Hyla Lick Maneuvers

David Rakowski


I don’t want to have to write this. FUCK.

My dear friend Lee Hyla passed . . .


My dear friend Lee Hyla passed away at the beginning of June. Besides being a very dear friend, he was also one of the most intriguing and original composers out there, a composer imitated (usually badly) by many—and a great guy to hang out with.

Shit. Fuck.

When I heard, I was at Yaddo, at work in the Stone Tower. Beff called. The studio is deep in the woods at a place where cell phone signals go to die. To hear Beff, I had to go outside onto the bridge connecting the Tower to the hillside.

“It’s all over Facebook. Lee Hyla . . . died.” At this moment, it was like I was watching myself get that news, not getting that news. This is such a cartoon thing. No way it could be true. No way it should be true. Crap, he’s so young, he’s my friend, I knew he had been ill and had pneumonia, but . . .

I was on Facebook early that morning, and not a word.

Fuck. God damn fucking fuck.

It really didn’t sink in until I hung up, took a walk through the Yaddo woods to clear my head, and got back into the studio. It was a bit much to bear. I checked e-mail in this cellular hell, and several emails were there about Lee. It was true.

The best—and only—way to forge ahead was to bury myself in work, which I did, immediately. I was writing a song cycle, and was at a verse break. Right there—exactly where I was in the
music—was where I applied a synthetic Lee Hyla texture to the piano part. I.M.L.H. means what you think it means. It’s not as good as Lee Hyla, but it doesn’t have to be.

Tributes (not so much different from this one, but mostly shorter) started to appear pretty quickly, on blogs from his students and friends, and a bunch of astonishingly cogent, intelligent, and serious obituaries appeared in Boston, New York, Chicago,
and online.

I don’t intend here to try and splain the hell out of Lee’s music, nor to duplicate the kinds of stuff already said elegantly and in great quantity in many places. Though I don’t mind saying that Pre-Pulse is one hell of a great piece, the string quartets are masterful, Howl is a scarily good piece, the Piano Concerto No. 2 is killer ; even the smaller pieces like We Speak Etruscan, Mythic Birds of Saugerties, and Wilson’s Ivory-Bill are pieces I’ve returned to often. Beff played Mythic Birds, so I heard her practicing it a lot. The house tended to shake when she played the repeated low notes after the squawky punk lick that is a signature of the piece.

Yes, Lee brought vernacular into the serious music world. He wasn’t the first, but he opened doors that no one knew existed. Yes, he brought eclectic collections of licks together into the same piece.

What no one has talked about (and I don’t intend to, much) was the brilliant, micro-timed way he sculpted fractured continuities. His pieces turned on a dime, and even when the fracturing had been happening a while, each new one was surprising and fresh. Proportion, phrase length, breathing, microtiming—Lee was a master at working out the nuts and bolts that made everything sound so natural and inevitable. Long whole-tone or octatonic swatches of stasis, in-your-face loud stuff that had a few things seemingly wrong with it, sleight-of-hand climaxes—trademark Lee effects, but that’s just description. The stuff composers care about and are uncomfortable talking about because it doesn’t make for good dissertations—Lee did all that stuff, worked hard on it, and made it sound easy. And didn’t talk about it.

In fact—several times I have had graduate composers in lessons whose work I would read through, pause, and simply say, “If you’re trying to do the Hyla thing, let me give you some actual Hyla to listen to.” As it turns out, stealing from Lee Hyla was pretty easy to notice (it never stopped me, however). But if you’re going to appropriate, let’s see how it’s really done. Otherwise, you get bad Hyla, or really good fake Hyla. Which is better. I also would try to give advice to how to work out timings and breathing. Yes, breathing. As an exercise, go listen to any Lee Hyla piece and listen to how it breathes. Now listen to the timing of events laid over it. Pretty cool, huh?

Oh yeah. And Wilson’s Ivory-Bill? The antsy, angry dialogue between the live piano and the field recording of a squackety bird is one of the funniest, most serious, most amazing and inventive things I’ve ever heard. If I had thought of that, I’d be giving CDs of it to everybody. And there would be a link to the sound file in this blog post.

