A Day at Yale: Thomas C. Duffy

Saturday, May 28, 2005 | View all images

Professor Thomas C. Duffy

Saturday morning of Reunion, I attended "Music and the Yale Brain" with the highly entertaining Professor Thomas C. Duffy, Acting Dean of the School of Music and the Director of Bands at Yale University.

I found him to be wildly entertaining, and - as usual - it made me realize how many great courses and areas I totally missed while on campus.

Duffy played several pieces of music which he had both composed and conducted. All of them were unconventional, and played with elements of perception and the brain. The first was a July 4th tribute, entitled "Overture 1776," in which he augmented the "1812 Overture" sound normally heard in July 4th fanfares and Americanized it by using themes from "My Country 'tis of Thee" and others.

"A+" was the title of Professor Duffy's second piece, a brilliant demontration of the precision required when kids play music by intentionally writing in a 2% error factor from conventional tones into part of the piece. Naturally, even a 2% error rate sounded very discordant, but it worked as a piece because of the systematic fashion in which it was written.

The third piece, "Butterflies and Bees," was one in which he replicated an Escher-like transition from one animal to another on a canvas by creating a musical piece with bumblebee and butterfly sounds, which blended into each other.

We had a round of guessing which was which, and figured out that we all knew nothing about either musicology or zoology.

Finally, he did a piece for a retiring military commander in which he worked with the commander's ambivalence about the application of U.S. military power versus his deep patriotism by writing a piece which was half in four/four time and half in five/four time, and for which he was painted black on one side and one on the other, and conducted the piece with one arm moving in one time and the other arm moving in the other. We saw a classroom video, and I thought it was brilliant both in conception and execution.

- Andrew Wallach

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