The music world has lost a quietly innovative and influential voice. Composer, professor, author and performer William Duckworth has died at age 69, according to his close friend Kyle Gann, who reported the news earlier today on his blog, saying Duckworth's wife had called him with the news this morning. Duckworth was suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Duckworth, who claimed to be the founder of postminimalism, wrote some 200 compositions, the best known of which are Time Curve Preludes for piano, composed in the late 1970s, and Southern Harmony, composed in the early 1980s, a choral work inspired by the traditional shape note singing of the American South.
Duckworth was from the South himself. He grew up in Morganton, N.C. with musical parents, and a high school band leader he said "had been Toscanini's first trumpet player." Gann says Duckworth "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."
One of the first composers to grasp and exploit the possibilities of the internet, Duckworth, with his wife, media artist Nora Farrell, created iOrpheus, an opera performed on iPods, mobile phones and laptops. He and Farrell also launched Cathedral, a interactive multimedia work that lives entirely online, and Sonic Babylon, a series of installations called "sound gardens."
Duckworth had taught at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. since 1973. He was given a Master Teacher of America award in 1983. Profiled in Rolling Stone magazine in 1992, he was described as a "hip, bright, innovative teacher who opens up worlds students never knew existed." His books include Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers and Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.
Gann compares Duckworth's music to that of Mozart, saying 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." In 2008, New York Times critic Steve Smith wrote of the Time Curve Preludes: "That this collection isn't more widely recognized as one of the 20th century's major piano works is puzzling."
Duckworth said that in his music he was interested in odd juxtapositions and delightful surprises: "My work as a composer has always been a mixing of styles and an accepting of elements that don't always necessarily go together sometimes. But if you put them together you come up with all kinds of interesting new experiences that you may never have thought of."