A master in music

Teacher, composer and critic, Randall Giles' knowledge covered Western classical, Jazz, Church music to Tamil folk and keerthanas.

September 09, 2010 07:42 pm | Updated 08:14 pm IST

A.R. Rahman and Randall Giles. File Photo: R. Ravindran

A.R. Rahman and Randall Giles. File Photo: R. Ravindran

Randall Douglas Giles was born in Oregon, U.S.A. on July 22, 1950. His passing away on August 27, after a brief illness, has left his family and many friends disconsolate. It has also created a void in the world of church music, especially in South Asia.

He studied music in the U.S. and U.K., obtaining his Ph.D. in the field at the University of California, San Diego. He taught music at the Diocese of Madras, Church of South India and the Gurukul Theological College, Chennai, the United Theological College, Bangalore, the Syrian Orthodox Seminary, Nagpur, and at several colleges in the U.S.

His areas of special interest were History of Western Church Music, Music of West Africa, South Asia, and North America, and more importantly, Composition. He wrote several compositions when commissioned and published numerous choral works, which brought him many honours and awards.

He was composer and artist-in-residence in India, England and the U.S., and was also a Consultant in Curriculum, Instructor, Conductor and Head of the Department of Music at several institutions.

His friend Barney Blalock says," His compositions are quite modern and yet rooted in the ancient traditions of both Gregorian and Byzantine chant. Reviewers commenting on performances of his work repeatedly use the words 'ethereal', 'haunting', and 'beautiful' ".

Randy, as he was commonly known, conducted seminars in music education not only in India but also in the Philippines, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Melanesia in the Solomon Islands and Thailand. He helped record Anglican music in India and Melanesia, and saw to the restoration of many pipe-organs in disrepair in Chennai and Bangalore.

He also wrote and recorded about 90 songs for the use of children during the Vacation Bible Schools in the CSI Diocese. If some churches in the villages of Tamil Nadu now use folk music, it is due to his persistent effort. He encouraged translations of church music in Tamil and Malayalam into English to make them widely known outside India.

At his invitation, Dr Richard Marlow, Fellow of the Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted workshops in singing and gave organ recitals in Chennai and Bangalore.

J.Jeyaraj, a friend, remembers him for his staunch faith, simple lifestyle and his respect for the poor. Former colleague, Rev. Eileen Thompson says, "To visit his home was to enter a treasure house which reflected his gifts in art and design as much as literature and the music which made up a lot of who he was. His contribution to students' appreciation of liturgy has enriched the worship of life of many denominations in India, as did his tireless enthusiasm for enabling people to think musically and integrate that thinking into their practice as pastors, choir leaders or simply people wanting to worship God. It was a pity he did not find the recognition he deserved from those for whom he worked officially. But his contribution is valued by all who came into contact with him…” “Randy liked many Tamil keerthanais; he was very friendly, very generous and welcoming”, recollects John Barathi, a colleague. Joel Suganth, a teacher of arts, remarks that no one, who met Randy once, was likely to forget him.

For Randy's housekeeper, Rahmat, and driver, Raja, he was a “gentleman.” He saw to all their needs and always treated them like members of his family.

Rev. Father Thomas Verghese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Kottayam, Kerala, fondly remembers Randy celebrating Onam with the family. It was his humanity and knowledge of music that stand out for Madhav Chari, accomplished exponent of and authority on Jazz. He recalls the times when he and some friends would meet at Randy's home. “Our conversation ran the gamut from music theory and performance to politics (Indian, local, international and American). It was not only a music-mind, but an extremely developed intellect at work on multiple levels.”

Andrew Bhagyanathan, Director of Music, St Andrew's Church, Bangalore, cherishes his regular visits to Randy's, where Randy would play and sing his latest composition and lend him some organ music.

Leader of the Octet Cantabile and Conductor of the Madras Musical Association, Augustine Paul, acknowledges Randy's unique impact on his life: "Randy Giles was a great musician with a wide knowledge of various systems of music including Indian classical music. Frankly, more musicians and music-lovers than in the Chennai Diocese that brought him in, benefited during his tenure here. I am one of them.

Always eager to explore any new form of musical expression, be it folk or 'koothu', he took the trouble to document many such art forms across the world. His amazing collection of music, both in sheet and book forms, was so well organised that, on request, he could pull out the required material in a minute. Randy, cheerfully and spontaneously, assisted anyone who sought his help in music.

His candid criticism was sometimes not well received by leaders in the church and outside it. He could assess correctly the status and functioning of a church, a choir or an organisation. I had the pleasure of learning a lot from him and the musicians he brought in from abroad. I had the privilege of working with him on many projects.”

Randy was disciplined, transparent in his dealings and had a keen sense of humour. Affectionate and generous, he was confident of his mastery in music.

The Hindu regularly requested him to review performances of Western music.

He was happy to share his vast knowledge, including his prized book or CD, with any one who cared. This perfectionist's criticism was constructive and not meant to hurt. Once, he noticed a couple of violinists, who had not attended any rehearsals, setting up their music just before a performance he was conducting; promptly, but politely, he asked them to leave.

A conductor in his own right, Randy would happily sing under others He enjoyed singing and playing the violin too.

I quote from his end-of-term-report:

"My hope has been that I have provided a heightened awareness of the importance of the arts in Christian life in India, the place of music in the service of the church, and a campaign for excellence in the arts in the life of the wider community especially in South India."

For those who wondered at his decision to make India his home, here's what he said,: "The major factor in my growth has been prayer… and a deeper understanding of what prayer is, which I could not have gained anywhere else but by being here in India and participating in the spiritual life of this place… To the many friends and family alike in the U.S.A., the U.K. and here in India, through their prayer, I owe every good thing that has come from my service here".

Just thisspeaks volumes for the kind of person that Randall Giles was.

(The writer is a published author and Conductor of the Handel Manuel Chorus.)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.