James Randall, professor emeritus of music, passed away May 28, 2014
At some point in my first year at Princeton, 1977-78, I picked up on what a powerful combination of ear and brain was Jim Randall. I finally experienced the full, joyful dose of Jim the summer before my second year. I was planning on my first try, with the PU Orchestra, at a Mahler symphony, No. 4, and asked Jim if he knew it and if so would he share his thoughts with me. He said he didn’t, but would love to get to know it, and why didn’t we sit down together and listen to it some evening? So I got an LP, and met Jim in a room on the second floor of Woolworth, and off we went. My astonishment grew, throughout two+ hours, with an ear that picked up not just close-together relationships, but connections between musical events many measures and minutes apart. None of which, of course, had even begun to occur to me. “Hey, that conductor just really blew it- go back three minutes and find that place where the horns take the lead. Doesn’t this guy know that those two tempos have to match, or you don’t hear that connection?” (All of this was without a score in front of him.) “That conductor” had not heard the connection, nor had I. I thought I had really learned that symphony; Jim showed me that I had barely scratched the surface. I now never approach a score without thinking of Jim, and of that evening. (Years later we did the same with Mahler 9.) It was humbling, but it was also some of the most fun I’ve ever had. He was like a kid in a great toy store, inviting me to play with him. He made realizing how ignorant you were an act of joy.
My other indelible memory of Jim is of joining him to watch the Princeton baseball team in the spring at Clark Field. He was a student of the game, and although he never really forgave professional baseball the strike of 1994, he still kept close tab. But he knew the kids on the Princeton team as well as he knew the Phillies. (Jim also followed the Princeton team to some away games.) It’s amazing how similar were the two Jim experiences- listening to Mahler and watching baseball. The exuberance and deep powers of observation were equally applied, and equally joyous to bath in, sitting next to him.
I last saw Jim about a year back, when he came over to inspect our recently acquired English Springer Spaniel, Hugo. His comment was classic Jim– “That head is one of the architectural marvels of the universe.” Jim was one of those people who saw as marvelous so much around us.
Jim’s visit to Bard College in 1969 was instrumental to my coming to Princeton for my graduate study. This proved to be one of my happier life decisions, largely due to the work I did with Jim when I arrived.
Jim’s classes opened my eyes and ears to a depth of musical involvement I could never have imagined possible; but once exposed to it I realized it fed a hunger I hadn’t known was within me. I still reflect on these classes after more than 40 years.
As a composition teacher, Jim showed boundless generosity of time, concentration, and involvement. His got me to care acutely about every note, because he did. He was always supportive and encouraging as I was trying to find my way. Of all of my composition teachers, his was the approach I tried best to emulate with my own composition students.
As a senior colleague, Jim was a generous mentor, both materially – he helped me get university support for a record and for attending conferences where I delivered papers and took me along when he visited the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford – and with sound advice.
After I left academe and even music for a time, Jim was supportive when I resumed composing, attending some of my local performances (despite his difficulties doing so) and commenting on recordings I sent him.
I owe Jim a debt of gratitude, both for my experiences with him and for the better parts of my musical self, which he nourished. But more important than this personal legacy is what he bequeaths to the world of music as a whole: the unique masterpieces of his thinking, creativity, and love. The world will never see his like again and was and is much richer because he was in it. He will be well-remembered and he will be sorely missed.
Jim Randall was one of the most remarkable and innovative musical thinkers of the last century. His brilliant compositions and writings are of the highest integrity and style; taken in chronological order, they provide a narrative of continual exploration and discovery that is as inspiring as it is unprecedented.
I regret I did not know Jim well; our only sustained conversation was in December, 2003 after the ceremony at Princeton announcing the publication of _The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt_ (edited by Stephen Peles, Stephen Dembski, Andrew Mead, Joseph N. Straus). However, I learned from Jim—as I have from other important composers—by listening and studying his music and reading his many articles, essays, and monographs.
I did write a long essay on Jim’s music in volume 7 of The Open Space Magazine (2005): “A collection of thoughts on Jim Randall, his piano piece _GAP6 I_, and some notions of ‘gap.’” Recently, Jim wrote three compositions dedicated to me on my seventieth birthday entitled _BOBFEST – Ex.s D4&5_. The pieces have sub-titles from lines from Hart Crane’s _Legend_, one of my favorite Crane poems. This may have been the last piece he completed before he died. I am so sorry I did not thank him for this gift; I was waiting until it would appear in the next issue of Perspectives of New Music.
From the first minute I walked in the door of the music department, it seemed everybody was saying, “You really have to study with Jim Randall.” I assumed they meant, study composition. Eventually I got that the point was, not composition; everything.
Those of us who did work with Jim will forever find it impossible to think of a single aspect of our lives as musicians, or as members of a community of musicians, or indeed simply as people, that will not have been affected materially and profoundly and permanently by him. This bears repeating: His influence extended to every aspect of music — listening and hearing; creating and speculating; playing and practicing; learning and teaching. His own abilities in every one of these areas were formidable.
Far beyond any of that, though, what we were seeing in Jim was a way of encountering the whole world, a very rich way, one that had no time for false seriousness. Jim invested great love and intelligence and humour in everything he cared about. He was tirelessly devoted to helping any of us to do the same. All you had to do was ask.
One can only imagine how Jim would have reacted to the idea of anyone trying to emulate him. I would be willing to risk his scorn, though, to be able to emulate his generosity, justness, honesty. In a world where there are too few worthy people, Jim demonstrated how to be a mensch. It’s only fair that we should try to follow him in that above all.
It was a turning point in my life when Jim was my theory professor during my junior year. His wealth of knowledge, his generosity, and his piercing gaze that combined amusement, interest and challenge opened my view of what being a grown-up musician might be. It was Ed Cone who suggested I ask Jim to be my thesis advisor. I recall meetings with Jim (a notorious night owl) at 11 P.M. to discuss my work. He kindly and accurately assessed that my connection to music was through performing, and encouraged me to think about how music worked based on my strength. This led me to discover that each piece has its own voice and language, and is most interesting when performed to be most like itself, rather than like other pieces. Mostly, Jim inspired me with a profound love of music, and it is a privilege to pass that along to my students.
