Remembrances of Lee Hyla

I met Lee in 1984. The Lydian Quartet had just won the Naumburg Award, and part of the prize involved commissioning a string quartet by a composer of our choice. Wilma Smith, our first violinist, had heard Lee’s music at Tanglewood and was very taken by it. We ended up calling him on his birthday, which, as it happens, is the same day as mine. At the time he was composing and making ends meet by driving a cab in New York. When we called he was making pizza in a loft on Bond Street in Manhattan and later told us that he chopped the same olive for about 15 minutes just thinking about the call.

Lee’s music is alive, vital, an all-engaging world. He told me about one of his first lessons with Malcolm (“Mac”) Peyton as a student at New England Conservatory. After looking at Lee’s score for a piano piece, Mac asked him to play it. He said he didn’t think Lee was actually writing down what he was hearing. He then notated what Lee had played. The note values and uneven meters Mac notated were much more complex than on Lee’s original score. This was a crucial and liberating moment for Lee as a composer ; anyone who has looked at his music can understand why.

Working with Lee on a piece was a fabulous experience. His music was so thoroughly thought out that he rarely made changes to a score. In the quartets, we worked with him on pacing, articulation, and balance. He would sing and gesture through the passages, which helped us understand the flow of the music. And yet, it was always exactly as he had written it. The notation is complex because there simply is no other way to write it.

Interestingly, Lee said that he wrote his most agitated and explosive music on trips to Italy and the most peaceful or contemplative music back in NYC. Quite the opposite from what one would expect.

Lee really understood the instruments he wrote for. At one point, he borrowed a cello to check out harmonics and even played it a little. He had an ability to envision harmonics and acrobatic string passages like no one else. In his quartets and in Dream of Innocent III (amplified cello, piano, and percussion), there was music that I initially thought was unplayable, but which ended up being quite enjoyable and technique-stretching. Lee’s music can look dauntingly complex with its unusual meters, but it is organic, eloquent, and precise. His music draws us into new realms of extroversion, color, and dynamism. His harmonic language could create a whole new scale system for string players. I hope someone takes on this project.

One of the few changes I remember him making was in the opening of Quartet No. 4. It was initially a cello solo. After hearing me play through it, he added additional parts as support for the sudden outbursts.

In the ’80s and ’90s, percussionist Jim Pugliese, Lee, and I often performed Dream of Innocent III. Lee referred to Jim as Pug-lease. He was always playing with people’s names. For example, it was ages before I realized that his friend “Propane” was the composer Glenn Gass. As a pianist, Lee was equal parts Bach and rock and roll. Instructions in his music speak best about his own playing—brutal, rocking, testify, fiercely tender. We had day-long rehearsals, working until we were mentally and physically exhausted. Afterward, it was off to the sub shop, across the train tracks from Brandeis University, in what we called a DOI3 stupor.

We took many trips to NYC for performances of DOI3 and the string quartets. One particular visit was in the middle of a blizzard. We were scheduled to play at an all-weekend concert marathon at Symphony Space. We had a rather peaceful drive in from Boston but by the time of the concert we were walking through waist-deep snowdrifts into the subway, which was transformed into living accommodations for many who were homeless or simply marooned by the storm. This storm scenario was to be the case in most of our DOI3 performances over the years. There seemed to always be a storm of some kind.

In the 4th Quartet, a New England Foundation for the Arts commission, Lee really challenged the Lyds [Lydian Quartet]. It was a hallmark of the group to value vertical alignment and tight ensemble. This piece used us as duos traveling in different tempi, meeting up at points throughout the piece. For large stretches, the emphasis was on the absence of alignment. Needless to say, it was so beautifully crafted that when the duos moved at the exact tempi indicated, it was indeed possible to line up the parts perfectly.

There is enormous value in a composer and performer working together over a long period of time. Lee spoke often of these precious relationships. You get to know each other’s style, voice, and values. It was my great fortune to have had Lee in my life.