Ciao Manhattan: A Remembrance of Lee Hyla (1952-2014)

Lee Hyla (1952-2014) was the “Alpha Composer”—charismatic, at the center of things. Not only composers, but jazz musicians and creative improvisers revered him, his creative energy was infectious. Everybody wanted a part of it, and he was happy to oblige.

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Lee Hyla

Lee Hyla in 1979. Photo by Glenn Gass.

In 1974, Lee Hyla asked me to turn pages for pianist Rebecca LaBrecque during the recording of his Piano Concerto No. 1 at the WGBH studios in Boston. The piece and the session ended with an incredible and very emotional piano solo that took several takes and intense coaching from Lee, with Becky digging deeper and deeper into each take to get at the core of the music, after which she lowered her head onto the piano keys and sobbed uncontrollably, overcome by the intense emotion of the music. Lee immediately came out of the recording booth to console her, they sat on the bench together in silence for what seemed to be an eternity; it is one of the most poignant musical and personal moments that I can recall. It solidified my desire to compose.

On June 6, the terrible news came out of Chicago. We had lost Lee Hyla to complications resulting from pneumonia. I knew that he had been ill recently, but this news was too shocking to believe.

After the news broke, the Facebook posts and blog entries started to appear: “He was the best of us.” “One of my heroes.” “A composer’s composer.” “The music world has lost a true giant.”All true—Lee’s influence ran wide and deep. His music is honest, as honest as it gets, and gut wrenchingly powerful. As the stylistic tides shifted around him, he stuck to his own unique brand of gritty rock and free-jazz infused modernism; his early works were equal parts Elliott Carter, Cecil Taylor, and James Brown.

His break out piece, Pre-Pulse Suspended (1984), commissioned by the Fromm Foundation and premiered at the Tanglewood Music Festival, and In Double Light (1983) are good introductions to his earlier music, both featuring his longtime artistic collaborator Tim Smith on bass clarinet. We Speak Etruscan (1992), written for Tim Smith and Tim Berne, is also a must-listen. Most of his pieces are powerfully rhythmic, and display a depth of musical and structural insight that few composers ever achieve.
And Lee was not afraid to venture into an Eastern European-tinged lyricism when the music called for it; the cimbalom makes an appearance in many of his works. The brilliant Polish Folk Songs (2007), written for Boston Musica Viva, is the most overt reference to his Polish roots.

Birdsong was also a big influence, most recently in the Firebird Ensemble-commissioned piece Field Guide (2006). It is also present in his wailing and raucous solo piece, Mythic Birds of Saugerties (1985), a piece that significantly raised the bar for bass clarinet writing when it appeared, and the Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra (1988) both written for and performed brilliantly by Tim Smith, as well as in Wilson’s Ivory Bill (2000) that includes an archival field recording of the very rare ivory-billed woodpecker.
Although born in Niagara Falls, New York, Lee Hyla grew up in Greencastle, Indiana, and played in rock bands as a teenager. He was a formidable keyboardist, a hometown star. He got the call one day to fill the keyboard spot in Stephen Stills’s band, but instead decided that he wanted to go east to study composition at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which was where I met him. We were both students at NEC in the early ’70s, studying with Malcolm Peyton, and we became lifelong close friends.
During the ‘70s in Boston, the Symphony Road apartment that he shared with Tim Smith was a cockroach infested student pad. (The roaches got so bad at Symphony Road one winter that Lee killed the biggest one and propped it up against the wall as a lesson to the others. It didn’t work.) It was home to the Symphony Road Improvisation Ensemble, a free jazz trio with Lee (piano), Tim Smith (reeds), and virtuoso bassist Alan Nagel. The trio became the core of Lee’s first major piece, Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra No. 1 (1974), which had an extensive alto sax part written for Tim. Saxophone and bass clarinet were go-to instruments for Lee in the early years in Boston, and the musical collaboration that he started with Tim continued for decades. It was his longest and most productive. At night, 3 Symphony Road, and later his Frost Street apartment in Cambridge, became the place where we would play poker, make insane multi-channel tape collages, play intense board hockey (how nerdy was that?), drink, and listen to all sorts of music. First it was Lee, Tim, Alan, and myself, and when Glenn Gass—Lee’s first student and very close childhood friend from Greencastle—came to Boston to study with Malcolm Peyton, Glenn, along with Anthony Coleman, completed the motley crew. Ezra Sims was also an honorary senior member of the gang and mentor to Lee and others for many years.

Glenn Gass and Lee Hyla outside Jordan Hall in 1977. (Photo by Clinton Gass.)

Glenn Gass and Lee Hyla outside Jordan Hall in 1977. (Photo by Clinton Gass.)