I came to Princeton as a graduate student in 1969 when I was not quite 21. Jim was my composition teacher for my whole first year, which was somewhat rare at the time, since the department rotated composition students for private lessons through the whole faculty. My first memory is that Milton Babbitt came into the room during my first lesson with Jim. I’d never met Milton and wasn’t quite sure whether that was really he. When I asked Jim who that was he looked surprised and called Milton back into the room to meet me. Within five seconds Milton left saying something like “I don’t want to interrupt you – every minute with Jim is precious.” Indeed.
In retrospect, although I got a lot out of studying with Jim, I was not yet ready for him; I would have profited more several years later when I was more sure of what I wanted to do compositionally and was more articulate about it. In the late seventies Frank Brickle and I presented a concert of our music at Princeton (this was about six years after I had left Princeton) and then a week or two later we came down for a seminar with Jim and a few other students to listen to and talk about the pieces that had been on the concert. Jim’s comments on the music (and the performances) were, of course, extraordinarily perceptive, and I was bowled over by the quickness of his ear. I’ll never forget either the compliments he gave me about my piece (“Hey, this section’s a knockout”) or the criticisms (“Now here’s where the piece really fucks up”). There was one section of my piece with parallel octaves among the instruments that sounded very disappointing to me and which I thought needed revision to make the voices go in different directions. I asked if anybody else in the room was bothered by that section and immediately Jim enthusiastically and cheerfully raised his hand. Occasionally I found his criticisms odd, but that was part of his charm as a teacher – sometimes his perceptions were so idiosyncratic that they made you think, even if you ended up disagreeing. For example, there was a passage in octaves for piano solo in the piece, in which the right and left hand were in inversion, and which I had had some technical problems performing. Jim’s comment was “Octaves on the piano are about as much fun to play as to listen to.” Later in that seminar he referred to the opening tune of another piece of mine, which I still like, as “nebbishy.” Even now while working out details of a passage I imagine him playing the music on the piano, hearing far more than I do, and questioning the voicings and trying to re-write them.
Here is a link to a video interview of Jim from 2011, filmed and edited for by Russell Richardson. The unabridged version of this video is available in the J. K. Randall Archive at the New York Public Library.
Paul Lansky: J K Randall memory-shots
1966, fall, At Godfrey Winham/Bethany Beardsley’s house, I hear Lyric Variations (violin and computer, on tape) for the first time. Whoa, I didn’t know this option, This changes everything. Variations 6-10 were famous for taking 9 hours to synthesize on IBM 7094 mainframe, but the evolution of the opening solo violin tune C-D-F… was entry into a strange new world. The work’s 20 minutes flew by, and the piece even survived the performance on a crummy Wollensak tape machine of Godfrey’s. I never imagined music could be like this.
Late 70’s, my house: Jim is sprawled on living room couch with our cat William on his chest. William is nibbling on his earlobes. (William was weaned too soon.) This was William’s idea. He knew an animal lover when he saw one. Purring like a hotrod William gets carried away and takes a bite out of Jim’s nose. Jim wears a bandaid for a week. Jim communicated directly with animals.
Circa 1972, Woolworth Center, Princeton: Walking by the tape studio I hear wonderful separated clouds of sound. Turns out to be JKR’s music for the film Eakins. Again I’m struck dumb. This reframes the argument for my soon to be first computer piece, mild und leise.
As with many of Jim’s pieces I have a vivid memory of my first hearing.
Sometime mid 1970’s: On more than one occasion I’ve heard Jim proclaim that he has no sense of humor. He claimed he didn’t ‘get’ jokes. Hah. A group of us, me, Jim, Milton, Ben, Claudio, had driven to NYC for a concert and were at the Lotus Eaters restaurant on 5th ave and 23rd street. Jim places his order and before the waiter can ask Milton for his Jim adds “…and a bowl of warm milk for my dad here.” (Milton was quick and said something like “skip the milk, I’ll go directly to the beer.”)
Sometime in the mid 70’s: Jim and Ben put together a new approach to graduate education — the seminar begins early afternoon on Monday, takes a dinner break at the Ground Round, meets all evening and wraps up the next morning. The subject was Beethoven’s op 110 piano sonata. At one point the agenda was to have the group teach Jim how to play it. But, Jim had no difficulty. I’ll never forget the aura surrounding those opening Ab major chords in his hands. The new seminar model only lasted one semester.
Early May, 1970-1991, sitting on the panel with Jim during dozens of MFA oral exams. Jim took a lot of airtime but he never (well almost never) asked a question to which he knew the answer. This approach became my model of education: your job is to teach the student how to learn, not how to read your mind.
1983, June: I pass by Jim’s office and am surprised to see him cleaning it up. (Not that it needed cleaning.) I ask what’s up and he explains that he has just turned 54, which was the age the men in his family died of heart failure. He had now passed that age and was confident that he would be around for a while.
Jim was a lucky guy. He had a great family life, brains, talent, patience and a job that allowed him to exercise them all. I’m sure that during his 85 years he was never idle, and found almost everything to be interesting and worthy of his attention, And he had extraordinary powers of concentration. I can’t even imagine Jim being bored. He had his wits about him until the day he died. He was passing in and out of awareness as he lay there, but when I mentioned that the NY Philharmonic was performing Steve Mackey’s Dreamhouse, a piece he loved, he smiled and gave that familiar Randall thumbs-up sign.
Many years ago, my father informed us of his wishes for the disposition of his body after his death. It was Thanksgiving day, and we were all packed in the car on the way to my grandmother’s house, a captive audience for a monologue. My father instructed us that he wanted his body to be embalmed, or mummified, and arranged in a glass case for unimpeded viewing. The whole assemblage could then be put on display in an appropriate public space, for example the Grover Cleveland rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, in the men’s room. As our progress continued, he worked out variations on the theme; perhaps his body could be separated into several different pieces, to be distributed to different deserving rest stops.
