[Ed Note: For many years, NewMusicBox has published memorial essays honoring significant people in our field, written by people who had an important connection to that person, either as a student, a long-term collaborator, or—in a few cases—as a member of that person’s family. Reaching out to those authors has long been one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of my work here, but I realize it pales compared to what those authors experience while writing these essays. In fact, many of the memorial essay writers have told me this. But now, I feel the weight of this first hand in trying to shape my thoughts about composer and bon vivant Randy Nordschow, who was a key member of NewMusicBox’s editorial team from 2003 to 2008. It was with shock and great sadness that we learned of his passing on February 15, 2019, after a brief illness. A memorial event in Brooklyn is being planned for the fall.]
I still remember the first time I met Randy, which was the day that he interviewed for the position of production coordinator at NewMusicBox. From the moment he started talking to NewMusicBox’s then associate editor Amanda MacBlane and I, more a cantankerous conversation we would have with someone in our new music community than a job interview, she and I instantly knew that he was the right fit for our team. Soon after Randy was hired and started working alongside us, he seemed to disagree with just about everything I said or wrote. But that only convinced me further that he was the perfect fit for NewMusicBox because our goal has always been to embrace all perspectives and our challenging of each other on every possible approach—whether aesthetic, journalistic, or organizational—made NewMusicBox even stronger.
Though my primary connection to him was as a co-worker for this very publication, since that is the prism through which I got to know him, he was also a treasured compositional colleague and eventually became a friend. So before describing some of my own personal encounters with him, I’d like to ruminate on Randy the composer.
Born in Los Angeles on December 28, 1969, Randy was literally a child of 1960s California, even if he actually lived for only four days during that decade. Although he would be horrified that I am recounting his academic pedigree, Randy’s years at Mills College (where he received a master’s in music composition) as well as his private composition studies with Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros clearly led him down the path of maverick American experimentalism. But his undergraduate degree, from the Berklee College of Music, was in film scoring and Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture. The fact that his two biggest heroes were John Cage and Andy Warhol should give you some idea of his aesthetic orientation, though once again Randy—ever the iconoclast—would be mortified at my claim that he had heroes, even though he talked about both Cage and Warhol all the time, perhaps more than any other artistic figures, except perhaps for Peaches! Before moving to New York City and shortly thereafter joining the NewMusicBox editorial team, Randy was a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area new music scene, where performers of his music included Fred Frith, John Shiurba, and Matt Ingalls. Although the most dedicated performer of his music was Randy himself, which he did with élan on acoustic and electric guitars, piano, toy piano, trumpet, and a wide range of percussion, as well as amplified cellular phone, integrated email messaging and voice mail system, computer voice synthesis software, CD player, live digital and analog effects processing, space heaters, and beer!
Randy had made some significant inroads into the international new music scene as well, having works of his performed at the 2000 Gaudeamus Music Week in the Netherlands and the 2001 Ostrava New Music Days in the Czech Republic. One of his most provocatively named compositions, This May Not Be Music, which is oddly one of his most conventionally scored works (it’s a quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, albeit with an added CD of pre-recorded sounds), received its world premiere in London in 2001.
Clever, often snarky, titles are a hallmark of many of Nordschow’s compositions; among his most memorable are John Cage Memorial Barbecue, an electric guitar quintet from 2000, or You Don’t Love Me, You Just Love My Doggie-Style, a transdisciplinary work from that same year. But sometimes his titles are a pathway into understanding his compositional intent (something which Randy who eschewed all analysis and advocated for “just letting the music wash over you” instead, would probably have denied). For Randy’s 1998 Drawing A Line As Far As I Can Reach, a not so subtle reference to La Monte Young’s Fluxus-era conceptual pieces, a wind player is instructed to sustain extremely high tones and extremely low tones in alternation while consuming as much beer as possible. As per his performance note, “Once the performer has reached their limit, the empty beer bottles are arranged into a straight line and candles are inserted. After lighting the candles, the performer attempts to extinguish the flames by blowing through their instrument. The piece ends after this goal is accomplished, or the performer gives up from exhaustion.”
A conceptual process is also at the core of Randy’s most widely performed piece, Detail of Beethoven’s Hair, which exists in two versions—the original for piano and percussion duo that was commissioned by Essential Music and premiered at the 2002 MATA Festival and the dazzling virtuoso solo piano showcase that was recorded by Jenny Lin.
