Composing Spontaneity: Lee Hyla and the Score as a Field of Action

Chris Fisher-Lochhead

One particular image always flashes through my mind when I think about Lee Hyla. Over drinks at the Celtic Knot in Evanston, Illinois, we had been discussing Artur Schnabel’s recording of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata and, in an attempt to illustrate both the frantic physicality of the performance and its equivocal relationship to the notes on the page, Lee brought his forearm cartoonishly down onto an imaginary piano keyboard—pantomiming a gesture of physical abandon suggestive of Cecil Taylor. In this gesture, I could imagine Schnabel, grabbing at fistfuls of ivory, hanging on for dear life in a struggle with the “Hammerklavier’s” punishing score and with the ethos of Apollonian perfection so often invoked in paeans to its composer’s genius. But, in that gesture I saw a lot of Lee, too. He was a musician for whom courage and commitment were as important as formal structure. The experience of his music works through an ongoing displacement of musical time and proportion : the lived present and abstract structure constantly becoming one another. The score and its organizational logic mean nothing without the performer’s struggle and spirit ; the earnest striving of the performer can only exist in dynamic relation to the meticulously wrought and deeply considered architecture.2

In the obituaries that followed Lee’s death in the spring of 2014, I began to notice how the fundamental complexities and contradictions that had animated a lifetime of creativity were reduced to a pat formulation. In the New York Times, Margalit Fox wrote that Lee’s music “married the formal rigor of classical music with the driving energy of rock and the improvisational abandon of jazz.”3 In the Boston Globe, Jeremy Eichler wrote that Lee “found a way to harness the visceral energy and tactile grab of his favorite improvisers and channel them into carefully notated, bracingly original scores.”4 Obituaries necessitate synopsis, and descriptive reduction is not inherently misrepresentative. But, in reading these descriptions, I got the distinct feeling that people were still genuinely mystified as to what it was that gave Lee’s music its irresistible energy. They were sure it didn’t come simply from his classical training, and they seemed to agree that it had something to do with rock or free jazz, but as for how exactly these influences were combined and expressed in his scores, no one seemed to know for sure. After all, despite the widespread acknowledgment of Lee’s debt to improvisers like Taylor or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he was content to work within the confines of the traditional composer/performer dichotomy while some of his contemporaries dabbled with different ways of integrating composed and improvised music.5

Lee’s music unfolds with the fierce urgency of the present, ever poised on the threshold of some momentous disclosure. In the words of the cellist Rhonda Rider, “It’s as if the music is being written right in the instance that you’re hearing it.”6 But at the same time, the formal proportions and musical grammar are the result of rigorous thought and deliberation ; the details are efficient and intentional. Lee himself spoke about the thrill, not just of being immersed in the music, but of being able to see it from above, to “hold it in your hand” and to “understand all [its] levels and layers.”7 While Manichaean contradictions are an easy, perhaps facile, hermeneutic for understanding complex people and complex ideas, as a form of commemoration they are insufficient. In approaching the question of how Lee managed to reconcile these seemingly incommensurable ways of occupying musical time, I hope to avoid being overly reductive. As I attempt to understand the coexistence of spontaneity and premeditation in his creative practice, I hope to illuminate not just the tangle of ambivalences and incompletions that underly any human life or endeavor, but to connect them to broader cultural discourses and influences.

The New York School, The Beats, And The “Culture Of Spontaneity"

One of the classes I took with Lee while a student at Northwestern was devoted entirely to the New York School—the generation of painters, composers, and poets that came to dominate American cultural production after the Second World War. His enthusiasm for these figures and their work was often self-evident (most obviously in his musical evocation of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl), but in this class I came to appreciate the depth of his personal affinity for the artists themselves and for the broad cultural moment of which their aesthetic project was but one representation. As a musician for whom painting and painters were very important, Lee also seemed to have a special affection for those works that attempted to reconcile the disciplines of music and visual art, particularly Morton Feldman’s “For Philip Guston” and “Rothko Chapel” and the graphic scores of Earle Brown.

