Jagged, Sustained and Honking
Basic (aural) training with Lee Hyla
You open the CD 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. It
begins softly, the two instruments in unison, in their upper registers. The
expectant calm is disturbed when the bass clarinet bends its note
down a quarter-tone, and the result is the beautiful and disconcerting
beating of “out-of-tune” playing.
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”
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, or
even of those of a younger generation, like Aaron Jay Kernis, the
on a Can composers, or the British composer Thomas Ades.
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.
began piano lessons at a very young age, 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,
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.”
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?
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
In contrast, “accessibility” has
been the buzzword in contemporary composition for years now. Audience-centered
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
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.
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
good.” I didn’t know the piece when I first heard
the recording but even so the high quality and dedication of the
is apparent. This is a major orchestra work, and it deserves repeated
Hyla has benefited in recent years from performances
of his solo piano music by several gifted players. Three different
appear in performances of Hyla’s solo works on Riff and
including Judith Gordon (Third Party), Stephen Drury (Basic
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.
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,
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)
the essay “The Heresy of the Zone Defense” art critic
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, and
the generation after Hyla has codified and absorbed the change:
You can be accessible.
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 are
made manifest in expressive shapes. This is music for composer,
performers, and listeners alike to think about, play, experience,
and just “get.”