As a little girl, I thought my father’s musings on death and dismemberment sounded about right. I was gloomy on these drives, always anticipating a fatal car wreck. I expected my mother would drive right off the Tappan Zee bridge and we would all drown in the car. Stuck between two siblings in the back seat, my chances of escape were slim. At least my father had a plan for his body.
Later, he had a contrasting vision: “A Grandfatherly Rumination Pathetique leads to a Cheap Funeral.”
My father always expected to die young. When he was a teenager he didn’t expect to make it to 30; he figured he would get killed in some war or other. When he turned 54 he was gobsmacked that he had lived longer than either his father or his grandfather. I told him it was a false comparison, since his father and grandfather died at their own hands, one using alcohol and barbiturates, the other using a cut-throat razor. I told him, “if you just avoid killing yourself, you might last a long time.”
Many of my childhood memories of my father are sound memories; the bips and boops of his early computer music; the muttering background noise of his late-night conferences with students; his forceful monologues and clenched, trembling rages; his piano playing, with his characteristic strike of gently pressing the key, letting the sound diminish a bit, then whacking the key on the release. This last is also a tactile memory; he liked to drum his fingers on the top of a nearby child’s head, as if it was a keyboard.
Once, one of his students was on his way over to the house when the cat jumped up onto the guest’s chair, and promptly puked all over the seat cushion. My father wiped the puke off with a paper towel, leaving a sodden mess which made him increasingly frustrated. “Turn the cushion over!” I said. My father was delighted at the result. “That’s using the ol’ bean!” he said; a rare and heartfelt compliment.
My father’s housekeeping skills were all at about that level. He mostly lived inside his head and his relationship with the physical world was that of an infrequent visitor. He could be strangely unobservant — thinking that cheap linoleum printed with a brick pattern was actual brick, or thinking that a coffee cup was empty in spite of the steam rising from it. He loved to eat, but his cooking was idiosyncratic at best: he combined peanut butter with tuna fish, or troweled a half-inch of ground pepper onto a steak.
As a younger man, the most exercised part of his body was of course his mouth, between chain-smoking cigars, drinking coffee or tea or mineral water, eating too much, and most of all talking. But he was also a vigorous dog-walker; the dog running off the leash, and my father striding purposefully after, swinging his walking-stick. I was out of the country when he died, but from far away I got the same impression of his swift decline; when death came, the door opened and he just walked on through.
Jim Randall June 2014
A memorial tribute
1958: I meet Jim for the first time when I return to Princeton as the Music History Instructor after two years as a cellist in the Seventh Army Symphony, touring West Germany. Jim and I talk about all manner of things, music, art, sports, the world. I realize I am encountering a man of the rarest intelligence and force of personality. I happen to utter the platitude that “a work of art is more than the sum of its parts.” To which JKR replies with cutting force, “That’s because we haven’t learned to count the parts correctly.”
Years pass and we are colleagues in the Princeton Department, pursuing very different lines of work and interests, but Jim remains a good friend and a force of nature. He works mainly at night, so department meetings are scheduled in the late afternoon. He continues to combine brilliance with irony in a degree few would believe possible. He is the ultimate non-conformist I have known. We get along just fine.
1960s Perspectives is hatched, and so is the local electronic music scene, Jim is deep in both.
Jim is pursuing his own analytical studies, e.g., spending time with Haydn or Chopin or Scriabin, or working out an improved formal basis for Schenkerian analysis. He publishes his diatribe on Tanglewood, “Sight-reading as a Way of Life” which sums up just a part of his view of most of what goes on in the official worlds of music. We live through the Vietnam years in Princeton, which is torn apart like other universities. Jim displays fearless sympathy for the students and others who are against the war and demand that the university be on their side and shut down, but shows his usual insight in sympathizing with the students who are deeply concerned that if it shuts down they will not graduate.
In our later years in the Department, in the ‘70′s, Jim is moving into new modes of thought, writing action prose, composing with words. He writes about Tschaikowsky and Grover Cleveland Alexander with equal insight. The old rigor has been displaced by new ways of thinking and feeling but is streaked with insights that suggest the same astonishing outreach.
He gives the impression of coming back perpetually into the outer world from somewhere inside, from places few of us can imagine having traveled.
I980s: Doris and I decide that after all our years in Princeton – going back to 1952 when I came down from New York as a graduate student – it’s time to move on, and Boston looks like a livable city. I am moving to Harvard, where I try to help reshape things to be something like the former Princeton Department I grew up in – for a while, with pretty decent results. Jim and Ruth are sorry to see us go.
1990s and beyond.
Doris passed away in 1992. In the late ‘90′s I found a new life in my second marriage and I now have two grandchildren now in their teens. Through it all Jim Randall remains the most unforgettable colleague of my lifetime, a man whose special qualities of intelligence and imagination beggar all description.
Jim Randall was a great teacher. Working with him was exciting, maddening, inspiring. As others have pointed out, he was always completely present and engaged. He insisted on a total, unblinking honesty about what you were doing in your music. He immediately recognized that point in a piece when you were doing something, not because it was necessary to the music, not because it was the way the piece was, but because, perhaps, you felt you “had to create interest”; or you “couldn’t just have the sound sit there”; or whatever. He wanted you to question everything. After a certain point in my time working with him, I felt completely paralyzed and unable to compose – it just seemed like all of my motives and instincts were suspect, dishonest, and self-serving. But when I finally pulled myself out of the paralysis, I emerged a better and stronger composer.
One thing I always come back to when I think of Jim is that for him, music was totally and profoundly important, and he would not let anyone, be they a student or a visiting colloquium speaker, trivialize it. But I think that if he saw that you, too, believed in the vital importance of music, well, then it was worth his time and effort to help you recognize and transcend your own BS. And this is why I think that, although his critiques could sometimes be painful, they were always genuinely constructive. Because it really and truly wasn’t personal. It was about the music: that was what was important to him.