In the impulsive prose stylings of the Beats, the hep modernism of bebop, and the so-called “action-painting” techniques of the Abstract Expressionists, postwar American artists came to typify what historian Daniel Belgrad has termed a “culture of spontaneity.” This paradigmatic realignment in American culture was at once a critique of the rationality of Western modernity, a rejection of corporate liberalism, and a challenge to the hegemony of the Anglo-American elite. While the economic engine of American society in the post-war years came increasingly to favor models of bureaucratic control in which compliance and obedience were rewarded, artists of all stripes found in their various means of spontaneous creativity a way to access the extremes and idiosyncrasies of individual psychology and the novel possibilities for intersubjective social configurations.9

Throughout American cultural discourses of the time, the bebop improviser was romanticized as being emblematic of the authenticity and individuality that was so valued in the culture of spontaneity,10 and, as a general practice, improvisation was held up as a privileged means of artistic expression.11 In music, this valorization has been understood not just as the manifestation of a general cultural trend, but as an antidote to music’s “auratic decay” resulting from decades of mechanical reproduction and mass consumption.12 In literature, many American writers began to look for a method by which they could inject some spontaneity into their own creative processes, and often cited bebop as an influence and justification.13e Inspired by his reading of Carl Jung, the poet Charles Olson came to understand the conscious mind as a profoundly conservative force, reproducing and legitimating the values and hierarchies of the existing social order. Spontaneous creativity, for him, provided a means by which to evade and subvert this hard-wired bias for the status quo and create a truly emancipated form of poetic expression.14 With the Beats, unpremeditated writing became a defining methodological feature. William S. Burroughs claimed that “the best writing seems to be done almost by accident.”15 Allen Ginsberg believed that automatic writing provided access to “immediate flash material from the mind.”16 Jack Kerouac, for whom “first thought best thought” was a guiding maxim, sought to “write ‘without consciousness’ in semitrance . . . allowing subconscious to admit in its own uninhibited interesting necessary and so ‘modern’ language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm.”17 And, in the hands of the Abstract Expressionists, the painter’s canvas was reimagined as “an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.”18 Across disciplines and artistic communities, improvisational creativity was the zeitgeist, animating aesthetic discourses and inspiring a proliferation of novel artistic methodologies and practices.

But even as spontaneous means became more central to the emerging ideology and rhetorical self-definition of the postwar generation, there was some ambivalence among the artists themselves as to how defensible total spontaneity was as a workable creative methodology. As a qualification of his statement that “the best writing seems to be done almost by accident,” Burroughs added that one “cannot will spontaneity.”19 In his personal recollection of a visit to the studio of Jackson Pollock, the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage recalled that an intoxicated Pollock, whose dripping technique was held up as representative of the Abstract Expressionist ethos of spontaneity, mocked discussions of “chance operations” by precisely hitting a door knob across the room with the deft flick of a paintbrush.20 And, in response to Harold Rosenberg’s hagiographic article “The American Action Painters,” the critic Leo Steinberg contended that many New York School artists, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, intentionally presented an appearance of spontaneity using premeditated and deliberate means.21 Even in jazz, the exaggerated virtues imputed to the process of improvisation often overlooked the necessary experience, preparation, and pre-conceptualization that took place before the crucial instant of creation.22

Although Lee was a generation younger than the artists that comprised the New York School, it always seemed clear that he shared with many of them a common spirit of artistic self-exploration, a concern for the immediate physical experience of art and art-making, and a strong aversion to mannerism and inauthenticity. Like many of that previous generation, while he revered the work of improvisers, he clung tightly to a deliberateness of creative control. The impression of spontaneity that his music still provides to the listener, while not the result of an improvisatory creative process, per se, was rooted in his embrace of the improviser’s approach to musical time and in the relationship he cultivated between the listener’s subjectivity and the work’s architecture.

Improvisatory Time and the Creative Process

For Lee, the act of composition was a negotiation between process and product. The physical intensity and sense of urgency with which he confronted the blank page were essential to how he worked. His ear for choosing pitches was impeccable, and he spent a great deal of time as a composer (and as a teacher) weighing options and questioning his choices until they felt right. The finished score was meaningful only insofar as it stood as a document of his creative struggle. The ability of Lee’s music to feel utterly spontaneous while at the same time deliberate and well-shaped was rooted in this process. By confronting head-on the fundamental contingency of creativity, he resisted the temptations of ideology, fashion, and uncritical fealty to received forms, which promise a reprieve from that anxiety keenly felt around the very act of choosing and its attendant weight of commitment and responsibility.

