Remembering composer Lee Hyla

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Lee Hyla
  • Katherine Desjardins
  • Lee Hyla
On Saturday morning my Facebook feed began filling with posts expressing shock and grief at the passing of Lee Hyla, a brilliant composer and a professor at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music since 2007. I was a huge fan of his music, and I honored his album My Life on the Plains (Tzadik) in last year's Best of Chicago issue. But I never met Lee and didn't know too much about him, aside from the fact that he came to Northwestern from the New England Conservatory of Music. I mentioned his passing—he died from complications of pneumonia at the age of 61—on Monday in a Did You Read? item, but I didn't feel qualified to write a fitting obituary, and figured the mainstream press would do so (John von Rhein's obit appears in today's Tribune, and the NEC put out a lovely piece a few days ago). Still, over the last few days, reading comments and remembrances by many of his current and former students, I was consistently moved by the depth of feeling, admiration, and gratitude people shared for Hyla. The first tribute I saw was by Chicago composer Liza White, and it hit me hard.

That was the beauty of Lee's teaching. Lee let you do things. When I first started working with him, that was what I needed the most. Not to be reminded constantly about the historical precedent for what I was writing (although he was amazing for that too - he was spot-on about Beethoven, Feldman, and Stravinsky, and watching him explain the chordal spacing in Symphonies of Wind Instruments while rocking and swaying excitedly taught me that score analysis could be visceral and fun), and not to be told what you could and couldn't do, but to just write what you needed to write. He was candid about the results, with no hesitation to say "that's pretty square" or "that's not your best", but he let me compose. He also helped me to chill out, both personally and in my approach to composition. And his musical outlook, of course, wasn't limited to Beethoven and Stravinsky. I remember the skepticism in my reaction when he told me to go listen to someone called Captain Beefheart, and to the titles of the Zappa albums he was suggesting. (He was right, though, obviously.) For his part, he let me bring in current pop and hip hop recordings, and we picked them apart together. (His reaction to "Move Bitch" by Ludacris: hysterical laughter and "there's a harp in there!") That first year of my masters degree was when I developed the courage to try a lot of the tactics that are prominent in my work now. There's no way I'd have been able to write any of my recent music without his influence.

So rather than feebly try to share my thoughts on his passing I decided to reach out to some of Hyla's students and colleagues in the Chicago area for theirs. This post is long and unexpurgated, but the raw emotions and sweetness in what follows do a pretty great job at making clear that Hyla was a special person beyond the excellent music he wrote. No memorial has been announced yet, but there will certainly be a number of concerts honoring Hyla, and Chicago's excellent Spektral Quartet have announced that they've added a performance of Hyla's String Quartet no. 4 to the program of their concert this Saturday at the Hideout.

Ben Hjertmann, composer:

Lee Hyla was my first teacher at Northwestern. From our first lesson it was clear that he wasn't interested in empty formalities. He kept it real. He was real. Theories of music, abstraction, and discussion could only take us so far, how it sounded was the bottom line. I have fond memories of wailing in his office while Lee banged out some chords on the piano. Afterward he'd offer the simplest and most pragmatic advice like "it's not loud enough yet." Which turned out to be exactly what one needed to hear. Instead of trying to tell me how to write, we were making music together!

Lee loved his students. We could tell. I remember being surprised that he was actually interested in hearing about my job at the coffee shop, he wanted to make sure I was making enough money to get by (usually a taboo subject). He taught me how to listen to Beethoven, and Carter, and Debussy, and Captain Beefheart. He taught me how to slow down and listen again. He taught me how to pour energy into music, holding nothing back.

In his own work he channeled the raw experience of the human animal, with all its power and frailty, into expertly crafted scores. His was one of the most genuine voices in contemporary music.

Katherine Young, bassoonist and composer:

I would say one of the most striking things about Lee—as a person, a teacher, and a presence in academia—was how down-to-earth he was, how focused on people he was, and how little bullshit he put up with. He helped build a really wonderful community at NU in the composition program while he was there—a community with quite a lot of aesthetic diversity, all things considered, and filled with some really quality people.

He always wanted to talk to me about making records and getting your music out into the world, about working with performers, and all the real-deal aspects of what it means to be a composer. He was the real deal.

Nomi Epstein, composer:

Lee was an important teacher for me in my very formative years at NEC. His orchestration class really opened up the way I heard and taught me a lot about subtlety. He introduced me to the intricacies of Varèse through a very thorough analysis of Octrandre, a piece which soon became one of my favorite of all time.

As I've come to the other side of the desk, getting my bearings in academia and now teaching the same classes Lee taught me, I really admire his understated demeanor, his ability to simultaneously put students at ease while opening up a space that encouraged them to reach beyond what they believed their intellectual/musical limits were.

David Carter, composer:

He was a great teacher and an even better human being. Even with all of his success as a composer, he was extremely humble and generous with his time. He put his students ahead of himself and was supportive of our compositional efforts, coming to our concerts despite an incredibly busy schedule.

He was great in composition lessons at being able to provide helpful feedback without imposing his own ideas or trying to write your piece for you. He had a great sense for form and design, but music never became overly abstract with him—it was always rooted in real sounds and gestures, and this came through in his lessons and in his own compositions. I'll miss him greatly.

Carolyn O'Brien, composer:

Stravinsky was a hero of Lee's. In a class I had with him and Ben Hjertmann and Eliza Brown, Lee had us analyze Les Noces. It was a great class. Lee was hilariously energetic as hell. He was, for lack of a better phrase, a spazz dancer in class sometimes. He had some adorable moves when he got excited about the topic he was discussing.