Jamey and I almost had to miss Jim’s memorial, because our elderly cat Pauline has been having health problems. I felt upset about it, but realized that of all the people in the world, Jim would understand and appreciate why we had to be absent (we made it to the memorial, but had to dash home right after). One of the things that we really connected on was our mutual love of animals. When I wanted to make a piece that used bird songs and nature sounds, I became very troubled by the thought that I was appropriating the voices of these beings that I loved: sounds that didn’t belong to me. Jim appreciated my concern, but he also felt that avoiding the piece was not an option, either. He said something to me that I never forgot (though I don’t remember the precise wording). It was to the effect that, for him, if he was going to dedicate his life to composing, then he wanted for the things that he loved best to be part of his music. This helped me to find the way in to making the piece (my “Resonant Landscape” installation), which included these sounds in a way that did not feel like appropriation. And this precept remains a guiding star for me as I continue to stumble along on the mysterious, frightening, and supremely beautiful path of music.
My dear, dear friend. I am so very sad and shocked, that Jim has died. I hope he did not suffer much.
I liked Jim a lot and admired him and his music. I was awed by his intellect and even intimidated because I could not always follow his flight of ideas and imagination. But my encounters with him were always inspiring, though often challenging, always enriching. His music is very special, and although it is totally different from what I write, I think I understood his music and could appreciate it. Here is something I wrote to Jim after listening to his music and I would like to share it, although I am not at all sure if I am on the right track:
After listening again I discovered something interesting: I have to
be totally and actively engaged in listening every second to your
music because every single sound is in itself meaningful. If my
attention wanders even for a small fraction, I lose it. So your
music can never be background, or being listened to it only with
partial attention, because then it becomes meaningless. Maybe your
music has to be listened to in a different way than how we normally
listen to music. Usually we try to remember what we hear at the
beginning of a piece and relate it to what comes afterward, and there
is a development that can be recovered in most pieces, even when our
attention wanders a bit. In your music every single sound, because of
the essence of its “soundness,” relates to the one that precedes it,
so one has to be completely “with it” all the time otherwise one
misses it. When I listened to your music I suddenly remember myself
as a four year old sitting at the piano discovering the sound of a
third and trying it on different places on the piano; relishing other
combinations and enjoying high and low, loud and soft sounds in
various gradations. In a way your music is like someone is
discovering, and savoring musical sounds for the first time. (By the
way I spotted the “stupid’ right away, but would I have heard it if
you did not tell me?)
Jim, am I at all on the right track, or have spouted a lot of
nonsense? Anyhow this approach enabled me to somehow enter your
musical world which is totally different from my, alas very
conventional, world. For me there is a strange fascination in your
music which is both simple and complex. Because it requires work
and active involvement I have not yet tackled GAP 7 but am looking
forward to it. I enjoyed our visit very much, you are not only an
interesting man, but a kind and caring one and good company. It is a
pleasure to be with you and I hope we will do this again.
Yes, he was a delightful person and I am sorry that we have not continued our meetings, but I think it was partly my fault, because I was in such awe of him that I considered myself inferior, thus trying too hard, always, to rise to his level, feeling failure when I felt I could not do it. So I did not try to continue our meetings which were very meaningful to me, but was afraid that they were boring to him
I know there will be many fine encomia and outpourings of love for Jim. I wanted to add a small contribution of my own to express how I felt about him.
He was larger than life and also very full of it (of life, that is.) There was nothing ever moderate about his opinions or his responses. I loved that about him. There are far too few of that ilk one is fortunate enough to encounter in a lifetime: though I imagine that a lifetime with Jim may have been somewhat “wearing” at times, but surely never boring.
I loved the way he called Ruth “kiddo.” That word somehow so corny expressed years and years of deep affection. It sounded wonderful coming from that erudite mouth. I couldn’t help an inward chortle whenever he used it.
Of course the years of mutual dogship are part of my picture of Jim. We always knew where to find Ethel, Phoebe, Sadie, if they’d slipped away: they were having “tea” with Uncle Jim.
If I had to choose an adjective to describe him, “Falstaffian” it would be. A greater compliment you know I could never give.
from Benjamin Boretz:
[in memoriam J.K. Randall (16 June 1929 - 28 May 2014)]
Jim Randall: An Autobiography
Jim Randall was always a huge creative-music-intellectual revolution waiting to happen. And it did happen, though – necessarily given its deep and complex nature – it happened in a small bubble, an intense but publicly obscure subculture lodged firmly, vibrantly, restlessly, sometimes obstreperously, in Princeton. I actually first knew of Jim several years before I ever met him, when I was immersed in the music department of UCLA, where my officemate was Bill Malm – the ethnomusicologist who was writing a landmark book on Japanese music – who had been at the U.S. Naval Conservatoire with Jim (and Bill Evans, and Robert Hickock – coincidentally one of my principal undergraduate music professors). Bill showed me music of Jim’s that had impressed him and whose scores he treasured – pieces that Jim composed scrupulously working out of HIndemith’s theoretical prescriptions in The Craft of Musical Composition – sparse, straight and to the point music that clearly was passionately interested in thinking clearly and deeply rather than mugging, flirting or seducing. That was 1957; in 1959 Milton brought me to Princeton, for the Seminar and beyond; Jim in the flesh was there, as were David Lewin and Godfrey Winham; Jim was on leave, preoccupied with the recent birth of Ellen, but came to hear the great men (of course men!) and join the conversation with stunning force: see his vignette of Stravinsky in the Perspectives memorial issue; and – prepared with a comprehensive analysis of Elliott Carter’s First String Quartet’s pervasive pentachord structure – he succeeded in eliciting from Elliott an indignant denial that he had had anything “serial” at all in mind. And from the first moment – of infinitely many more – that I sat around with Jim shooting the breeze I was amazed to find an almost uncanny shared sense of what we cared about, responded to, valued in music – and creative thought generally. Powerful enough to propel a subsequent lifetime of inter-engagement on every level of being and thinking that you can imagine. Historical, political and social consciousness were inseparable aspects of this conversation, as were a radical critique of music pedagogy, a radical openness to every mode of creative expression, and a radical relativism about perception and interpretation. This was the time of the Taneiev review that Richmond Browne dared to allow into the Yale Journal of Music Theory; of Pitch-Time Demonstrations and the logical construction of the tonal system, liberated by the example of Milton’s exuberant Positivism, and constrained by the severe moral rationality of Godfrey looking over Jim’s shoulder and teaching by example. Jim was the one who had the unblinking courage of all their convictions – and an uninhibited entitlement to articulate those convictions in force, in public, and with an authenticity of voice that we had never heard before in the preternaturally cautious and evasive rhetorics of academic discourse. And then Perspectives of New Music came into being, and the American Society of University Composers, and Compose Yourself, and – finally – Open Space.
