Lee Hyla and the Pedagogy of Permission

In the fall of 2009 Lee listened, for a significant portion of a composition lesson, to my reservations about using the twelve chromatic pitches as the organizing principle for a solo viola da gamba piece. My draft had twelve long, static phrases, each centered on a different pitch; I was afraid this was a cop-out, too pat, too obvious, too anachronistic, too overt of a reference to the Second Viennese School, with whose legacy I, like so many young composers, had an uneasy enough relationship already. Lee squinted intently at my sketches, hunched forward in his desk chair with my manuscript just inches from his eyes, as I laid out the reasons why this structural decision was probably terrible. I could not justify it based on properties inherent in the material of each phrase, though I desperately wanted to. Why, I wondered aloud, had I ever thought this was an acceptable idea?

Lee raised his head just enough to make eye contact, stemming my litany of worries. He waited a few seconds, then countered, eyes steady:

“Why not ?”

Long before that moment, when I was seventeen years old, I became fascinated with Lee Hyla, composer. Shawn Crouch, who had studied with Lee at New England Conservatory, played We Speak Etruscan for my composition class at the Walden School. All composers can identify the fateful moments when we first heard musical ideas that would shape and haunt our artistic selves. That introduction to Lee’s music is one of mine. Magnetic and mysterious phenomena sprang from the score : propulsive, throbbing composite sounds formed by bass clarinet and baritone sax in polyrhythm; deeply embodied gestures that collide against the instruments’ registral depths and rebound into raucous, strident middles and tremulous highs; a unique form emerging from the juxtaposition of and negotiation between contrasting materials. The piece I wrote that summer at Walden grasped at these things, not really attaining them. I despaired of how elusive the mechanisms of their power remained to me.

Shawn had advised that if I ever got a chance to study with Lee, I should take it, and part of me assumed this would be my undergraduate path. So, when I was researching colleges, Lee’s presence at NEC drew me to the school, where I imagined Lee would unlock the mysteries of We Speak Etruscan, and my music would absorb them. When I visited the campus, he was not there. The tour for prospective students passed by his darkened office, where I regarded his nameplate as though on the threshold of a sacred space.

In the end, I did not attend, nor even apply to NEC. The complexities of that teenage decision are irrelevant here, but despite it, Lee’s music—and the possible missed opportunity of understanding it through knowing him—stayed with me. I discovered his string quartets in college, and heard Pre-Pulse Suspended for the first time. These pieces only amplified my fascination. I struggled, like most undergraduate composers, to realize artistic visions that outstripped my acquired technique, to find a sense of belonging in a field that inadvertently isolates, and to speak of these challenges to mentors who might have helped me overcome them. The sense that Lee might have been a source of answers remained.

When I applied to graduate schools in fall 2007, Lee had just left NEC for Northwestern University. My boyfriend had moved to Chicago and joined an ensemble; friends from undergrad and summer festivals were already enrolled at NU. It felt like many roads were converging on a second chance to take Shawn’s advice. At my Northwestern interview, Lee, Hans Thomalla, Jay Alan Yim, and I discussed the aesthetic connections between music and visual art. In September 2008, I enrolled in Northwestern’s doctoral program, and my second chance began.

In Lee’s Non-Linear Narrative in Music class, we discussed the merits of Frank Zappa vs. Captain Beefheart and analyzed late Beethoven sonatas and Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Lee’s readings of these pieces depicted Classical music’s gods as nerdy punks and presented canonic ideas as useful only insofar as they offered templates for subversion.

Lee balanced this iconoclasm with nurturance. He opened each lesson by asking, “How are you ?” For weeks I responded superficially, with practiced chipperness and professional reserve. Lee would counter, “No, really, how are you ?” and I gradually learned to be real on the first try. The conversations about life that ensued might last two minutes, or twenty, or the entire lesson, if needed. Lee opened up, too. When his mother was dying, he spoke about her decline and we sat in silence for several minutes, he with tears in his eyes.

Lee’s lessons were a space where one could be a whole person—fear, confusion, vulnerability, and all—and a space where he showed his respect for students by also presenting himself as a whole person. It was not that we sometimes talked about life and other times about composing. The two were bound as adjacent facets of one’s interiority. Lee was open about his humanity and his compositional process: not only the mechanics of it—the little green sheets of manuscript paper on which he transcribed notes first, rhythms last, laboriously feeling out the timing of each gesture—but also the emotion of it. “Most of the time,” he would say, “it feels like shit.” The work feels like shit, he implied, except for the moments when it doesn’t: when the rhythm comes to you, finally, and the voices of self-doubt are quiet.

