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Randall Butler


The Ludmila S. and Carl B. Hess Chair


Bassist Randall Butler joined the New York Philharmonic in 1976. Throughout his musical career, Butler has also pursued the study of aesthetics and other philosophical disciplines. Currently he is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Columbia University working on a dissertation dealing with the Theory of Human Action. Butler had previously been accepted by Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy as an M.A. candidate — one of only four people in the department’s history to enter without an undergraduate degree of any kind. He has also studied Buddhist meditation at the Insight Meditation Society, and in addition to membership in that organization, he is active in the American Society for Aesthetics and the American Philosophical Association.

In addition to his studies, Butler spends his free time reading poetry, writing, and listening to music, especially opera. His wife, Deborah Martinsen, recently finished a book on Dostoevsky’s liars and is currently assistant to the director of the core cirriculum at Columbia College. They have a son, Rory.

My most important musical influences have been my Philharmonic colleagues. Their knowledge continually informs me; their devotion inspires me.

Interview with Randall Butler

THE FACTS: Born in Mansfield, Ohio. Studied bass privately with David Perlman, principal bass of The Cleveland Orchestra. Attended the Tanglewood Music Festival; M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in Philosophy, Columbia University. At the Philharmonic: Hired by Pierre Boulez in 1976.

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN STUDYING AN INSTRUMENT? I began the violin at 9 and the bass at 12. By age 14, I was spending most of my time practicing the bass or studying mathematics. At 18, I chose music.

WHO HAVE BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT MUSICAL INFLUENCES? My Philharmonic colleagues. Their knowledge continually informs me; their devotion inspires me. Likewise, our various Music Directors, particularly Lorin Maazel.

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS WITH THE ORCHESTRA: Maazel’s first appearance with us in 23 years, in November 2000. In both his Ring Without Words and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, he conveyed an effortless and flawless grasp of the music’s internal logic, its drama, its passion.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GET ADVANCED DEGREES IN PHILOSOPHY? I’ve always loved philosophy — its methods as well as its materials. At 14, I read Spinoza’s Ethics; at 16, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I got the degrees because it was fun. I’m thrilled to participate in and contribute to philosophy’s centuries-long dialogues.

WHAT WOULD YOU BE IF NOT A MUSICIAN? A writer. Though not a professional, I write philosophical essays, poetry, and fiction. I plan, however, to publish in philosophy.

HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR A CONCERT? Usually, I practice with my bass. But for especially difficult concerts, I often practice mentally, without my bass — something I learned in studying meditation with Thai, Burmese, and American masters.

HOW DOES YOUR PHILOSOPHICAL EDUCATION INFLUENCE YOUR MUSIC-MAKING? I see music in its philosophical context. Take Robert Schumann, for instance; philosophers of his time thought people were alienated from nature, society, and themselves. They thought art could remedy this. Schumann’s music, surely, offers unity with nature, society, and one’s inmost self.

WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO NOW? John Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas performed by The Tallis Scholars.

ARE THERE MUSICIANS IN YOUR FAMILY? Only my mother, who played some piano and trumpet in high school, and sang for years in a church choir. My wife, Deborah Martinsen, is an associate dean at Columbia University. My son, Rory, 22, attends Columbia College and is studying math and physics. His hobby is writing and recording hip-hop tracks.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO OUTSIDE OF WORK? Reading, particularly the latest Anglo-American philosophy, contemporary poetry, and American fiction. I also enjoy museums, films, playing chess with my son, physical exercise, and practicing Buddhist meditation.

As of January 2013

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