Jim (J.K.) Randall (1929-2014)—Out of View of Anything Resembling the Mainstream

Jim’s own music exemplified human oddity. It certainly did not aspire to impress or even express; it revealed. He was way out there. But Jim didn’t just get washed up on these exotic shores for lack of ability to navigate the waters around the mainland. He chose to make music a rare and deep experience.

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Mackey and Randall

Steven Mackey and J. K. Randall

[Ed. Note: Composer James Kirtland Randall is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking computer music compositions from the 1960s. (His 1965 Mudgett-Monologues by a Mass Murderer appeared on one of the earliest commercial LPs of computer music, released on Nonesuch in 1970.) But Randall created a much wider range of music. In his later years, he was particularly devoted to group improvisation. A member of the composition faculty at Princeton University from 1957 until his retirement in 1991, he influenced generations of composers. Shortly after learning of his death on May 28, 2014, we asked one of the composers he mentored, Steven Mackey, to share his memories.—FJO]

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 prefabricated 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. And 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.

J. K. Randall, Steven Mackey, and Jim Moses seated

J. K. Randall, Steven Mackey, and Jim Moses sometime in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy Steven Mackey.)

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-plus 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.