Lee rarely intervened in my compositional process, and offered few technical solutions to compositional problems. He let me sit in the discomfort of not knowing what to do, asking questions, drawing out and affirming my instincts. At first, he spoke more than I did, Socratically leading me toward plausible choices. But by the end of the year, I could present a draft, explain where I was in the process, and articulate what decisions lay ahead. “Good work,” he’d say. “You’ll figure it out.” Over the course of a year, he had patiently convinced me that he believed in my intrinsic ability to compose. I started to believe in it, too.

Emergent confidence made Lee’s Advanced Orchestration class particularly fun: there were no textbooks and no rules. Historically conventional combinations were neither ignored nor privileged. We wrote sketches for workshop by a rotating cast of guest ensembles comprising numerous instrumentations. It was an invitation to exercise our ears, taste, and imagination to embrace any combination of instruments and find opportunity in its idiosyncrasy. This approach was in keeping with a Lee truism: No musical idea is good or bad it just depends what you do with it.

Lee’s music exemplified this ecumenical approach to material. Just when I thought I knew the limits of his language, I heard a piece of his that clearly included microtonality. When I asked about it, he was cavalier: “Oh yeah—touch-third harmonics. They’re a good way to get string players to play microtones without asking them to learn new fingerings.” Touch-third harmonics, a less-used form of artificial harmonic, fit more comfortably into string players’ typical hand positions than the standard touch-fourth and produce justly-tuned, subtly microtonal pitches. I shouldn’t have been surprised: it was like Lee to build unexpected combinations of sounds out of techniques that draw upon performers’ existing expertise, spinning the revelatory out of the idiomatic.

Days after that class ended, Lee and his wife, Kate, were dancing at my wedding. Lee the dancer was much like Lee the orchestration teacher: there were no rules, no historically conventional movement combinations—only an exuberant, idiosyncratic embodiment of the music. Lee danced with his whole body, all angles, hurtling the weight of his torso precariously from one place to another, reflexively counterbalancing with a hastily flung arm or leg. Dancing, Lee and Kate were all grins and abandon, wordlessly modelling for a newly married couple how to find joy in one another without concern for appearances in the world outside the partnership. Similarly, the dress code for their sprawling New Year’s Day parties was “come as you are”—and Lee did, holding court in a terrycloth bathrobe and tube socks, offering everyone more liquor and pierogis. I expect that in the realm of faculty meetings and commissioning contract negotiations, Lee was capable of diplomacy, if not artifice. But to his students, he always came as he was.

In my final semester of coursework, Lee was unwell. He missed several classes early in the semester, truncating a seminar on relationships between the New York school composers and visual artists. When he returned he seemed frail. His always-dry skin was worse than usual, shearing off his forearms in uncomfortably large, pale flakes that clung to the rolled-up sleeves of his dark sweaters. This was an introspective, thoughtful class—in hindsight, an autumnal class—full of slow, complexly intertwined discussions of mid-century aesthetics, with little of the punk energy he brought to Non-Linear Narrative.

We analyzed Morton Feldman’s Durations 2, and Lee invited me to perform with him in class, me on cello and him on piano. The score gives each player a succession of stemless note heads, with no indication of durations or tempo. While the notes are vertically aligned between parts and horizontally evenly spaced, this is indeterminate—not spatial—notation. Performers are to feel their way through the string of notes, choosing durations in the moment, perhaps coordinated with one another and perhaps not. Lee indicated each time he was going to play a new piano chord with a nod of his head. Each cue was an invitation, issued without duress: we could play together here. Or we could not. I trust you to decide, and will honor your choice without seeking justification. You’ll find a solution. Why not?

During my doctoral candidacy, Lee seemed to recede. This was partly due to changes in my own life post-coursework. I came to campus to teach, then hurried to my other adjunct gig across town, the hustle of contingent labor diluting my relationships with my mentors. But Lee’s presence on campus also became patchier. There were brief flashes of connection: at the premiere of my harp concerto, he instantly grasped what the piece was trying to do: “it was amazing,” he whispered to me as he ducked out of the concert early, “how all of the music came out of that harp.” When I thought a section of my qualifying exams had been graded unfairly, he agreed, saying he thought the Theory department had their heads up their asses. But sometimes he didn’t respond to emails for weeks, or at all, and he increasingly asked students to meet him at the Jupiter Outpost, a funky café close to his West Loop apartment, rather than on campus. During Lee’s periods of silence, we students privately asked each other if he was okay, if anyone knew what was going on. Was he sick? Depressed? Missing Boston? Nobody seemed sure.

