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PSNY Remembers John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy was truly a monumental figure in American music. From humble beginnings in the Bronx, where he was one of 14 children to an Irish immigrant family, he went on to compose over 300 works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, television, film, and stage, and is largely responsible for the concept of a composer-in-residence, now adopted by nearly every major orchestra, through Meet the Composer (now New Music USA)—an organization he started in 1974 and ran for several decades. Duffy's musical compositions tread a path between a distinct sense of Americanness, evident in his interest in American history, politics, and culture, and a sense of Modernity, made audible in his unique compositional voice. We've featured some of his works before on PSNY, and encourage you to take a second listen. 

Duffy's passing this past December has lead to an outpouring of remembrances, memorials, and personal stories about this truly amazing figure. In the New York Times, William Grimes writes of Duffy's days as a night guard in a department store, when he would go to jazz clubs to see composer/performers such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, leading him to a life-long advocacy for jazz composers in America. In New Music Box, current New Music USA president Ed Harsh writes,

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

The comments on Harsh's memorial reveal Duffy's deep and long-reaching influence on a wide section of American music. Composers, performers, educators, and presenters such as Charles Wuorinen, Ursula OppensCharles Amirkhanian, and many others have added their voices to Harsh's rememberance. With this short tribute, we hope to add ours, too. 

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