Recollections: The Washington, D.C. Years


Christopher Flint

I remember the first composition of Randy’s that I ever heard. It was an incredibly intricate piece written for piano. It was a work that was complex not only in its melodic and rhythmic structure, but in its execution as well.

To begin with, it took about an hour to get this unsuspecting piano ready for the performance. First, all the panels were removed and then waxed paper was inserted between the damper pedals and then I think thumbtacks were inserted into some of the felts and the hammers, and all sorts of machinations went on. Finally Randy would address the piano. I use this term because it wasn’t really a piece that could be played in the conventional sense. I remember him at the keyboard and also having to go underneath and go on top and keep playing with the mechanics as he played the piece.

Once it began it was almost a transforming experience. Your eyes told you that you were seeing a piano, but your ears were experiencing something else entirely. A wave of strange and exotic sounds came rushing out of this newly invented instrument. And the sonorities and rhythms were unlike anything I had ever heard. For people accustomed to contemporary music, the idea of writing a piece for prepared piano might not seem all that radical. What is remarkable is that Randy imagined composed, and performed this piece over 20 years ago while we were in the 5th grade at Green Acres School.

Of course, within a week Randy was moving on to his next composition, probably having all but forgotten this particular work, but believe me, it’s an experience that poor piano will never forget.

I think many of us who knew Randy well can empathize with that piano. When Randy’s creativity was focused, which was most of the time, he could draw you into almost anything he was working on. And you could be pretty sure about two things — you would be stretched, prodded, changed, and worn out by the experience, but you would not soon forget it.

Bill Lundberg

I have not spoken to you in more than a decade, yet I still feel a kinship, a closeness that has not faded over the years. It is sad that only in your death do I reflect upon your vitality; only in your absence do I now think about your tremendous creative presence. In high school it was clear that your tremendous talent would bring you happiness, as it did when you would conspire to sing “disonance” in an acoustically resonant stairwell. I will miss you.

Andrew Szanton

Saying Farewell to a Lover of Sound

Randy Hostetler died on February lst, alone in Los Angeles, a victim of an acute viral infection, possibly Addison’s Disease. His death was a cold shock to his many friends. Knowing Randy was a privilege, trying to hook up with him could be frustrating, and saying goodbye to him is impossible.

When we met as Sidwell sophomores in 1978, I loved words and he loved music, but I loved words bashfully, like a child, and Randy loved music as a serious adult musician. Over the next 18 years, he profoundly changed the way I regard music, and his artistic example encouraged me to make writing my career.

Randy was a musical prodigy who never acted the part. He regarded pretension with amused contempt. He preferred to just grab your elbow and play you a song — choral music, John Cage, barbershop, madrigal, jazz fusion, funk — his whole scrawny body rocking, his right foot tapping, his face contorted with pleasure. Though he could be highly articulate, music he liked he simply called “pretty cool,” and music he loved “very cool.”

As Sidwell juniors, Randy and I and two seniors formed a barbershop quartet. Randy was our music director. He discovered The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) — an acronym Randy pronounced in mock-hushed tones, like a national security secret. He brought me to several SPEBSQSA meetings, where SPEBSQSA gentlemen in polyester and bow ties closed each meeting with a rousing rendition of their theme song: “Keep America sing-ing, all day long. Let goodwill come a-wing-ing…. on a… song!!!” I found all this painfully cornball. Randy loved it.

He also loved Bob Dylan’s music. In a letter, he described listening to “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. His grammar sags, the words burst out: “… slightly envious but more just completely on the side of every song, moved, wanting to embody them, live them, convey this living to everyone I can, especially people I’m close to… ”

Slowly, I realized that Randy loved something deeper than music. He loved sound, or as he called it, “ambient sound.” Wherever he went, he felt encircled, instructed, comforted by sound. I moved out to San Francisco, became a writer, married. Randy visited my wife and me, and congratulated us on the high-pitched squeal of the brakes on the San Francisco subway. Now, whenever I hear ambient sounds — footfall, subway brakes, a chirping fax machine — I think of Randy and smile, and try to enjoy them.

Just after the birth of my son, I had a long, deep talk with Randy which I will always remember. But we bungled our final chance. Randy was driving up to Vermont to see his composer/improvisor mentor Malcolm Goldstein, but couldn’t say if he would stop to see me in Boston on the way. I thought sour thoughts about improvisation, Randy never turned up, and one bright morning a few months later I got a phone call that he was dead.

All of the music Randy loves is still alive. We can commune with him by listening to his collage of voices, “Happily Ever After” -or to Duke Ellington’s “Take the “A Train,” or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or Jonathan Richman’s “Jonathan Sings” — or to “Get the Funk out Ma Face” by the Brothers Johnson.

Randy’s memorial service was on February 19th, at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, in Bethesda. The large church was packed. A hastily assembled chorus of musical colleagues sang “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred,” a sprightly piece Randy had composed the year I met him. Eric Hostetler read a lovely piece of zen philosophy. Friends gave eulogies, and shared memories. The service ended with a recording of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”

If held been at the service, Randy would have stood in the back, shuffling his feet during the eulogies, listening less to the words than to the musical sounds of dress shoes striking a church floor, and stifled coughs rising from the balcony.

Listening to the eulogies, I learned new things about my old friend. Still shocked at his passing, I also felt deep gratitude for all that he had done in 32 years. I fought back tears for as long as I could, then wept.

(Reprinted from The Sidwell Friends Alumni Magazine, Fall 1996)