But discourse was the periphery; the center was always creative composition and wherever that led; inevitably it led first to the creative liberation of computer sound synthesis – to Mudgett, to Lyric Variations, to Eakins, recently to the garland of csound – to the constant refinement of language by way of music – to “Soundscroll”, to “Depth of Surface”, to “Intimacy” – and to the expansion of the ways that music goes by way of how language – poetry, story, utterance – goes. The piano music for Godfrey called such words as it were vain to close – immortalized by Elaine Barkin’s textpiece – was originally called “a long story”. And expanded further to the creative liberation of realtime interactive time-making, in sound, oftentimes of a musical character, but also in modes of social and material configuration that could only deeply be perceived as rooted in music and the awareness that music uniquely accesses. The work of that time, inscribed in the Inter/Play series, including an amazing set of 13 duo-keyboard sessions we played alternately at Jim’s house here in Princeton and at mine at Bard, and writings like “Are You Serious”, resonated through all of Jim’s later musical and verbal utterances – through Gap, through Schwejk, through Benfest, through his latest – to Astonish the Roses, an email conversation with Walter Branchi, and, just now, Bobfest, a pure unabashed MIDI meditation on Hart Crane words, composed early this year for Bob Morris’s 70th birthday.
Of course I don’t know what my work and presence meant to Jim’s life and work; he himself wrote, in the Introduction to Being About Music,, and in Part I of Compose Yourself, about our parallelisms and affinities. But I do know that my often unsteady hands were often steadied by the unfailing sureness of his. Jim’s own deep surface, the emanation of his personal presence, were always the ultimate Demonstrations of his unconfinably farseeing thought.
– Benjamin Boretz
(spoken at the memorial for Jim Randall, Princeton University, 14 June 2014)
My son Michael told me that he had met Ellen at Reunions, and that she had told him the news of Jim. I was very sad to hear it, and I have been sad ever since. I felt so close to Jim and so regretful that I didn’t see more of him. I am glad at any rate that he enjoyed his milk-shake! (One could not but wish him that.)
I can’t even measure how far back Jim and I go. I knew him at Harvard, for sure, and was delighted then that he managed to annoy that prig Randall Thompson with his cigars…
Jim was a real Mensch, a good man. And such a musician. I’ll never forget a class he taught on a late Beethoven Sonata (Op. 110) he played, and his honest puzzlement over something in the middle of the first movement. Later, back at home, I looked up the place in a facsimile edition I had, and found the solution to the problem: slurs in the right hand did not coincide with a larger slur in the left hand. When I showed it to him during the next class, he smiled broadly and I was delighted no less than he. I can’t tell you how much I admired his musical judgment and his knowledge. Nothing could diminish that, ever.
I shall miss him.
When death occurs in the family – and I am using family in the one sense where the notion of human intimacy freely applies – we usually remain more aware of what is gone than of what is left.
Yet when Ruth Randall called last week to tell me Jim had died, I was at once aware that what had been left to me of my friend had immediately engulfed what was gone. This has never been my awareness on the occasion of other family deaths.
I had first “known” Jim in early childhood (during pre-school hours at Park School in Cleveland Heights) and then, more memorably, during English and Latin classes and home-room intervals from Eighth Grade to Graduation from Shaker Heights High School, and lastly, most variously, at Columbia College, Columbia University, where we roomed together in the dorm next to Hartley Hall, our classroom building, and where – always to my shameful defeat – we compared papers, an exercise whereby I could have no doubt of Jim’s academic or at least intellectual superiority … except that he neglected to make such superiority explicit to me, or even to acknowledge my inferiority. (I was to see Jim perform the same sort of intolerable ascendance over his father many times).
But the enigma, as I meant to begin by saying, is that Jim Randall (whom I saw no more than five times in the last fifty years) has never left me. He has remained – he remains – the most valiant, the most valued, and the most invulnerable of all my playmates, all my scholars, all my loves.
Jim and I first got to know each other in the early 60s. We’d just missed each other in graduate school in the mid 50s. Jim was a couple of years ahead of me in college, but after college he spent four years “defending his country by teaching harmony at the U. S. Naval Conservatoire” and so did get to Princeton until just after I left.
By the early 60s we were both ensconced in teaching jobs—I at Columbia, Jim here—but we had both become deeply involved in various high-minded projects that we hoped might improve the musical world—or at least our corner of it. It was a time of tumult and invention. All kinds of institutions that we take for granted nowadays—Perspectives, new music ensembles, you name it, we being born. But the one Jim and I worked on together didn’t survive: the American Society of University Composers, or “Ass-suck” as Jim was careful to pronounce it. Its central premise was the American university is not just a convenient provider of day jobs for composers who obviously could not make a living by composing. It is—or at least could become—an institution particularly well suited to serving the interests of serious minded composers in all kinds of ways.
A goodly bunch of such composers got involved—lots of young Turks, Ben and Tuck among them, many, but not all, with Princeton connections. And we managed to put together three successful national meetings, with talks and panels and concerts, and to publish the Proceedings thereof, when—to put it politely— rumblings of discontent were discerned. What kind of “Society” was this, anyway? How come all the members of the board were of the same compositional stripe? And who gave them the right to guide the Society anyway?
Well of course they were right. We weren’t elected. We’d selected ourselves in order to create something we thought was necessary. Much discussion among the Founding Fathers and many a plan proposed, but it was Jim’s plan that won out: we should simply resign en masse, say we’ve done our job, and it’s all up to others now. (I can still remember the look on the faces of some of the complainers when they heard this.)
