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Honing skills at 98: A life in music

Randolph Hokanson retired from the UW a generation ago. He's been growing ever since.
Randolph Hokanson

Randolph Hokanson Photo: Allyce Andrew

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

Yet underneath the maelstrom, the things that really matter have managed somehow to endure.

“I find now that it needs only a few of the right words to change an attitude or instill a belief — but it has taken a lifetime of engagement with the world to arrive at that simplicity.”

So writes Hokanson in his memoir, "With Head to the Music Bent," which covers the highlights of a richly lived and satisfying life while at the same time distilling his philosophy of teaching and offering a treasury of insights into the composers who have mattered most to him (above all, Bach and Beethoven).

It almost seems unfair that such a talented musician could write so elegantly as well. With just a few strokes, Hokanson peoples his narrative with the vivid personalities with whom his life has intersected.

Several of these, naturally, are musical legends, like the world-renowned British pianist Myra Hess, one of his most important mentors. There’s a chance meeting with the widow of the physicist Ernest Rutherford. Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw mill about at a party he’s invited to.  

A generation has already passed since Hokanson retired in 1984 from a 35-year career on the University of Washington’s music faculty. But he’s kept going since then.

Hokanson had started out being groomed as a concert pianist, and he continued his performance career while teaching at UW, estimating that he must have taken part in hundreds of concerts during those years. And in his 70s and 80s, Hokanson points out, the frequency of his public performances actually increased, since his time was no longer divided with teaching obligations.

And now more than ever before, Hokanson revels in having the time to compose — an aspect of his musical ambition since his youth, though for decades he could only spare time to jot down ideas to be worked out in the future.

“I started learning to compose when one of my teachers assigned me to write a serenade for tenor and piano to the words of the poet Andrew Marvell,” Hokanson tells me as we sip coffee in the light-filled penthouse apartment where he lives in Queen Anne, commanding glorious views of Mount Rainier and the city.

He heads to the concert grand that somehow has been squeezed into the room, which begins to thrum and vibrate with flowing figurations, an arresting harmonic sequence. Hokanson mentions that he’s currently preoccupied with setting the poetry of Tennyson, Robert Bridges and Emily Dickinson as a song cycle.

His anecdote of the Marvell song from long ago ends with a point about learning not to try to cram too much novelty in, but rather to give his material space to have its effect. It’s as if he’s simply spliced this moment together with what he’s up to today, now that he has time to apply his long-dead teacher’s insights. “In the last six or seven years, my composition has improved enormously.”

The power of Hokanson’s memory is astonishing — as is his capacity to recreate in conversation what it is he’s remembering so vividly. He never had the diary-keeping habit and wrote “With Head to Music Bent” relying solely on the power of association from related memories.

Along with artistic milestones — his New York debut at Town Hall, his first performance at the beginning of his UW career in “old” Meany Hall playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto — Hokanson portrays his misadventures on the road as a “Columbia Concerts” artist with sly humor.


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