The notion that improvisation is a form of “instantaneous composition” or “composition in real time” is ubiquitous, but it does not adequately capture the qualitative difference between the composer’s and the improviser’s concept of time. As Paul Craenen has observed, in improvisation, “musical time and creation time run more or less synchronously, whereas composition is characterized by non-linear labour, or perhaps as improvisation in small steps.”24 In the words of the pianist and improviser Vijay Iyer, “The main source of drama in improvised music is the sheer fact of the shared sense of time : the sense that the improviser is working, creating, generating musical material, in the same time in which we are co-performing as listeners.”25 In improvisation, the act of creation is embedded within the flow of musical time itself—the process is the product.26 The fragility and ephemerality of this instantaneous creative impulse, and the fact that it happens in public, is essential to the experience of the improviser’s time. The composer’s time, however, is inert; it can be understood with a detached objectivity, and it is apportioned in private.

In a study of students at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s, psychologists Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed that the act of discovering a visual or conceptual “problem” was a vital part of the creative process.27 In the context of artistic practice, a problem could be defined as an unresolved conflict, contradiction, uncertainty, or field of competing forces that demands effort and attention to alter its level of entropy.28 As compared to a problem-solving creative process, a problem-finding creative process must first discover or create the terms and variables of its own artistic context before embarking on a solution. The solution, therefore, is not constrained by pre-determined and externally imposed criteria and must be encountered and understood as an emergent system of value and meaning.29 Regarding experimentalism in music, the composer Richard Barrett has written that the problem-finding process operates through a desire to “involve the listener in the process of discovery, in other words to try and communicate the desire and exhilaration one experiences in trying to address one’s questions in such a way that listeners may experience them for themselves.”30 The best examples of free improvisation create an experience of witnessing the birth of a novel system of musical relatedness and organization in real time; composed music can elicit the same kind of experience.

The fact that even the most experienced and knowledgeable performers of Lee’s music, like Rhonda Rider, could describe his music as sounding like it “is being written right in the instance that you’re hearing it,” speaks to its ability to project for its audience an experience of mutual discovery and shared time through a diachronic process of problem-finding and emergence.

When occupying improvisatory time, form is known from within; it is never fully perceived, but exists only in memory and foresight. Likewise, as the awareness of a musical shape is restricted by the ability of a listening subjectivity to synthesize it from discrete percepts, linearity is revealed as a cognitive construct. As the bassist Rick Foot has written, “[i]f the self is a fiction designed to account for the delusion that our lives have a narrative, then the timelessness of [improvisation] represents the perfect release from this delusion—plucked from the narrative and lost in the eternal present.”31 This disruption of linearity in improvisatory time was an abiding interest of Lee’s, both in his own music and as a way to approach musical analysis. In his course on Non-Linear Narratives at Northwestern, Lee taught his students to analyze musical texts for their ability to confound the human impulse to connect events into a traditional narrative. Examining the works of composers from Beethoven to John Zorn, he would demonstrate how architectural proportions could create formal intelligibility even in the absence of linear development. Through this dual antagonism to narrativity—the atemporality of architecture and the absolute temporality of pure presence—Lee’s music manages to fuse the objective and subjective experiences of time.

Beyond the concept of temporal non-linearity, Lee also proposed to understand complex music using the metaphor of non-linear dynamical systems, in which forces and subjectivities interact in surprising and unpredictable ways. In addition to providing a robust and versatile analytical frame with which to analyze notated music, this metaphor also aptly describes the ensemble dynamics of a group improvisation, in which organization and structure are produced internally as a kind of “collective thinking.”32 As opposed to the received conceptual model of a problem-solving creative process, in this case, structure emerges almost as a form of distributed representation. But beyond its capacity to generate structure and significance, this dynamical systems model also makes possible a radically non-hierarchical means of building community.33 While Lee continued to hew to the conventional division of musical labor between composer and performer in individual works, one can observe a large-scale non-linearity in the collaborative relationships he developed over forty years.34 In the works resulting from these collaborations, one is able to hear a two-way flow of information: Lee writing specifically for the personalities and proclivities of his performers—and them developing techniques and strategies for interpreting his scores and feeding those back to him.