From Steven Mackey
Jim (J.K.) Randall (1929-2014)—Out of View of Anything Resembling the Mainstream
During my first week of teaching at Princeton in the fall of 1985, Jim Randall walked up to me and said, “Hey Steve, let’s improvise: you on the electric guitar and I’m thinkin’ that I’ll try the front end of the piano.” Any part of the piano—the back, the under carriage, the legs, inside, outside—it was all fair game to Jim, and he was never one to make assumptions. He knew guitar players that played with a knife and fork, but he knew that wasn’t me and he wanted me to be in my wheelhouse so he figured he would play notes on the keyboard.
Jim would put a 90-minute cassette—45 minutes a side—into the tape machine, hit record, and we would play non-stop until the cassette clicked off. Then we would immediately sit and listen to what we had recorded. We did this a few times leading into fall break that year, but during fall break we took it to another level. We met, three times a day for seven days straight—10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.
I have to admit that I had a need to impress Jim with the virtuosity of half-remembered licks from my childhood. I used them up by the end of the first day and by the end of the second day I was truly present. To aid in purging my pre fabricated riffs he set a teddy bear on the piano and told me that he would take musical suggestions from the teddy bear and pass them to me, then I took suggestions from the teddy bear and passed them to him. Then I gave the teddy suggestions to pass on to Jim. Eventually all possible permutations for communicating via the teddy bear were explored.
He was a great improviser. He could be stubborn as a colleague (one always got the feeling that if you disagreed with Jim, it was because you didn’t understand him), but as an improviser he was quite flexible. His rules for musical interaction were simple: don’t try to control the other, don’t be controlled by the other, but always listen carefully to the other. The goal was to contribute something to a whole that was bigger than the individual.
Our post-improv listening and conversation deflected my musical destiny permanently. There was the obvious effect of forcing me to explore the electric guitar in a new context. More profoundly, I noticed that the parts I liked the most violated all sorts of taboos that I had learned in graduate school. My favorite parts had various manifestations of awkwardness that I would have never “thought of” but that had real character, humanity, and curiosity.
Jim’s own music exemplified human oddity. It certainly did not aspire to impress or even express; it revealed. He was way out there. His Gap series of piano pieces are truly marvelous and quirky in the extreme. Thirty-minute piano pieces made from one note at a time and each note the vortex of a thousand trajectories. Or his Scruds and Snorts (I think it was called), where he had the idea to realize some of his most unsatisfactory, dysfunctional, and previously abandoned pitch charts and give musical voice to crippled logic. It was like listening to my father try to talk after his stroke.
Jim achieved notoriety early in his career as a pioneer of computer music. Any retrospective memorial to Jim’s work must mention his ground-breaking Lyric Variations for Violin and Computer Tape and his computer-generated score for the film Eakins. These are masterworks regarded by most as essential to the development of computer music.
I encountered Jim some 20 years after these works, and the Jim I knew had navigated a unique course well out of view of anything resembling the mainstream. Jim didn’t just get washed up on these exotic shores for lack of ability to navigate the waters around the mainland. He could unpack German masterpieces better than anyone. In his last year before he retired from teaching, we, his colleagues, assigned “late Beethoven” as an area of study for graduate student general exams for the express purpose of hearing Jim tell us what it all meant just one more time. He could explicate objectively verifiable facts like key structures, Schenker spans, and pitch class sets, but he was most interested in what the music was really about or, more precisely, what music might conceivably be about. I remember him being frustrated with a student’s devotion to conventional analytical tools. He said, “Beethoven wasn’t throwing his bed pan around the room because he was worried about his fuckin’ Ur Linie.” At my colleague Scott Burnham’s job interview some 20+ years ago, Scott presented work from his dissertation and quoted a metaphor from A.B. Marx. Marx had described a passage from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony saying it was like “Napoleon mounting his trusty steed.” Snickering filled the room until Jim stood in defense of both Marx and Burnham by pointing out the pathetic irony that we are more comfortable limiting the scope of Beethoven’s music to tonics and dominants rather than with allowing this music any aspirations toward illuminating the recesses of the human psyche.
Dozens of times I heard him challenge someone who described something as “making sense,” by asking them what kind of sense. His Beethoven, especially his beloved late Beethoven, was far removed from the normative example of common practice tonality that I was taught. It was, like Jim’s own late music, radical and unsettling.
Jim was a high-octane intellectual, one of the few people in the world with a brain big enough to transcend the intellect. He brought maximum intensity to everything he did, whether it was working out a pitch chart, watching a ball game, or eating a ham sandwich. He chose to make music a rare and deep experience and not just Beethoven. He would choke up when Charlie Rich sang “When we get Behind Closed Doors” or when his favorite Irish tenor would sing “Danny Boy.” He binged on Shostakovich long before that was fashionable. He once said that “Rachmaninoff is what all music should be.”
Long after he was no longer a player in the contemporary music world he continued to listen, compose, and write with relentless integrity and passion, and his work had an enormous impact on those who were lucky enough to engage it. The single most enduring impact that Jim made on me was to embrace composition as a process of discovery rather than an explanation. He composed to explore what music might be capable of saying, not to tell an audience what he knew.
Thank you all for your lovely contributions to this blog. The following are my remarks from the memorial on July 14.
Good afternoon and, again, thank you all for being here. I am Tom Randall, Jim’s son, and I am a professional musician and music educator. I consider myself very lucky to be my father’s son; his intense awareness of music has certainly shaped my life, if sometimes inadvertently. Your presence here today shows me that his passion for music and for engagement has moved each of you, as well.
As a young man I found myself at loose ends for a time; college did not appeal to me, music schools and conservatories did not seem right for me, and I was uncertain how to get out of the rut Princeton had become. Visiting my parents’ house one day I heard some interesting music wafting down from Dad’s room. I probably recognized it as Indian music; the Beatles had helped me there. The sound lured me up the stairs. Holding the Nonesuch LP got me thinking that someone had been hired to go to India and record this performance. That was a job I could imagine getting deeply into, so I started reading the album liner notes. Imagine my surprise to learn that the concert had been recorded as part of the World Music program at Wesleyan University in CT. I applied in the next cycle, auditioned for Bill Barron (brother of the jazz pianist Kenny Barron) and four years later graduated with the world’s strangest undergraduate music degree. I will be forever grateful to my father’s omnivorous musical tastes for opening that door.
