Jagged, Sustained and Honking

Basic (aural) training with Lee Hyla

You open the CD(1) and put it in the player. You go straight to track 5, We Speak Etruscan for baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, because it was that title that drew you in the first place.(2) It begins softly, the two instruments in unison, in their upper registers.(3) The expectant calm is disturbed when the bass clarinet bends its(4) note down a quarter-tone, and the result is the beautiful and disconcerting beating of “out-of-tune” playing.

After several measures of these bends, grace notes, and long flutter-tongued notes in tonally ambiguous harmonies, a lengthy passage marked “Jagged, sustained, and honking” begins. It is wild, with the instruments playing mostly in unison, fast, and in irregular rhythms.

So it goes throughout this remarkable piece by Lee Hyla, member of what is (so far) a “lost”(5) generation of American composers, born during the 1950s, raised on jazz and rock in addition to Beethoven, Stravinsky and the Darmstadt School of postwar serialism. I say “lost” because none of the composers born in the baby boom have achieved the fame or notoriety of composers of older generations like Philip Glass and Steve Reich,(6) or even of those of a younger generation, like Aaron Jay Kernis, the Bang on a Can composers, or the British composer Thomas Ades.

The reasons for this situation are complex and diverse, and I think that Hyla’s music addresses some of them directly. He describes his musical upbringing as being pretty typical of musicians (and many non-musicians) his age.(7) He began piano lessons at a very young age,(8) says that Beethoven has been his favorite composer since he was 5, played in a rock band and in jazz combos, where he was influenced by Captain Beefheart and Cecil Taylor among others, and listened to and studied the music of George Crumb and Elliott Carter. In a statement that sums up the path of many people through 20th Century concert music, Hyla says he studied the music of Schönberg and Stravinsky, but “not at the same time.” All of these influences show up in his own music, with its admixture of calm and jaggedness, freedom and formal rigor and clarity, and rhythmic suppleness and detailed notation practices.

Ted Mook writes, in the liner notes for Hyla’s new CD,(9) “acquiring a taste for a piece of music can be a highly personal experience, but it is also a social experience, shared by a composer, the performer(s) and a listener. Although it is seldom mentioned in the company of polite new-music enthusiasts, there must be a certain level of consensus among these three parties or things get all out of whack and the whole musical enterprise becomes entropic.”

I listened to the new disc with this in mind and when I talked to Hyla, I put it to him this way: Do you think the current situation regarding “classical” music in general and new music in particular is “out of whack?” What is the composer’s role in coming to the consensus? The listener’s?

Not surprisingly, the composer’s role was easiest for him to discuss. The composer always speak his or her “own truth.” Expanding on this, Hyla believes that a composer must “believe” in what he or she writes. The composer’s desk is not the place for compromise.

In contrast, “accessibility” has been the buzzword in contemporary composition for years now. Audience-centered composition rules the day. So it was interesting when Hyla said he “never thinks about the audience” while he is composing a piece, only after the piece is finished. He believes everything that can be done to help the audience “get” new pieces in unfamiliar styles should be done. He’s all in favor of pre-concert talks and verbal introductions from the stage, which are still controversial amongst traditionalists.

Most of Hyla’s music is written for specific performers, or at least with specific performers in mind. The Bass Clarinet Concerto, written for Tim Smith, a long time friend and collaborator with Hyla, shows the value of that kind of working relationship. The Concerto, and the very difficult solo part in particular, sounds freely improvised, while in fact it is rigorously structured.(10) He shared passages of the solo part of the Violin Concerto with Laura Frautschi, and their collaboration strengthened the piece in his eyes, as well as confirming the playability of the most difficult sections of the piece.

What then is the performer’s role in building the consensus that Mook speaks of? Most composers would want adequate rehearsal time so that new pieces get as accurate and as full a first hearing as possible. He referred to the recorded performance of the “incredibly difficult” Trans by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project as “unbelievably good.” I didn’t know the piece when I first heard the recording but even so the high quality and dedication of the performance is apparent. This is a major orchestra work, and it deserves repeated performances.

Hyla has benefited in recent years from performances of his solo piano music by several gifted players. Three different pianists appear in performances of Hyla’s solo works on Riff and Transfiguration,(11) including Judith Gordon (Third Party), Stephen Drury (Basic Training), and Mia Chung (the title piece). These are fine performances, and it speaks well of Hyla’s writing that he gets such performances of very challenging music from three different players.

And what is the listener’s role in the consensus that needs to be in place for concert music to function as a vital part of our intellectual and cultural life? “That’s an interesting and profound question.” After pondering it for a moment,(12) Hyla responded that he would like to see audiences engaged enough in the music they are hearing to become “active listeners.” Being conversant with various styles and the ability to follow a musical argument are pretty straightforward aspects of active listening. What seems to be of paramount importance to Hyla, though, was the idea of listeners with open minds, ears and hearts.

It is not surprising that Ted Mook raises the issues he does in an essay on the music of Lee Hyla. In the musical lives of composers (and others) of Hyla’s generation issues of integrity, accessibility, and the very viability of concert music itself have emerged with a force unknown by previous (and, I believe, subsequent)(13) generations.

In the essay “The Heresy of the Zone Defense” art critic Dave Hickey(14) discusses the value of rules in basketball, life and art. He writes about how rules that at first liberate us eventually govern us, and so need to be overthrown. As an example, he relates how painter Jackson Pollock made a new rule: you can drip paint. By the time Hickey got to art school the rule had become: you must drip paint. What had been tremendously freeing, both technically and aesthetically, had become hidebound and restrictive. This shift in the function of a rule, of any rule, is inevitable. Similarly, in music, and at about the same time, or a few years later, the rule that had started out “You can be serial/aleatoric/etc.” had become “You must be serial/aleatoric/etc.” and the generation of composers before Hyla revolted against it,(15) and the generation after Hyla has codified and absorbed the change: You can be accessible.

And so what has happened now is that that rule has evolved into the dictum “You must be accessible.” So the time is ripe for a new rule, and it seems to me that Lee Hyla’s music and that of a few others around his age might be a place to find it. Lee Hyla himself, however, is not interested in making rules. He’s interested in making music.

In the recorded performance of We Speak Etruscan, by Tim Berne (bari sax) and Tim Smith (bass clarinet), for whom Hyla wrote the piece, the radical changes in direction, texture, and mood(16) are made manifest in expressive shapes. This is music for composer, performers, and listeners alike to think about, play, experience, and just “get.”