And the Polish Folk Songs. If they went on all day, I would be happy.

But I want to talk about Lee Hyla, my friend.

Hyla at piano

I had known of Lee, but was innocent of his music, for quite a long time. In the late ’70s, Ezra Sims had told me that Lee was one of the most interesting young composers to watch, and that he was doing things that reminded him of Varèse. I liked Varèse. Fractured continuity and all, bigass scowly music. Never cracked a smile. Ever. Lee was doing the New York thang, and lots of people mentioned how cool he and his music were. As far as we knew, he cracked a smile.

I remember exactly when I first met him. I taught at Stanford in 1988–89 (this is how I remember the year), and was informed I was a finalist for the Rome Prize that March. My interview with the jury was scheduled in New York about a week after the phone call came (and it was the day before I was interviewing for a job at UC Berkeley—the story of doing a job interview after two redeyes is for another post, and hopefully one I never write). That year they had two composer fellowships and four finalists, who all interviewed. They had tried to set it up cleverly such that there were two waiting areas, and so none of the finalists would come into contact with the other finalists, thus keeping that information secret. Gossip spreads like wildfire in the community of Composers Who Think They Shoulda Got It Instead. Well, they apparently got backed up, so there were Lee and me, in the same waiting area, both waiting for our interviews. Lee started the conversation, and it was a normal, pleasant, easy conversation. No gossiping, no shop talk. Just how nice it was to meet me, he’d heard some of my music and liked it, we talked about mutual friends, and we wished each other luck.

That year, Lee and I were the two losers.

Lee’s music was getting out on recordings, and I heard Pre-Pulse Suspended live, and was completely bowled over by it. Lee got the Rome Prize the next year. I was a finalist again in 1994 and did not win. And I was a finalist in 1995 and Lee was on the panel. I won.

We were both interviewed for a job at NEC in the early 90s, shortly after he got back from Rome. We conversed about it through intermediaries. Thus did the Boston phase of his life start. Mine started not so long after.

I really got to know Lee when we got some serious hang time at the MacDowell Colony in the summer of 1998—we overlapped for about three and a half weeks. He was great to talk to at dinner, and was very good with questions at presentations (I’m more the keep it quiet and be thought a fool type). Several times he asked to borrow my car, and now that I think of it, he’s the only person besides me and Beff to have driven that old 1991 Dodge Spirit. I was in Omicron, Lee was in New Jersey.

Quite frequently when I was around Colony Hall in the mid-afternoon, returning my lunch basket (they’re strict about that), Lee could be spied with an intense expression, holding binoculars and a book, saying nothing, and spiriting into the forest in every which way. Yes, he was a serious birdwatcher, but he kept it to himself unless pressed. I asked one night which birds he had seen, and the three he listed were ones I’d never heard of.

Lee’s star turn, and one of his most memorable moments for me, happened on July 4. The colonists had decided to make it a short work day and hold a sort of barbecue-county fair thing in the afternoon, including croquet, a sack race, a three-legged race, and a tug-of-war. The teams were composers, writers, visual artists, and of course the composers won the tug-of-war because Carter Pann was there.

Nicholas Dawidoff, representing the writer team, decided to kick off the festivities with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on his saxophone. It started out simply enough until, at the first repeat, Lee started coaching him, loudly and ostentatiously. “That’s right, babe, bring it home!” “This next phrase, give it your all!” “Yes! That’s how to do it.” “Now pull back one last time” “build, build, build.” “Show us whatcha got, show us, Nicky!” And then from on his knees, Al Jolson style, he coached the last phrase with stereotypical Hollywood director fervor. “Bring it home! Bring it home! That’s it, that’s it!” I think the SSB took longer than normal because of Nicky’s laugh breaks.