On this particular day I had a lesson with Lee right after this happy class. I'd only had maybe three lessons yet and I was still getting to know him. He was quietly looking at my music, right up in there, a very close inspection with his eyeballs practically right ON the page. That vision of his, he used to laugh about that. After looking in silence at my shitty little piece for about five minutes, he looked right up at me, straight into my face and said:

"That Stravinsky he was a motherfucker, man. Right?"

"Goddamned fucking right he was, Lee."

"Fuck, man. Les Noces."

"Yup."

Then he went straight back to my music. It took all my fat and bones and muscles to stifle a huge guffaw that was brimming in my throat.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead, composer:

Lee knew me long before I knew him. He was in graduate school with my parents at SUNY Stony Brook in the late 1970's—in fact, they were all TAs at the same time and shared an office. At some point, when I must have been no more than a year old, he visited my parents and held me as a baby.

I came to know Lee initially through his music. I listened to "We Speak Etruscan" several times in high school and applied to NEC with the express intention of studying with him. I got in to NEC, and although I did not end up going there, I had a very nice conversation with Lee over the phone.

When I came to Northwestern, Lee and I became very close very quickly. We had many common interests, musical and otherwise. We both were ardent baseball fans (he famously rooted for the Red Sox while I, a native New Yorker, followed the Yankees). We shared a deep passion for free jazz. When I started reading George Lewis' history of the AACM, Lee lent me all of his Art Ensemble records, and we would spend hours talking about different recordings and about what this music meant to us. I remember him recalling with vivid detail a memory from his undergrad when he saw the Art Ensemble live: Lester Bowie sat motionless on stage in a lab coat for the first half of the set before rising ceremoniously to unleash strange and wonderful sounds from the bell of his horn. We both also loved the music of Stravinsky and Beethoven—which I explored with him in his Non-Linear Narratives class in 2010. One image that I have thought of constantly since hearing of his death is a gesture he made, his forearm crushing into the keys of an imaginary piano keyboard, to demonstrate the affinities between Arthur Schnabel's recording of the Hammerklavier sonata and the playing of Cecil Taylor (another of his heroes).

I was looking forward to spending time with Lee over the next few years. He was the chair of my doctoral committee and I was due to have a good long sit-down with him to discuss plans for my dissertation. I miss him a lot.

Jeff Kimmel, clarinetist:

I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Lee Hyla, a brilliant composer and generous teacher. Lee taught at New England Conservatory during my time there as an undergraduate from 2002-2006. Despite the fact that I wasn’t his private student or even officially in the composition department (I was a jazz major), he was incredibly giving of his time: looking at music that I had written, sharing scores I was interested in, or simply asking me how I was doing when I ran into him in the hallway.

One of the highlights of my time at NEC was his orchestration class. As a teacher, he had a gift for revealing moments that make music cohere. No matter what was under discussion, Lee was always able to offer a small critical insight that would completely upend your understanding of it, sending you thinking for days afterward. Similarly, Lee would look at a work of yours, his face hovering an inch away from the score, and within a few minutes offer a small suggestion that would dramatically improve the piece.

Many of his works feature compelling parts for the bass clarinet, the result of a decades-long friendship with the virtuosic bass clarinetist Tim Smith. These pieces, especially "We Speak Etruscan" (written for Smith and baritone saxophonist Tim Berne), are unique in that they are fiendishly difficult yet completely idiomatic to the instrument. After I expressed interest, Lee put me in touch with Tim Smith and during a visit to New York, Tim and I spent several hours working through parts of "Etruscan" and the solo work "Mythic Birds of Saugerties." Lee's works continue to challenge and inspire me as a bass clarinetist.

Noah Zeldin, composer and saxophonist:

1. Lee radically altered the way I thought about music, not only through his compositions but also through his teaching. He and I shared a love of free jazz, blues and punk, and he was instrumental in helping me implement the spirit of these forms of music into my compositions at a level of true integration and then do the reverse of that: bring my formalist tendencies in composition to my saxophone improvisations.

2. Lee was one of the most brilliant analysts of music I have ever met. I still remember his three-hour talk (without any notes) on the third movement of Beethoven's 15th string quartet in one of his seminars—one of the only life-changing moments I have experienced in the classroom setting. As jazz musicians would say, he had real chops.

3. Lee was the only person I have ever met, whose taste in music and opinion on concerts I accepted unconditionally—he was always right.

4. Lee taught me that when one is stuck, the answer is to listen more, play more, write more, think more. He was right, and being stuck in the days after his death, I'm trying my best to apply this principle.

5. Lee's quality as a human being is something I rarely see matched. His unwavering support and untiring patience, his amazing sense of humor (I especially loved his impersonations) and loyalty to his students were truly exceptional. This, of course, cannot properly express how immeasurably grateful I am for his presence in my life, as someone who truly changed me both as a musician and as a human being.

Today’s playlist:

Andrew Bird, Hands of Glory (Mom + Pop)
Gaudete Brass, Chicago Moves (Cedille)
Samo Salamon New Quartet, Kei's Secret (Splasch)
Ustad Gulam Hassan Shagan, Ali Wali: 3 Râga (Opus 111)
Benny Spellman, Fortune Teller: A Singles Collection 1960-1967 (Shout!)

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