like we each represented a different side of his personality. There were composers, performers, improvisers, some zany electronic guys like me and it was all simply wonderful. It was clear that he planned for the entire spectrum of musical interest and career stages. Sort of a 360 degree view of musical possibility. Everyone had something to teach and offer someone else, and it was moderated with the kind of trusting love that only Bill can emit. Every day we’d start off with a musical improvisation and a few deep breaths. He’d share mind blowing stories about his experiences over the years, introduce us to new music daily, and even let Nora step in to school the group on occasion. We left every afternoon exhausted with information but ecstatic about the world. Each night, we’d all gather at his cottage and pop a bottle of wine and some beers, crank the tunes, and the next day, we’d repeat. And the next day. And so on. Everyone was constantly learning, laughing, and rejoicing, and we all discovered so much about ourselves and each other in the process. By the end of the three weeks, we had all become best friends without even realizing it.

    During those three weeks, he also made time for each of us individually. He carefully guided us towards our biggest aspirations, encouraging us to go deeper into our musical passions – whatever they were. For me, I had mentioned in passing that I wanted to start a record label alongside my composing. I think i initially wrote that down as something i was interested in but needed more than a little practical advice to act on. All of us did in some way, regardless of our interests. Bill took me at my word and before even giving me a chance to get cold feet, had me plan out the entire label effort on the spot, then pitch it back to him and Nora. I’m proud to say that thanks to Bill, the label is now over 5 years old and we are on our 20th musical release. It happened, and it started with Bill.

    For the next few years after the ACA residency, I would catch Bill at the annual reunion in NYC. He’d get a kick out of me coming up from Texas every year and I always enjoyed getting to see him. The last time I saw him was at the New Museum circa 2008, where i randomly bumped into him a couple hours before the last ACA reunion. We sat and had coffee, he asked me about my latest endeavors. After cheersing all the activities going on with everyone, Nora joined us and we all walked to the event together. Afterwards we kept partying over some great food and we later parted on the best note possible. I remember thinking, man! That. is love. I feel so lucky to have met such a good mentor and colleague. I gave him the biggest hug. And that was the last time I saw him.

    Over the last several years, I’ve often looked back and wondered just how different my life (and others’) would be were it not for Bill. I even felt a little jealous that we might lose him and Nora to the Aussies a few years ago! His love of music and people just illuminates the best in everyone, and you can literally see it in peoples’ eyes and reactions to him. It’s like he brings out the pleaser in you but he’s actually got you working towards your own in dreams and ambitions in the process, something like that. He is that rare kind of person that makes you feel gifted, warm, and fuzzy, perhaps a little invincible about it all – but without even trying. It’s just who he is and how he rolls.

    This was a little bit of an emotional release but it needed to be said, and I hope to convey some of it to him somehow. I will send an email to Bill in the coming days and hope to hear back from him eventually. And if I don’t, for whatever reason, I feel good about having shared these amazing memories, all of which will last for years to come.
    sincerely,
    mike

  79. Arnaldo J. López says

    Saddened by the news, grateful for your remembrance. I credit Bill and Nora for fostering in me a deeply playful and transformative appreciation of adventurous new music. Having lived in Lewisburg for much of the 1980s and 1990s, I can’t overstate the significance of Bill’s Gallery Series at Bucknell, a portal opening to the New York new music scene and beyond, nothing short of magical. There was always an air of 21st century gentleman about him, too. I saw Bill and Nora together last at Galapagos, in Williamsburg, for a performance of the Deep Listening Band, eyes sparkling with enjoyment. That’s a snapshot I’ve cherished and will continue to cherish.

  80. Andy Hameroff says

    My sincerest condolences to Nora,

    Bill opened my mind exponentially as a composition student back in the 80′s.

    What a legacy he leaves.

  81. Bruce Brubaker says

    As some of you know, I had the audacity to record the first 12 of the Time Curve Preludes a few years ago without ever contacting Bill, or playing the music for him. After the recording was released, Bill graciously contacted me. In the meetings, lunches, and communications that followed I had the uncanny feeling that we were continuing a big conversation, begun long before — long before I actually met Bill. And of course, that was true. Bill had been speaking to me through his music for a long time. One of the triumphant acts of the last months was Bill’s completion of BIG PIANO, the piano concerto I asked him for. How he managed it I can’t really imagine. But through that work and through all his music, Bill is going to keep on talking to us.

  82. says

    I never met him in person, but Bill Duckworth and I shared a mutual correspondence by mail way back in 1995 or 1996, the precise date escapes an aging memory. We also happened to share the same name: I am William E. Duckworth, and friends and family call me Bill. A friend of his had alerted him to, and he had read an article I’d written for a magazine. And so out of the blue, he wrote and sent me a letter–light-hearted, good-natured, tinged with a sort of impish fun–to which I responded. I recall that we both agreed to be perfectly happy with our birth-given name, and resigned to accept that we had no choice but to share it with one another. Later he sent me a CD of his Southern Harmony, which I continue to listen to and appreciate all these many years later.

    Godspeed and my best wishes to his wife and family for their loss.

  83. Richard Howard says

    I am very sadden to hear of Dr. Duckworth’s passing. I have thought of him many times over the years since my days at Atlantic Christian College. I remember him as having such a unique personality as well as a brilliant musical mind. One of the most rememorable times was when the ACC choir toured Florida in 1972 and the group took a day to go to Disney World. A group of us were inside Cinderella’s Palace where the walls were made of beautiful mosaic tiles. I was rubbing the wall and Dr. Duckworth said in a very stern voice, “Don’t touch the walls, You aren’t suppose to do that”. I responded by jumping back very quickly. Dr. Duckworth started laughing and saying to me, “you are so gullible”. I have never forgotten that day and how much fun we all had. I am sure Dr. Duckworth touched everyone in a special way that ever met him. I know he will be missed. Thank you so much for posting.

  84. jack winerock says

    I was thumbing through the NY Times last night and came across the obituary of William Duckworth by Mr. Gann. I was shocked and continue to be. Thank you very much. The obit was lovely and passionate. I have not played Time Curve preludes since 1990, having played it quite a bit in the 80′s. I looked at the score today, after 25 years. Wow….it is as fresh and original as ever, perhaps more so. I cannot wait to play it again. Jack Winerock