The Colony asked Lee, me, and Anna Weesner if we would mind doing a little outreach to the Walden School—a fantastic summer composer program for younger composers just a little west of the colony—and we did so. Lee played We Speak Etruscan among a few other things, and one of the Walden composers, smiling brightly, asked Lee if the piece was supposed to be funny. Lee gave a very complete answer : essentially yes, there was humor in his music, sometimes it was intended, and if you the listener think it’s funny, then follow through with that in listening to the piece. He then deferred to me and said that I wrote funny pieces, too. I probably said aw shucks.

I also remember that after David Del Tredici’s presentation, he remarked that it was uncanny all the different ways he had to sustain tension. Now that was a smart comment.

When I first got to Brandeis, I was asked to do a public panel with Lee, Peter Child, and Randy Woolf, having to do with something about something, and on a Saturday morning. Before it started, Lee said, “you’ll do a lot of these here, and the questions are always the same. It doesn’t actually matter what you say.” Yes, we got a question about humor in serious music. And so on.

Lee and I and Beff and Kate—Kate!—started doing things socially after this point. Kate Desjardins is a painter who also taught at NEC, and she is a whole lot of fun, too. They got a lovely place at the top of an extraordinarily narrow staircase in the North End, with a great sun porch thing in the back, and we often did dinners with them at restaurants in the North End. Lee had an encyclopedic knowledge of them, which was evident when he presented our choices for the evening. He really liked octopus and squid.

I believe Beff stayed in their place one night when she was on her way somewheres and we hadn’t moved to the area yet.

Meanwhile, the four of us on the comp faculty of Brandeis were asked to write celebratory pieces for the Lydian String Quartet for Brandeis’s 50th anniversary, in 1998. I had been hearing Beff practice Mythic Birds of Saugerties a lot—our principal residence was still Maine—so I had those licks in my mind, as well as those in Pre-Pulse, when I started the first movement of my piece.

There was a budget to bring in a fifth performer, and since I wasn’t getting paid to write my piece, I added Beff, thus keeping the available fundage in the family.

Thus did I start with some antsy licks that I thought were Hylaesque™ (if nobody has trademarked that word, I hereby do so now). The piece ended up being in three movements, and I seriously considered calling the first movement Hyla Lick Maneuvers. It wouldn’t have been my worst title.

Lee had, of course, written several brilliant quartets for the Lydian Quartet, and it astonished me that he came to the performance of my piece (Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange). The Quartet had told him I wrote them a really hard piece (I didn’t tell him anything), and he said he wouldn’t ever miss a Rakowski premiere if he was able to go. It turns out Rakowski is me.

Also, right around this time, he started calling me Davidy. Every e-mail began “Dear Davidy,” Also, he noted that the Polish pronunciation of his name was Hee-wah.

Once we had finally moved to the area, we had a standing invitation to the legendary yearly New Year's Day party every year. It lasted just about all day, Lee wore a bathrobe, and spent nearly all of it at the stove, making pierogis and soup and other such things. It was of course a wide mix of artists, and it was at one such party that I discovered my favorite pickle! Kate made an hors d’oeuvre plate that included Smak pickles. I immediately grilled her on what they were and where she got them, and it turned out to be a small Polish market in South Boston close to a red line station. You better believe I went there, and quick, and bought all the Smak pickles they had. I’m like that.

We also remember nice conversations with people we didn’t know, and being lobbied very, very hard by a composer of cabaret songs to give up names of performers who would be interested in the songs.

We also started getting invited to shows where Kate was exhibiting artwork. Our first show was in the South End, walkable from Copley, and since we’re not visual artists and not familiar with the lingo, we actually started practicing generic things to say when we saw it. “Kate, your work has a certain QUIETness” was a big hit. It turned out to be marvelous work, actually, at the time somewhere between painting and drawing, so it was pretty easy to say nice things about it. I suppose it had a certain QUIETness about it, too.

We thought one of the characters looked kind of like Amy Briggs. We loved it. She gave it to us. I think.

