Oberlin Blogs

For Randy

May 11, 2009

Chris Gollmar ’10

I never knew how much Randolph Coleman meant to me and how much of an impact he has made on my life until he retired.

On a hot Tuesday afternoon my first week of classes at Oberlin, I stepped foot in my first composition class as a conservatory student. At the head of the class was professor Randolph Coleman. Then he got started. His teaching was like being preached to incessantly. He preached against tonality, against iPods and cell phones, against “noodling.”

In that first module class, he subjected us young first-years to a series of grueling exercises designed to instill in us the values any self-respecting modernist composer ought to have. Write twelve tonal melodies (to get it out of your system). Write eight modal melodies (to get it out of your system). Write eight non-tonal melodies, and do it again, but don’t repeat yourself. During those first few weeks, I spent hours writing these short melodies in the practice rooms of Robertson Hall, and I remember running into my classmates in the afternoon, in the morning, or late at night putting the finishing touches on the next day’s assignment.

We were all terrified of Randy.

Still, there was something that I liked about him and his message. My second year, I took a seminar with him about experimentalism and John Cage. This was his area of expertise, it seemed. He pontificated about “existential listening,” indeterminacy, intentionality, and performance practice. As a class and an ensemble, we performed a hodge-podge of experimental pieces in the Allen Memorial Art Museum at the end of the semester.

Later, when I joined his studio for a semester, I got a more personal view of this great professor. In lessons, even before getting to the music we would mull over the title, the conception of the work, and what I wanted to create. In looking at the music, we always considered how it would be perceived and experienced by the audience. Rationalization—using mathematical procedures to compose and analyze my own music—was something to be treated with caution, as it could easily get in the way of my composition. I composed slowly, as I still do, but I was happy with my work.

Last Friday, I went to a concert honoring professor Coleman and his achievements. The production was spectacular. Not only was the world-class Contemporary Music Ensemble on board, but so were professors of dance Nusha Martynuk and Carter McAdams, the professional GroundWorks dance troupe, and many members of the theater’s technical staff. The applause afterward seemed endless, and there was a nearly instantaneous standing ovation.

And, in reflecting on the concert and my classes with Randy it dawned on me what he stood for: creativity. With so much of a conservatory education focusing on musicianship and technical skill, there is little creativity left in the curriculum, but professor Coleman was always there, pushing for more. In the program notes from last week’s concert were some of his thoughts on teaching composition:


  • Don’t get in the way. Facilitate, don’t impede.
  • Don’t control the student’s aesthetic choices. Assist in expanding their field of choices as much as possible, but their music is their responsibility and their fault.
  • While young, write profusely, early and often, and listen to everything. As you mature you will slow down and intake less.
  • Don’t fret about quality. Each composer will always do the best that they can. No one deliberately writes bad music.

Lastly, he writes that “at the outset, every musician is composer.” All of these words seem like simple advice, but they sometimes fall on deaf ears. Music pedagogy isn’t always as open and accepting as it should be, and many creative musicians and performers are turned away or turned off because of this. Randolph Coleman is a clear exception, and I am very glad to have studied with him.

More thoughts from his former students are collected at this blog.

Responses to this Entry

Oh man, great post. I took Craft of Composition with Professor Coleman last semester; it met every Tuesday and Thursday mornings and was about as jolting a wake-up as one could ask for. We, too, were probably more than a little terrified of him at first. This ebbed as the semester went on, and we spent our mornings performing original compositions, or works by Earl Brown or Stockhausen, banging on keyboards and pieces of toy percussion. He ended up as one of the faculty sponsors of my independent major, and that class will stand as one of the important events in my development as a composer and performer.

During "Bellagio," the first piece on the concert last Friday (also a premier; also my favorite work of the evening), I couldn't help but smile during the opening, with that monstrous, explosive opening chord followed by minutes of silence: what a wonderful, suitably Coleman gesture.

Posted by: Will on May 12, 2009 12:09 AM

One other important thing that you mention that I also wanted to touch on: Professor Coleman was the first person I encountered here who stressed creativity as distinct from technical skill. What makes experimental music so important is its egalitarian nature: conservatories are inherently elitist in a conceptual sense, as is the notion that achieving at a high level in music correlates to a high degree of technical skill. In many instances these are, regrettably, true statements, but they don't have to be, and he remains the only person I've met here who was willing to pursue that alternative in earnest with students.

Posted by: Will on May 12, 2009 12:16 AM

From what I hear, Craft of Composition was a great class. I hope that now someone else (and someone just as open-minded) will teach a composition class for non-majors, because there is definitely a void to fill there. For me, performers who are interested in composition are so much more fun and fulfilling to work with!

Posted by: Chris on May 12, 2009 12:24 AM

If you had me listen to a piece like Bellagio freshman year, I would have had no idea what to do, what I should be listening for, etc. Four years later, I'm so much better equipped to listen to modern music thanks to the influence of friends (like you.)

I never thought that I would learn to appreciate (understand?) silence. My mind spins when I think about how much I have learned about music in college. But it's even harder to imagine what I would be like if I didn't have that sort of accidental education.

Posted by: Melissa on May 12, 2009 1:00 AM

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