An Ethics of Creativity

For the New York School and the Beats, both the individualism of corporate liberalism and the compulsory solidarity politics of the Popular Front were disenchanting.36 They instead embraced an “energy field”37 model of social relations, which allowed for the spontaneous formation of individual and group identities, and the non-linear allocation of political will. In attitude and general political sympathy, the artists of this generation leaned left, but in place of the Progressive’s trust in rationality and ideology to achieve social betterment, they believed in the ability to change American society by revitalizing social interactions at a human level. In the words of the critic Dwight Macdonald, “ ‘[r]adical’ would apply to the as yet few individuals who reject the concept of Progress, who judge things by their present meaning and effect, who think the ability of science to guide us in human affairs has been overrated and who therefore redress the balance by emphasizing the ethical aspect of politics.”38

In the hands of some, improvisation and non-hierarchical group dynamics were seen as a way to democratize artistic production and model novel social configurations.39 Lee was a man of extraordinary conscience and possessed a keen moral awareness of social injustices, but he was not a doctrinaire leftist and political ideology did not fundamentally shape his creative process. Like the artists of the postwar generation, he embraced a humanistic approach to creativity, privileging the psychological and metaphysical over the explicitly political. As I have already contended, Lee’s compositional method and the way he grappled with musical time were rooted in a problem-finding creative process, in which form emerges spontaneously and individual choices cannot be reduced to an externally imposed set of restrictions or necessities. In such a setting, choices have consequences; they carry risk and therefore occupy a moral dimension. Lee understood that, much in the same way that the improviser confronts risk and expresses vulnerability by creating in real time, his own compositional choices demanded a certain gravity—he was responsible for what he set down on paper.

Following the enthusiasm for the Einsteinian notion of
the energy field, William Carlos Williams proposed thinking of the poem as a “field of action.”40 In reference to the techniques of the Abstract Expressionists, Rosenberg described the canvas as an “arena in which to act.”41 Lee’s creativity should be understood as manifesting a similar aesthetic of commitment. While his debt to the rhetorical strategies and artistic practices of the postwar generation of artists cannot be downplayed, in assessing the ethical valence of his creative process, I also think of his affinity for the pre-modern. His affection for the paintings of Caravaggio and his interest in the lives and philosophies of religious ascetics belie a connection between his work and an ancient tradition of humanism—a concern with understanding the human animal and its place in the universe by confronting head-on the mysteries that define our lives (mortality, free will, empathy, ethical responsibility). The profundity of Lee’s musical project lies in the simple fact that, for every creative decision he made, he could have chosen differently. In the absence of any imperative, external or self-imposed, musical creativity is an exercise of the human capacity to judge and act voluntarily—what Thomas Aquinas called the liber arbitrium.

The private practice of composition can demand an almost monastic dedication. It can feel like an act of contrition, or of atonement. In conflating ecstatic abandon and sober devotion—being in and being outside of time—Lee’s life and music call to mind the words of Saint Teresa of Ávila, which he set in Lives of the Saints:

1 William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New York : New Directions, 1995), 100.

2 Perhaps nothing better exemplifies this duality than Lee’s fondness for putting accents on rests. There is no direct relationship between the marking and musical structure ; it can only become significant when filtered through a performer’s interpretation.

3 Margalit Fox, “Lee Hyla, 61, Who Mixed Rock and Jazz Into Classical Works, Dies,” New York Times, June 14, 2014.
music/lee-hyla-61-who-mixed-rock-and-jazz-into-classical-works-dies.html (accessed January 11, 2019).

4 Jeremy Eichler, “Lee Hyla, at 61 ; melded energy, complexity of rock, classical music,” Boston Globe, June 11, 2014,
-that-melded-energy-and-complexity-rock-and- classical-music/KlkfuYyA4hDqOMi6ayBvFJ/story.html (accessed January 12, 2019).

5 George Lewis, Chaya Czernowin, Anthony Coleman, John Zorn, Eric Chasalow, and David Schiff are just a few examples.

6 Quoted in Eichler, “Lee Hyla”.

7 Ibid.

8 Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in Reading Abstract Expressionism : Context and Critique, ed. Ellen G. Landau (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2005), 1ti4.

9 Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998), 15.

10 For a discussion of the trope of Bebop hero/genius in American culture, see Guthrie P. Ramsey, The Amazing Bud Powell : Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop (Berkeley : University of California Press, 2013).

11 Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity, 1.

12 David Sterritt, “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (Spring 2000), 165 ; and John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York : Minton, Balch and Co.), 139. In several of his classes, Lee taught Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in order to discuss the impact of recording technology on the development of musical creativity.