Many odd little reminders of my father have presented themselves to me in the last couple of weeks. For instance, I was driving on Rt. 1 not far from Princeton the day after he died, thinking of him and missing him. Scanning through the local radio stations I found nothing that would hold my interest; I suspect the problem was in me, not in the radio. Finally I settled on an intriguing piece (thank you Public Radio!), clearly a late 19th century composition. Although my musical preferences have never been Euro-centric I tried to listen to this piece as Dad would listen, hanging on to every note, breathing with the phrases, luxuriating in the dissonances and chromatic touches. I felt his presence there with me, as if we were listening together. I listened through to the end and learned it was by Debussy, no surprise. The surprise came next, when the DJ announced that we had been listening to the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Of course, it had to be.
My father was a very “present” person, capable of many moods and reactions but always 100% engaged with the issue of the moment. He was well aware that his death was approaching, and he appeared to be very much at peace with it. In his last days it seemed as if he was keeping track, checking off on a mental list the people he cared about and wanted to hear from. On the afternoon of his last day even speaking a few words was very hard for him, and more and more he was using sign language or gestures to communicate with us. At one point Ellen and I were sitting with him when he grunted something like, “It’s OK, I’m pat”. In response to Ellen’s quizzical gaze I said “It’s from a blues verse, the Crapshooter’s Blues, “tell the boys I died standing pat”. To this Dad made one of his most characteristic gestures, which many of you will recognize; a slight nod of affirmation accompanied by a crooked index finger tapping on an invisible nail, meaning “That’s it, you hit the nail on the head”. Again, Ellen gave me an “I don’t get it” look so I explained. I told her that the singer wants to be buried with a $20 gold piece, showing the world that he doesn’t owe any one anything, he could go out gambling right now if he wanted, that he’s “flush”, he’s all set. Again, the finger tapping and the nodding head. We all agreed it was a good way to be and we were happy for him.
A few hours later, after Dad had died, that moment came up and suddenly my mother said “I know! Louis Armstrong uses the line about standing pat in a version of St. James Infirmary. We listened to it recently, on a CD Beth made for us. Dad would have known that I – or we -would recognize it”. Upon hearing this, Ellen fixed me with a level stare and an outstretched index finger. She announced that I would be performing that song at this memorial. I agreed, but reminded her that the piece is a stark and deep song about loss and death. Ellen and Mom both said, “Of course it is” and here I am. I would only add that “standing pat” has a second meaning among gamblers; it indicates that the speaker is not drawing any more cards, though it may be their right to do so.
——–segue to guitar vamp and song, a mix of Louis’ and other sources——-
I went down to St. James infirmary
To see my baby there
She was stretched out on a long white table
So cold, so bleak, so bare
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Where ever she may be
She could search this whole world over
And never find a sweet man like me
When I die won’t you lay me down easy
In a box-back suit and a brand new Stetson hat
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys will know I died standing pat
“Hey Scott: Jim Randall here”
Those are the words I heard on my phone message machine whenever Jim would come calling. Jim possessed a distinctive quality of voice. There was a unique music in his speech, the music of his all consuming intelligence, the fierce attention he paid to the world of things that interested him. When he talked, it was as though he was turning that world into his own personal music. It wouldn’t be going too far to claim that this quality of voice is a clue to Jim’s ethos, because Jim stayed close to this music; he maintained an oblique relation to the world around him, which had the effect of lifting him off of background reality, making him larger than life. And yet, he was not removed. I was always amazed at the quality of his attention: when he applied that attention to you, it could be both intimidating and exalting.
One of my favorite kinds of interaction with Jim was when we would sit around with Ruth and engage in free-wheeling conversation. Those were relaxed hours, full of laughs and insights, small talk and big talk. Jim and Ruth have taught me much about any number of things, not least what a “marriage of true minds” can be. I am endlessly grateful to them both.
From Scott Burnham
From the memorial service:
Thank you everyone for coming. And thank you to all of our speakers; thank you for your wonderful stories.
Thank you to Marilyn Ham of the Music Department for efficient coordination of a lot of logistics.
Also, a big thank you to Doctor Pam Barton who arrived at 52 Gulick Road four days before my father died. She made it possible for my father to die at home in the breezeway, in his favorite pajamas, without pain, and with his wits about him.
Finally, one more “thank you:” to Scott. Scott has been a great friend to my father and my mother. He has been there through thick and thin until the end, with his reassuring laid-back manner – and a few witticisms thrown in. Thank you, Scott, for everything.
Now, I would like to say a few words about my father from my point of view.
It wasn’t always easy being Jim Randall’s daughter. If he was Saturn, his family was often orbiting on the outer ring. Sometimes, I was happy to be on that outer ring. I thought his music was weird. His intense intellectual discussions didn’t always feel enlightening to me. They made me nervous; like I was being set up and I’d say the wrong thing. I did like talking with him about people and what made them tick, though.
And I liked going with him to Stewarts Root Beer for hot dogs and onion rings, and then to the Dairy Queen for desert. And I liked it when he took me to the U.S. Open, back when it was held at Forest Hills. Actually, my father was a pretty good tennis player in his day.
It’s hard to imagine, but he also played Little League baseball. He actually bought me a glove at the sports store that used to be at the Shopping Center. Before we left, he carefully penned a “2” in front of the “5.95” on the price tag. That really flipped out my mother. He also taught me how to throw, admonishing me not to “throw like a girl.”
He loved baseball. Having grown up in Cleveland during the heyday of the Indians, he was an ardent Yankee-hater. In 1993, my father bought season tickets to the Phillies and he finally made it to the World Series; only to watch “The Wild Thing,” Mitch Williams, give it up to Joe Carter of Toronto in the 9th inning of the 6th game. But my father forgave him. He even sent Mitch a letter telling him how much he loved that series and thanked him for a great season. He was a softie at heart.