Kate eventually had a large work at the deCordova Museum, not so far from us, as part of a big themed exhibit entitled Pretty Sweet. Kate’s large painting was right behind the ticket taking. We decided to make an evening of it : Lee would take the commuter rail to Lincoln, we would pick him up, we’d all see the work privately before the museum closed, and then we’d have seafood in Maynard at the Quarterdeck. But I screwed up. The Lincoln station is actually two stations, one for eastbound, one for westbound, and I was too dumb to have figured that out. Waiting on the eastbound side, we wondered why Lee wasn’t on any of the trains. Well, he was about 300 feet away, wondering where the heck we were. Lee called Kate from a pay phone, Kate left a message on our answering machine, Geoff Burleson was in the house and heard it, and he called my cell to say Lee was waiting at the station. Now that’s a hell of a relay network.

Now I know about the other Lincoln station. We found Lee, hightailed it to the museum, but the lights were out and it had closed. We found Kate, though—who remarked that now there was sufficient evidence for them to get cellphones—and we drove to the Quarterdeck, in the dark, and in the dense fog. We almost hit a deer that sprang across the road suddenly (Beff wants to make sure I mention that we all had kind of a freak-out), but we got there, had great food, and the evening was a success. Also, no shop talk.

Since Lee hadn’t seen the exhibit in person, and had no wheels to get out there, it was up to me to go when the museum was open and document it with my lovely Nikon Coolpix.

Lee loved teaching at NEC, but they didn’t give him paid time off to write—no sabbaticals like at a research university. So he schemed various ways to get something like a sabbatical. He got an offer for a full-time job from a university, and his reward for not taking the job was some paid time off. Woo hoo! Thus in 2004–5 there was the need to find replacements to teach Lee’s students, and I was such a replacement. Yes, I was a surrogate Lee Hyla. Twice! More on that later. So I taught two very good students on Monday afternoons that academic year (while I was Chair), at what might be called a discount rate I only offer to alma maters. I enjoyed being on the faculty of my alma mater, and I especially enjoyed the not going to meetings part.

In 2006, both Lee and I got offers from Northwestern and for a time we imagined how cool it would be to be teaching in the same program. I didn’t go, but Lee did (duh). His remark was “three-quarters of the work for one and a half times the pay. A no brainer.” Thus did Northwestern become the top of my you-should-apply-to list. Meanwhile, though, NEC started offering sabbaticals, and Lee took one in the year before he started at Northwestern, in 2007–8. Thus was I again a surrogate Hyla, and thus was I able to recruit Travis Alford to Brandeis. For you see, Travis had gone to NEC to study with Lee, but he ended up in his second year with me. Pretty disappointing, huh? Also, Mike Gandolfi managed to get them to pay a non–alma mater rate.

Of course I was at the farewell concert that NEC gave for Lee, and it was a very classy one, with some great performances. There was a well-catered reception preceding it, and I got a little bit plastered before the concert started. When I say a little bit, I mean something else. So I had the whole concert in which to sober up (I was driving home), and I gave Wilson’s Ivory-Bill a one-person standing ovation. It was well-deserved. Also, I was a
little plastered.

Lee’s exit to Chicago coincided with Beff’s desire to get a four-wheel drive vehicle—a Subaru, specifically—for her weekly drives to and from Maine. Thus we were getting rid of our Camry, which had 226,000 miles on it. When we ditched our Dodge Spirit years earlier, Lee mentioned that he would be pleased to accept a car we were getting rid of, even though he hadn’t owned a car in many years, and they used Zipcar when they needed one. So we gave him the Camry, and I made up a bill of sale that overstated the price he paid for it by a dollar (it said he paid a dollar, and I presumed he’d pay Massachusetts sales tax on that amount). Then Lee needed sage advice on what car ownership in Massachusetts means, and it turned out to be complicated : he had to get it insured before he could register it, and then he had to pay sales tax when he registered it, at the RMV. It was very complicated, especially when in the midst of moving, and especially since they charged sales tax on the Blue Book value of the car and not on what he actually paid. Sales tax was about 300 bucks, as I recall.

