Lee Hyla receives a zealous musical tribute at Northwestern

Fri Oct 17, 2014 at 1:45 pm

By Michael Cameron

Northwestern University presented a musical tribute to composer Lee Hyla Thursday night.
Northwestern University presented a musical tribute to composer Lee Hyla Thursday night. Photo: Mark Wilson/The Boston Globe

Programs of works by a single contemporary composer carry inherent risks for presenters and audiences. Either the bag of tricks becomes tiresome, or the uneven quality of the music leads to a downgrade of earlier assessments.

Not so for a concert Thursday night of music by Lee Hyla, the esteemed Northwestern University composer who passed away in June after a seven-year stint at the Bienen School of Music. The six, single-movement works presented at Lutkin Hall in Evanston were consistently beguiling, thanks in part to zealous readings by musicians whose hands-on experiences with the composer made for committed, authoritative performances.

Three speakers representing administration, faculty, and students provided illuminating anecdotes about his fully engaged and sometimes unorthodox teaching style, ravenous musical curiosity and creative methodology. Northwestern composition professor Jay Alan Yim summed up Hyla’s persona by describing him as both a contrapuntal thinker and composer. The remark was not meant to describe an adoption of turgid third-species counterpoint, but rather an ability to perceive and often compose with multiple balls in the air, and with voices that ignored each other in one measure and engaged in earnest conversation the next. Yim also relived the excitement of Hyla’s hire seven years ago, with palpable pride at “stealing” him from the New England Conservatory after his 15-year tenure as chair of their composition department.

I had the honor of spending an afternoon with the composer in 2010 for advice on preparations for my performance of his piece for solo double bass, Detour Ahead. We careened through a host of tangents, many not directly related to the task at hand, yet all providing valuable keys to the psyche of an artist who created consistently compelling music even as his style evolved over a four-decade-plus career. The conversation was peppered with references to Stravinsky, Varese, and Elliott Carter, as well as musicians not generally associated with academia, including Frank Zappa, Cecil Taylor, Little Richard, and a smattering of punk rockers.

We Speak Etruscan for bass clarinet and baritone saxophone from 1992 is one of his Hyla’s most celebrated works, one which allows him to indulge his passion for two of his favorite instruments. I don’t recall any mention of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in our chats, but no doubt the fierce, muscular style of the south side reed players found a place in his bulging record collection.

The reference in the title to a dead language is a wry take on the quandary of contemporary music, a challenge Hyla takes on with explicit, if oblique sourcing of jazz from bebop forward. Hyla knows the value of a hook, but he doesn’t show his hand often. When a regular pulse emerged organically from a tangled web of cross-rhythms and dissonances, the power of the beat was amplified, more satisfying for being obscured for extending periods. Just as Wagner withheld tonic resolutions until the listener can barely tolerate the suspense, Hyla’s “rhythmic resolutions” pack a fierce wallop. Clarinetist Joshua Rubin and sax player Ryan Muncy grabbed the duo by its neck until the final quick fade.

Passeggiata from 2007 for solo violin is cut from similar cloth to Detour Ahead, trading much of the intensity of Etruscan for more emphasis on process. Often the hook took the form of irregularly repeated single notes in the bass, giving a suspicion of a tonal center even as traditional tonality is given short shrift. Above these punctuations, violinist J. Austin Wulliman spun webs of motivic variation, often introducing themes in an additive process. Three or four notes repeat and accumulate additional pitches, a technique familiar to jazz improvisors. Here and elsewhere Hyla’s music carries an aura of improvisation, yet his music is fully and intricately notated.

His solo cello piece Winter/Fall dates from early in his career, and the contrast with the rest of the program was stark. Much of it is ruminative and texture driven, and cellist Christopher Wild negotiatiated the delicate double stops with skill. Coming only four years on the heels of this piece was Pre-Amnesia (1979) for solo alto saxophone, a concentrated avalanche of spiky, angry leaps over the full range of the instrument. This tour-de-force was a thoroughly compelling burst of adrenaline in the hands of Thomas Snydacker.

Pianist Nolan Pearson dove into Basic Training full bore, tracing the development of music from what the composer calls “Neanderthal-like noise producing thuds of first contact” to a dizzying range of textures, dynamics, and the occasional vague reference to specific works of the past. A single chord from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring popped up several times, and a rare moment of serenity broke through in the final measures, perhaps (or perhaps not) a nod to a single chord from Debussy’s Clair de lune.

Hyla seems to relish the fashioning of pithy titles, but the final work presented is more traditionally labeled, his String Quartet No. 4. A model for the piece seemed to be Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2, with each instrument adopting distinct personalities, and alliances shifting with assent or anger. He also fleetingly conjured Bartok with a nod to a famous theme from his Concerto for Orchestra in the viola line. The Spektral Quartet gave a vivid and idiomatic reading of an engaging work that amply rewarded their considerable preparation.

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