Randy Hostetler

At the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland on the morning of February 19, 1996, there was a memorial service to celebrate the life of an extra ordinary musician, Randy Hostetler, age 32.

In a short hour, his friends, younger brother, Eric, and his parents, Jim and Zona, through their pastor, conveyed the iconoclastic spirit, creativity, joy and gentleness of a musical prodigy soaring toward acoustical blends and provoking contexts. His grandmother, Kate, said of him: “he never heard noise, he only heard music.” While a friend remembered that “Randy didn’t push the envelope, he threw it away.”

What manner of person can be thus described? A young man for whom the world was the sound stage for both his conventional musical instruments and a dazzling variety of other tools -­Mennonite bells, the sound of an old Honda door opening and closing, the sounds from tapes thrown away on the highway, the rush of nature’s breeze and water, the cries of the animal kingdom, the haunting hybrids of the human voice, piano, stringed instruments, drums and ethnic strains.

He first composed at the age of eight, working off a Mozart creation. By the time he was fifteen and a student at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., he composed a choral titled “Tell Me Where is Fancy Bred?” which was performed at the Church service by alumni of the Yale a cappella vocal ensemble — “Redhot and Blue.”

Whether bringing, young, struggling musicians together in his “Living Room” every two months, or gardening and cooking with exotic herbs, practicing T’ai chi, reading Zen and Japanese poetry, composing and performing on the road, Hostetler was a whirling, eclectic, humorful, detailed, demanding work in progress -­before a sudden bacterial attack took his life.

And how his friends and collaborators responded, directly and by starting a page on the World Wide Web on the Internet to commemorate his ways with music. In a fortnight after his passing, they composed music in his memory, wrote original odes and sonnets “for Randy.” In remembering him, they played his music, notably his haunting composition “There.” They spoke of his minimal interest in money, his scratching together a small income from part-time piano teaching and piano-tuning.

They told of him teaching piano for seven years to a talented but severely autistic youngster. But it seems that above all what attracted so many artists to Randy Hostetler was that always, everywhere, he asked the impertinent questions of others and himself. He jolted them into imagination and examination.

As the hour at the Church matured, the service took on a mantle that went beyond a portrait of an artist as a young man. It became a portrayal of a struggle for contributing to an authentic American culture, of artists who created not for any commercial jackpot but for beauty and truth and the flight of Minerva’s Owl.

What a contrast to the swarming, tawdry, violent corporate commercial video and television culture which blocks their reach toward a larger audience, both participant and spectator. These young people don’t play by the rules of the lucre and its lowest common, sensual denominator supervised by the three-piece suits inside the metallic and glass skyscrapers in New York and Los Angeles.

To them and thousands more like them an act of artistic creation springs from non-monetized minds. But they live in times when censorious politicians are bent on destroying what is left of public support for the arts — already the lowest in the western world of nations.

Back to the congregation at the Church. Many sitting there were successful professionals and their families. One felt they had become more pensive as the service proceeded toward its conclusion — a tape of “What a Wonderful World” performed by Louis Armstrong — one of Randy’s favorites. Were they wistfully admiring a young man in vigorous control of his time, his work and his labor of love? For not many people can so live and the world is poorer for it.

John Adams, our second President, once said that his generation became politicians and generals so that their children could become artists and musicians. Perhaps in the present agonies of our planet Earth, the torment can be tempered by that elusive progression and those bold enough to lead it, as Randy Hostetler strove to do.

His Yale University music professor, Frederic Rzewski, said about his student: “Surely a part of our hopes for a renewal of the arts in America has vanished. We must carry on.”

Randy’s family has established a memorial fund for composers and performing artists to carry on, called appropriately, The Randy Hostetler Living Room Fund,” c/o California Community Foundation, 606 South Olive Street, Los Angeles, California, 90014 -­for anyone so moved to extend the life and horizons of their beloved son.

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