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Avant Garde American Composer and former KZYX host William Jay Sydeman Dies at 93

Larry R. Wagner

William Jay Sydeman, once called “the most played composer of his generation” by the New York Times, died suddenly and peacefully in his bed at home in Mendocino on May 27, 2021. Sydeman taught composition at Mannes School of Music in New York from 1960 to 1970. He was often featured in the Music of Our Time new music concerts in the 1960s and received numerous commissions and awards, including the Boston Symphony’s Award of Merit. Erich Leinsdorf selected Sydeman to write “In Memoriam John F. Kennedy”, performed in Boston, New York and Washington, D. C. by the Boston Symphony.

His piece for the opening of Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center nearly caused a riot. He chose to write a “black comedy” spoof on the excommunication curse from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”, a satiric 18th century comic novel enjoying a revival at that time. Half the audience was laughing, the other half booing. Sydeman said, “I know how Stravinsky felt at the premiere of “The Rite of Spring.”

Sydeman’s unique contribution was his ability to incorporate every advancement in the language of music: to use all the tools in the toolbox—old and new—to create his truly original music. He was also known for writing for unusual combinations of instruments. His music is published by Edition Peters, E. C. Schirmer, Associated Music, Subito Music and others. Many of his works are available on International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Tributes and stories can be found on https://www.forevermissed.com/jaysydeman/about.

Having created a large body of work, chamber music, orchestral and choral music for live musicians, Sydeman found his greatest freedom in composing, playing and recording his new work with his computer orchestras. He hosted a radio program on local station KZYX where he could play his new music. Little KZYX may have been the only radio station playing world premieres, hot off the press. Sydeman reveled in the control he had over every aspect of the sound: writing, performance and recording. He said a composer rarely gets to hear a piece just as he envisioned it, and with the computer he could work on it until that was achieved. He believed his best work was what he did in the last 10 years in Mendocino.

Sydeman walked on the beach nearly every day, meditated, did yoga and played and wrote music until the day he died. He is survived by daughters Ann Sydeman (Henry Moreton), Michelle Sydeman, son William Sydeman (Catherine Madonia), granddaughters Emily and Julia Moreton and Claire and Marie Sydeman, and close friend and caregiver, Jeanne Duncan.

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