13 For example, Ginsberg, quoted in Barry Miles, Ginsberg : A Biography (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1989), 188 : “wild phrasing . . . abstract poetry of mind . . . long saxophone-like chorus lines . . . really a new poetry.”

14 Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity, 29.

15 William S. Burroughs, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin,” Re/Search 4/5 (1982) : 35–6.

16 Allen Ginsberg, “A Conversation,” in Composed on the Tongue : Literary Conversations, 1967–1977 (San Francisco : Grey Fox Press, 1980), 94.

17 Jack Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” The Portable Jack Kerouac (New York : Penguin Books, 1996), 484–485.

18 Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” 190.

19 Burroughs, “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin,” 35.

20 Stan Brakhage, By Brakhage : An Anthology, Vol. 1. DVD (Irvington, NY : Criterion Collection, 2003).

21 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria : Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York : Oxford University Press, 1972), 62.

22 In discussing the attitudes of the mid-century press towards black athletes like Willie Mays, George Will observes that there is a “subtle racism” to the ascription of professional success to non-rational factors like natural talent or intuitive skill instead of intelligence or hard work. See Ken Burns, Baseball (Inning 7 : The Capitol of Baseball), DVD (Hollywood : PBS Home Video, 1titi4). Ironically, in Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz, this same “subtle racism” is egregiously perpetuated in discussions of black improvisers.

23 Jack Kerouac, “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” The Portable Jack Kerouac (New York : Penguin Books, 1996), 483.

24 Paul Craenen, “The Comosed Body,” in Composing under the Skin (Leuven : Leuven University Press, 2017), 232.

25 Vijay Iyer, “On Improvisation, Temporality, and Embodied Experience,” in Sound Unbound, ed. Paul D. Miller (Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, 2008), 275.

26 R. Keith Sawyer, “Improvisation and the Creative Process : Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58, no. 2 (Spring 2000), 149 ; and Dewey, Art as Experience, 162.

27 Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Creative Vision : A Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art (New York : Wiley, 1976)

28 Cf. Louis Althusser’s concept of problematic.

29 This distinction echoes the distinction between art and craft proposed by R. G.
Collingwood, Principles of Art (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1938) 15. For a further discussion of emergence in creative contexts, see Sawyer, “Improvisation and the Creative Process” ; and Marcel Cobussen, Henrik Frisk, & Bart Weijland, “The Field of Musical Improvisation,” Konturen 2.1 (2009), (accessed January 21, 2019).

30 Richard Barrett, “From Experimentation to CONSTRUCTION,” in Artistic Experimentation in Music : An Anthology, eds. Darla Crispin and Bob Gilmore (Leuven : Leuven University Press, 2014), 107.

31 Rick Foot, “Thresholds in Improvisation : Freedom, the Eternal Present, and the Death of Jazz,” in Thinking on Thresholds : The Poetics of Transitive Spaces, ed. Subha Mukherji (London : Anthem Press, 2013), 187.

32 Craenen, “The Composed Body,” 236.

33 Cobussen, Frisk, and Weijland, “The Field of Musical Improvisation” ; and Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble, The Other Side of Nowhere : Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue (Middletown, CT : Wesleyan University Press, 2004).

34 Tim Smith, the Lydian String Quartet, Judith Gordon, Rebecca LaBreque, and Stephen Drury are just a few examples of his long-term collaborators.

35 Corey, Professor Irwin. “Acceptance of Pynchon’s National Book Award.”
-of-pynchons-national-book-award/ (accessed March 1, 2019).

36 Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity, 5–6.

37 The metaphor of the “energy field” owes a great deal to Einsteinian physics. Artists that invoked it often made this connection explicit. Barnett Newman likened trying to compare Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism to trying to “compare an Einsteinian formula to a non-Euclidean geometry.” Ellen H. Johnson, ed., American Artists on Art, from 1940 to 1980 (New York : Harper and Row, 1982), 19.

38 Dwight MacDonald, “The Root is Man (Parts 1 and 2),” Politics 3 (April and June, 1946), 100–104.

39 Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, and Richard Barrett, for example.

40 William Carlos Williams, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York : Random House, 1954), 280–291.

41 Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” 190.

42 St. Teresa of Ávila (trans. J.M. Cohen), The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself (Harmondsworth, Mddsx : Penguin Books, 1958).

Composing Spontaneity: Lee Hyla and the Score as a Field of Action