Lee Hyla: An American Original

21 October 2002

Lee Hyla, the American composer who lives now in Boston is as brilliant as he is unknown outside new music circles. At the age of fifty, he is going strong, utterly captivated with music and with his work as a composer and yet, it must also be noted, not yet the recipient of the resounding recognition as a truly great composer on the world scene that he deserves.

Hyla is somewhat of an enigma in that he doesn’t fall neatly into any category or school of the modern/new music movement and seems not to really need to do so. He lives in the eclectic American music landscape that encapulates everything from pure classical forms to punk rock and what sounds like–but isn’t–free form jazz. He seems to thrive on contemporary music scene’s terrain, its liveliness, its expansiveness, its inexhaustiveness. Think Eliott Carter meets Cocteau Twins meets Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy. He uses it all and synthesizes a sound and a content that is unique and completely his own.

The concert featured the composer/musician collective, counter)induction which played the sometimes very challenging music seamlessly and expressively. Their brilliant pianist Blair McMillen was featured in several pieces including a witty ‘Wilson\’s Ivory-bill’ for baritone, piano and an old, scratchy field recording of the squawks of an ivory-billed woodpecker. The text, cantored bravely and sure by bass-baritone Robert Osborne, is taken from the journals of the 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson.

The program included two other works: ‘The Dream of Innocent III’ (1987) and ‘Pre-Pulse Suspended’ (1984). These two pieces comprised the second half of the program and while the first half was formidable with the aforementioned ‘Wilsons..’ and the ‘Concerto No: 2 for Piano and Chamber Orchestra’, the second half of the program was even more enjoyable for me. For one thing, the audience was more tuned in and quieter. Hyla abruptly shifts directions in ways where the relationship between adjacent sections of music aren’t always immediately obvious. This is music that requires close listening but it is also music that rewards its listener with a sense of elegance and breadth. Ideas and gestures flow, They evolve and they make sense. In ‘The Dream Of the Innocent Child’ for instance, a solo cello is flanked on either side by cacophonous percussion; a drum set on one side and a percussive piano on the other, both launching their consorted rhythmic salvos while the lone cello riffs away melodically and sweetly in the middle.

counter)induction, now in its fifth year, played really, really well. They are a composer/performer collective committed to the notion that contemporary music can and should be both accessible and challenging. c)i celebrates the diversity of contemporary music by presenting the best, most innovative new music to all audiences, new and experienced. They were led by Jefffrey Milarsky, who did a splendid job of keeping that boat on course in sometimes choppy waters.

Hyla’s small compositional output suggests that he is a perfectionist, an impression bolstered by the fact that each of his pieces is meticulously constructed. He is a truly an original composer whose work deserves much greater recognition and respect than he has gotten so far. Reese Cups for the Miller folks for including him in this prestigious series.