Although this music sounds nothing like Ludwig van, it is derived from mapping actual strands of Beethoven’s hair (from a famous portrait) onto a musical staff and playing the result.
If you haven’t already figured this out from what I wrote above, Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time. But it was also extremely frustrating, because he would inevitably do a volte-face at some point and say stuff like, “It’s a waste of time to pay attention to music.” Randy once famous bragged that he watched TV or listened to other music on the radio while he wrote out his own pieces. He often claimed he was more interested in the way his scores looked than in how they actually sounded when played by other people. In one of the most perplexing exchanges I ever had with him, he claimed he could not make additional copies of one of his scores because he could not obtain the same size paper he wrote the original manuscript on. When I suggested making it fit onto a more standard paper size by reducing it and adding extra margin space, he balked and claimed it would no longer be the same piece. Despite Randy’s fixation with pop culture, he claimed he was not at all interested in writing music for audiences and that his music was written only for performers. Randy was a heap of contradictions. He loved to say that he hated copyright, yet today I’m looking at a score of his composition combinations for two cellos, singing bowls, and piano and see “© copyright 1996” printed clearly on the cover.
Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up, take an opinion that was the exact opposite of everyone else in the room and see how long he could keep the fight going. From the sparks that flew during some of these debates, great ideas emerged for NewMusicBox and, I imagine, that same contrarian spirit inspired much of his music.
Yet, it wasn’t all disagreement. Randy was a joy to hang out with. He made the strongest margaritas I ever had in my life, although his favorite Mexican restaurant had some of the weakest I’d ever ordered. He liked the place because it was dirt cheap and so he carried a flask of tequila in his signature scuffed yellow messenger bag to remedy the situation for himself—and, if you were lucky, his friends.
I’ve held on to an email he wrote me before I took a trip to San Francisco about 15 years ago. Here’s an excerpt from that:
Best crazy ass bartender who will slowly and obsessively create old school cocktails tailored to your individual tastes (read good sazeracs, mint juleps, etc. be sure to ask her if she has any cucumber infused vodka, definitely ask her to concoct you something, anything!):
The Orbit Room
1900 Market St (at Laguna)
Go in the afternoon, or before 8pm when Alberta is there (dark hair, retro glasses, and stains allover her shirt from shaking mean cocktails)
And for the best sushi in the world (and cheap!). Go to Sushi Zone on Peal St—a small one block street between Market, Deboce, Valencia, and Guerrero (I used to leave on Peal and Pink, named after prostitutes!)
venues of interest:
three feet off the ground (probably dead, but check with gregory cowly’s organization :test: www.testsite.org to see where it has been reborn)
No one can tell the story of Randy better than Randy himself, so I’ll conclude this with some of my favorite quotes from the hundreds of essays he wrote while he was part of NewMusicBox. Follow the links and read them in their entirety. I’m so honored and pleased that we have such an important part of him to share here with people for as long as we exist. Life is precious and fragile and fleeting. My heart goes out to Randy’s husband Colin Conroy, all his friends on both coasts and around the world, and the numerous musicians and fellow travelers he touched with his ostentatiousness and wit.
SOME RANDY NORDSCHOW QUOTES
“I decided to give the general public yet another chance to love me.”
“Like many so-called young composers (ugh, don’t even get me started), I’m not into labeling and pigeonholing…”
“Like other artists, composers are typically a little more self-centered than, say, Montessori schoolteachers.”
“It’s not just my inner child that enjoys annoying people; it’s been my artistic modus operandi for decades. … My approach to composing music is, more than likely, grossly misguided.
The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something ‘meant’ by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that. For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.”
“I’ve attended performances where crucial cues were missed, mistakes were made, etc., and I’m usually fine with it, as long as the musicians save face and pretend that the piece is supposed to sound exactly how they’re performing it at that moment. Besides, I’m the only person in the audience with the ability to recognize if my train wreck is sounding too much like a car accident instead.”
“I’ve already entered the eclipsed territory where composers over 35 years of age go to hibernate for a few decades. The classical music machine is predominately interested in the youngins and the octogenarians, which affords us in the middle some time to hone our craft or experiment out of the spotlight, or maybe come to our senses and take the LSAT.”
“[C]omposers who close themselves off from a particular sonic possibility—especially a ‘new’ or ‘popular’ one—are doing themselves and their music a disservice.”
“I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on.”