Lee was the “Alpha Composer,” charismatic, at the center of things. Not only composers, but jazz musicians and creative improvisers revered him, his creative energy was infectious. Everybody wanted a part of it, and he was happy to oblige.
After Boston, Lee, Alan, and Tim went on to do graduate work at Stony Brook where the circle widened to include percussionist Jim Pugliese (a close friend whose brilliant drums and percussion are featured in so many of Lee’s works), Rick Sacks, and composer Christopher Butterfield. There was a brief stint playing with the punk band Klo in Toronto with Chris, Rick, and Alan. (Lee played keyboards, wore weird sunglasses, and assumed the punk name “Lee Castro.”)

After Canada, when we both lived in New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980s, Lee was my go-to person when I needed feedback on a work in progress, and I would sometimes do the same for him. I remember him playing a fifteen-minute string trio for me that he had just composed in the Bond Street loft, on the piano, by heart, twitching, vocalizing, rocking, and with the intensity of Cecil Taylor. I learned more from watching him perform his own composition from memory than I did from years of composition lessons. You have to be inside of the music, know and believe in every note, and when Lee was way inside of his music, it was hard for the listener not to be there, too.

Lee and Joan Silber’s annual New Year’s Day parties at the Bond Street loft were always packed with musicians, writers, and artists, with Lee at the center dressed in a bathrobe and tube socks the whole day, cooking the finest homemade Polish cuisine you could imagine. Debbie Harry showed up one year. The parties continued in Boston and then Chicago where Lee and his wife, painter Katherine Desjardins, brought the new music community together each year on that day. These parties were legendary.

Composers Softball Team

Composers softball team, 1976:
(back row left to right) Tim Smith, unknown, Lee Hyla, Al Sarko, David Cleary, unknown
(Front row) Unknown child, Allen Anderson, Mathew Rosenblum, Jeff Klein, Hankus Netsky, unknown. Photo by Glenn Gass.

Lee and Ted Mook produced my first solo CD, Ancient Eyes, issued on CRI (now part of New World Records); Lee was in the recording booth. I was terrified, totally tongue tied, freaking out. Lee took charge of the session, communicating with Brad Lubman and the performers through the mic in the booth, skillfully, carefully, precisely, with amazing grace, and with big results.
Lee had an incredible way of helping performers realize exactly what was needed in a piece, and he did so in dramatic fashion, singing and contorting, percussive sound effects included, and performers loved working with him. He had lasting professional and personal relationships with Rhonda Ryder, the Lydian String Quartet, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Stephen Drury, Ted Mook, Jim Pugliese, Eric Moe, Mary Nessinger, and, of course, Tim Smith, among many others.

After vowing that he would stay out of the academy, Lee got the call from Malcolm Peyton, his former teacher and chair of composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. This time he said yes. He was an extraordinary teacher with many dedicated students, to whom he was equally dedicated. He left NEC in 2007 to become Northwestern University’s Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt Professor of Theory and Composition. Boston gave him an epic series of farewell concerts. Boston loved Lee, and the feelings were mutual; I’m sure the departure was bitter sweet.

What I remember and cherish the most were the long nights hanging out with a small circle of friends at the Symphony Road and Frost Street apartments in the ‘70s, the Bond Street loft and the Great Jones Café (across the street from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio – we would see the lights burning late at night) in the ‘80s, listening to an eclectic mix of Hank Williams, James Brown, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, and Glenn Branca, ruminating about the World Series chances for the Red Sox, the American League standings, and the state of new music.
Lee was given almost every honor available to an American composer, but it seemed like he deserved much more: more performances, a Pulitzer, increased international attention. He formed a great relationship with John Zorn and most of his later works are found on Zorn’s Tzadik label. His recent travels to New York would routinely include visits with Tim Smith, Jim Pugliese, and John Zorn.

When Lee won the Rome Prize, we threw a big “Ciao Manhattan” party for him at my East 13th Street apartment. It was a great send off with everyone from Tim Berne to David Lang among the guests. We had a tradition of calling each other on our birthdays, without fail the call would come in. This year his voice was a bit weaker, it had been a tough winter, a hospital stay, summer plans were tenuous, but he would be back in Boston for a festival of his music in June, he was looking forward to it.
Lee was about people. Whether you were a student, a friend, or colleague, you knew he really cared. And Lee’s music has the power to change lives—it changed mine, and this is a huge gift that he left. As important, he was a true and supportive friend to many all these years. He was the center of a huge community of musicians. As saxophonist Marty Ehrlich recently pointed out to me, “Lee cared about all of us, and not just on the surface. You are blessed if you have a few people like that in your life.”
We will miss you deeply, Lee.

Hyla Near Prudential Building

Lee Hyla in Boston in the late 1970s, photo by Glenn Glass