Lee and I attended Northwestern’s composition colloquium together just once in the fall of 2013. We took the Metra from Evanston to downtown Chicago afterwards, talking about the operas we wanted to write. For years he had planned an opera about Caravaggio, his favorite historical painter. At Ogilvie, we parted ways, he to his nearby apartment and I to board another train. He kissed me on both cheeks, suddenly formal and solemn. “Keep up the good work,” he said. That was the last time I saw him. I sent him several emails in the early months of 2014 about my dissertation progress. He never replied.

Early on in my time at Northwestern, I worried that Lee and I wouldn’t connect. I knew he loved the Red Sox, Captain Beefheart, and whiskey, none of which I was particularly passionate about or expert in. But I soon discovered that there was enough of Lee to go around. He found life experiences, passions, and proclivities he shared with each of his students and built his relationships with us upon that common ground. And so, while Lee certainly had pet musical concerns—few of his students could forget the importance of managing registral boundaries and large-scale voice-leading—his relationship with each of us was unique. The Lee that I knew was the Lee that I needed, precisely because his pedagogical philosophy was to accept, help us grow into, and give us each unconditional permission to be our own selves. At seventeen, I had imagined Lee as the guardian of secret and immutable compositional truths to which only he could grant access. But rather than a guardian of privileged knowledge, Lee proved to be a lamplighter, illuminating for each of us the more complex and bittersweet path of self-knowledge and self-reliance in a world of infinite possibilities.

A few days after Lee died, many of his Northwestern students met at Moody’s, a pub in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. The gathering was subdued. We were beginning to process what we had lost, what his death would mean to each of us. In the weeks that followed, we helped Kate clean out his office, laughing and crying over the unexpected objects stored in the closet (“What Would Neil Young Do?” one rolled-up poster admonished). At their apartment, we helped sift through the beginnings of the Hyla archive, our collective memory providing occasional clues to cryptic pieces of loose manuscript, hand-written notes, and unlabeled cassette tapes. Kate wanted us to take the duplicate copies of his scores. “He loved you all so much,” she said, “like you were his own kids.” I went home with a copy of We Speak Etruscan that now sits on the bookshelf in my office at DePauw University, its comb binding protruding from the surrounding folios.

DePauw is located in Greencastle, Indiana, a town of 10,000 nestled in rolling cornfields due west of Indianapolis. By pure coincidence, it is also where Lee spent most of his childhood and adolescence. A search for his name in the archives of the local paper yields tantalizing traces. He won the “solo, 1st division” category of a youth music competition held on the DePauw campus. A notice about the Jr. High science fair includes the brief listing “Lee Hyla – sunspots.” The Greencastle Resurrection Blues Band, with a high-school-aged Lee on organ, played a concert at the prison where DePauw School of Music students now do community engagement work. When I got the DePauw job and realized I would be moving to this place that had helped shape him, it felt like fate. Each time I walk the local forests, which are dense with wildlife, I think about his lifelong fascination with the songs of birds.

I sit at the table in my office with a student, a draft of his composition arrayed before us. He is a deep-thinking first-year from a religious family who loves classic rock, opera, and show tunes. He is trying to write music that combines melodic and contrapuntal ideas reminiscent of his denomination’s musical tradition with harmonic and instrumental-rhetorical language inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It isn’t working. He thinks he can, with time, figure out how to combine these things technically. But the real issue—the reason the synthesis is only half-hearted at present—is that he isn’t sure it’s appropriate to infuse church music with such a worldly style. Why should he, an inexperienced young composer, presume to sully the sacred ? The weight of this dilemma registers in his body language, on his face.

In composing and in life, which are not really two different things, there are always new choices to make. There are always many ways one could handle the implications of a single idea over time, many ways a teacher can choose to respond to a student. But when the student is cutting off their own ideas at the pass, as so many students do, I have learned to raise Lee’s lamp of permission.

“Why not combine them ?” I say lightly. “Why not ?”

And—as I hope Lee did when he asked the same of me—I watch the weight begin to lift.

Thanks to Kate Desjardin, Shawn Jaeger, and Samuel Autman for their feedback on early versions of this text, and to Katie Young for reminding me what we found in Lee’s office closet.