William Duckworth (1943-2012)
I, like so many will, received the news of William Duckworth’s death via Kyle Gann’s blog. If you are unfamiliar with Bill’s music, that is the place to start. This will be a post of a more personal nature, written by one who loved Bill’s music. This is my story, which has been forever altered by Bill; it is not, nor can it be his story.
It was David McIntire, one of my closest friends, who first introduced me to Bill’s music. I had the incredible good fortune of meeting Dave while pursuing my masters in piano performance. He, like so many composers, had a keen interest in exposing me to new music. We’d get together, eat, drink, and then go listen to albums. It’s something that I imagine was done with much greater frequency in past decades, and why it doesn’t happen more often I cannot imagine. Regardless, these evenings, which sadly have become less frequent since I moved a several hundred miles away, were at least as important to my music education as the degrees I’ve accumulated. And I say that without any sense of hyperbole whatsoever.
If nothing else, it was one such evening when I first heard The Time Curve Preludes (1977-78). I was blown away. My primary music interests at the time revolved around Prokofiev and Schubert. These preludes were a revelation, an epiphany. Actually, as I type these words they seem utterly insufficient, and whatever I experienced that evening has only been amplified in the years since. You see, those pieces changed my life. Dramatically.
It was simple at first, I wanted to know more about them. I played through them, read about them, and later asked one Andrew Granade if he’d be willing to oversee a research project on postminimalist piano music as part of my doctoral program. It only spiraled from there. I now think of The Time Curve Preludes as my gateway drug because they opened up an entirely new world to me. Suddenly I couldn’t consume enough postminimalist music, and then I started getting into minimalist compositions, and the next thing I know I’m jumping off the deep end and performing pieces like Dennis Johnson’s 5+ hour epic, November. What was a research project turned into a dissertation, an interest became an obsession, and now, while I still adore the music of Schubert and Brahms, I rarely play anything that wasn’t written in the last fifty years or so. And of course there were conferences, getting to meet composers and scholars who loved this music, and even getting to play for them on occasion. My repertoire, my friends, my colleagues, my identity as an artist has been forever changed by those 24 preludes. I owe Bill so very much.
Then I got the news.
In April of last year I heard that Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I knew what that meant, or at least I thought I did. Suddenly, the man who had forever altered the course of my life probably only had a few months left on this earth. It felt like the wind had been completely knocked out of me. I cried. In some ways it was odd, because this was a person I had only limited contact with. I primarily knew only his music, but had never been so shaken by a diagnosis. I had several lessons to teach that day, and I did teach them, but warned each student that I was not in a great state of mind. I felt completely adrift, but I knew what I had to do.
I wrote a long email to Bill, saying many of the things I’m saying here and more. It was something I should have done years before, and I considered myself lucky that the news I had received was a only a diagnosis and not an obituary. I tried to leave nothing out. Bill, being very gracious, wrote back, and this lead to several emails and phone calls. He was an absolute pleasure to talk to. It can be intimidating talking to a hero of yours (much less recording their music!), but it’s hard to be intimidated by someone so friendly.
That was April 2011. That summer, as had been long planned, I recorded The Time Curve Preludes. Bill got to hear the results, which was incredible, and things were starting to look up that winter. Bill told me that the cancer was in remission, and I managed to make it up to New York in February. We had plans for lunch, and I couldn’t have been more excited. Then I got an email from him the day before we were to meet. It was an unusually bad chemo cycle, and it was difficult even getting out of bed that week.
It was disappointing, sure, but I understood. The trip was still a good one, but as it turns out, that was as close as I got to meeting him in person. I didn’t worry about it much at the time. After all, he had already made it close to a year, which I figured wouldn’t have been a possibility, and with remission, the odds were decent I might get another chance.
I should have booked another flight sooner.
Still, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. I had the great luck of not only finding the music that would speak to me so closely and shape my artistry and my life, but I got to know the man who wrote it, even if for a short while. Maybe more importantly, I got to tell him, unabashedly, what his music meant to me. I had the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, and that’s all I could have asked for.
Thank you, Bill, so very much.
You will be missed.