And then there were the “other” sports. My father went through a Skeeball phase. It was fantastic! We’d drive to Asbury Park and my father would feed us endless quarters – or maybe it was dimes back them—and we would play for hours. My dad was on a mission to conquer the Skeeball circuit. There was also miniature golf. We drove out to Pennington almost every night during the miniature-golf season. And actually, we did become champions. I have a trophy somewhere to prove it.
About seven years ago, my father decided to get back in shape, or, as he put it, to become “a hunk.” At least three times a week, he went to the gym to see Toni, his personal trainer. Toni’s good humor and attention made him feel like a VIP at the New York Sports Club; which, in his opinion, was only right.
Seriously, I think it was only late in his life that my father became comfortable with the “father” thing. I think it happened around the time that he became enamored with being “Pop-Pop.” My kids are his oldest grandchildren, and they lived here, so they were the recipients of a full-court press. At first they were skeptical, but they grew to love the one-on-one four-hour lunches at Whole Earth and the Sahara. I think my father had mellowed. In his last years, he even read Faulkner out loud to my mother after dinner.
About a week before he died, my father explained his philosophy of life. It went something like this:
“First, I think about what is most important to me. I ask myself ‘what do I believe; what do I feel strongly about?’ I weave these ideas together, think about the implications, and I arrive at a well-thought out set of principles that guide me; that I will adhere to above all else.” And then he looked at me with a glint in his eye, and he said, “And then, I cave.” In the end, I think he got it right.
Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield (Maya Angelou)
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
July 22, 2014
Jim in all he did was much aware of “you”, whether you were the piece that he was working on or his collaborator in making music in his basement or the reader of one of his published texts, whether you were family or friend or student, his cherished dog or Jeoffrey the cat or the “confident fawn” in his back yard, or indeed the mayor of Princeton Township.
When Jim composed, his piece itself became a kind of intimate other. As he once wrote, “I caress my song, surely; but this song caresses me back…” Together he and his piece created a soundspace, then filled it with striking and beautiful sounds. When was it over? “I’ll know what I want when my piece is done with me.”
In his writings Jim liked to address or confront you directly (“Let us explore for a moment…”), often in the very title: “provoked your majesty,” “Are You Serious?,”’it’s all yours,’” or, famously, “Compose Yourself.” He was much concerned with aboutness–that is, what does being “about” something entail? When considering descriptions of music or assertions about it, he probed and probed. In an analysis seminar in 1974, shortly after “Compose Yourself,” in approaching Haydn’s quartet Op. 76, No. 1, he asked: “What is the first thing you hear?” Someone ventured that it was a G major chord, a tonic triad. Jim, who once upon a time had defined a triad as a “maximal subcollection of non-adjacent members within an ordered interval-7-chain in normal form” and so on, was no longer countenancing any theory-talk. “What is a chord? What is a triad? What does tonic mean? What is G major? For that matter, what is G? A tone? A note? What is a tone? What is a note? Do any of these terms really capture what we’re hearing? Hey, help me out here.” We listened repeatedly to the beginning of the piece, seeking new ways to describe it, then shelving each successive attempt, until after a period of time we experienced the satori of hearing it unmediated by terminology or concepts. That was the starting point of our traversal of the rest of the quartet–a journey unlike any we had made before.
Equally memorable, in another session, was Jim’s solicitation from us of a moment-by-moment account of the opening phrase of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10, No. 3, an account collectively arrived at, the language of which was confined to such primitives as “first,” “thing you hear,” “moves down / up,” “next,” “lower than / higher than,” “distance,” “greater than / less than / equal to,” etc. We listened repeatedly, refining our account. Then, having finished it, we let it go. Once again, we arrived at a hearing of the phrase unmediated by verbal constructs.
That same year I gave some presentations In Woolworth on microtonal systems, in one of which I dealt with periodicities of intervals in various systems. Jim spoke up: “ Hey, Carlton, what does all of this add up to? Does it just spell ‘Jello’?” At my next presentation, however, he showed up with an elegant series of pitch structures he had worked out based on the periodicities of certain intervals in the 7-tone equal-tempered system (or alternatively the white-key collection on the piano). That series I dubbed “Randall’s series” and later used as the basis for a piece of electronic music, “Variation on a thing by JKR.”
I composed another piece for Jim, on the occasion of his 62d birthday, entitled “Gahu on ‘J, K, R’.” It is in the Gahu rhythmic style of Ghana and is for a speaking chorus improvising on nothing but the phonemes in Jim’s initials, with a West African percussion ensemble of signature sticks, bell, axatse, gongkagui, and finger rings, directed by a master drummer.
Jim had the idea of trading places with me in teaching, which we did In 1981 under a Mellon Faculty Exchange Program. I came to Princeton that year and he to Colorado College, occupying my studio. His impact was predictably stimulating if occasionally destabilizing, involving among other things his encouragement of informal music-making by students not only in the classroom but in a variety of locations around the campus. When I returned to my office I found an object that had not been there before I left: a kazoo.
Jim had a physically imposing presence and yet could be light on his feet, whether on the slow-pitch softball field or sometimes–when he took to venues other than his basement–in the act of improvising. His notions evolved to the point where movement per se, both his and yours, became a part of what he saw as a natural improvisational vocabulary.
I heard that Jim liked to brag about having once gone to the gym for 143 consecutive days. As someone who does gym workouts myself at the rate of a mere two or three per week, I can appreciate the prodigious determination such a feat would have required. Yet I’m not surprised to learn of this, as I remember how single-minded he could be once he had made up his mind to do something. I remember him telling me about a checkup he had with his doctor and being warned that his cigar smoking had induced a precancerous lesion in his mouth, at which point he announced, “Doc, you are now looking at an ex-smoker.” Or, upon having decided that six (not twelve) was his number as a composer, his showing me a fat note-book in which he had painstakingly written out by hand every single partition of every one of the thirty-five hexachords, plus all kinds of other lists, including every subset of these and relations among the subsets of these, etc. Or his reading every novel of Henry James. Or his listening to every Shostakovich recording. I sat in on his seminar on Shostakovich, the “text” for which was a large set of taped excerpts, meticulously chosen and painstakingly dubbed in his basement, then duplicated for each member of the class, each set tidily enclosed in a box.
Thank you, Jim, for everything.