Then, new title, registration, new plates, and insurance document in hand, Lee and Kate came over for another delicious lunch, and a complicated handoff. Kate wanted to make sure that before she drove it to Chicago it was in tiptop shape. So first I explained to them, in the driveway, how to use the cruise control, and I handed over all the maintenance documents we had. We drove in two cars to Acton Toyota, and Kate asked for “the once over”. While that was happening, we drove in the available car to the Quarterdeck for lunch (it was great), and back. They said the car was in excellent shape, but one light had to be replaced, for $112. Kate looked at me accusingly, and I told her I’d give them double their money back if they didn’t want the car. Then I pointed left out of the Acton Toyota driveway, said “Route 2 is a mile in that direction and go three quarters of the way around the rotary to go towards Boston”, and off they went. Since I rode in that same car in Chicago three years later, apparently they made it safely. Kate had reported that she drove it to Chicago solo, with all their plants.

Every e-mail from Lee after this time had a brief report about “the Rakmobile”. Dear Davidy, the Rakmobile is doing fine and serving us well.

And right around 2004, we started writing recommendation letters for each other—Lee was itching to spend a semester of his leave at the Camargo Foundation, which asked for letters. It’s tedious for middle-aged guys to find even older people to recommend them for artist colonies (or worse, their students) and other residencies, and they all want letters. But hey, I wrote maybe a dozen letters for Lee, and he maybe two-dozen for me. I applied to more residencies, apparently. “Hey, look, this guy got a Hyla letter!” “Who the fuck is this guy writing for Hyla?”

In 2005 I was a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and when it was time to leave, Jim Frost asked me for recommendations for future Master Artists—specifically composers who were very different from me when possible. I gave them a substantial list topped off by the two composers with the shortest names : Lee Hyla and Kyle Gann. Damned if both of them weren’t Master Artists the very next year. After Lee’s session was over, he e-mailed me to say he had a great time, and thanks for the recommendation. I had not told him I recommended him.

In 2010, Lee was asked to curate a concert of the Chicago Chamber Musicians on the Saturday of Super Bowl weekend. This turned into a fun and busy trip, as I stayed at Lee and Kate’s new place—a loft carved out of an old factory—and got to be a passenger in the back seat of the car I had driven to Maine and back so many times. It’s a lovely place with very high ceilings and a few rooms carved out for sleeping and studios. So I had the couch, which was comfortable. I remember Kate driving us to a seafood place they liked, and it was quite good. They wouldn’t let me pay. And I remember the concert itself. Lee was charged with introducing the concert, which had Lee’s flute and piano piece, Voice of the Whale, my Hyperblue, and something else. Lee simply said, “these are pieces that blew me away the first time I heard them and changed my thinking about music.” High praise indeed.

Lee had secured a colloquium at Northwestern for me on the Monday after the Super Bowl, which left us with Super Bowl Sunday to do stuff. So we did a Super Bowl party at Gusty Thomas and Bernard Rands’s place! Adam Marks, Stacy Garrop, Amy Briggs, and Joe Francavilla were there, too. I didn’t care who won. Lee apparently did.

Overnight it snowed 10 inches, but I was able to get to the colloquium, and in a cab to the motel near the airport I’d stay in before my early flight. Yes, what I remember about this trip is seafood, a great compliment, Super Bowl, and snow. Lots of snow.

Lee and Kate were in town in June 2011, apparently having finally sold their place in the North End (I could be wrong), so we went out for tapas on Newbury Street. I brought my brand new iPad to show them my Camargo pictures. Little did I know this would be the last time I would see him.

Last fall I was asked to judge some scores for the Red Note Music Festival, and Lee’s name was dropped in the e-mail asking me. He was to be the composer in residence for the festival, and he was also judging scores. My student Emily went to that festival, and when she got back, I asked her how Lee was. She said he looked old and frail. He walked very slowly and fell down once. She thought he was in his 70s (he was 62). She also said she’d heard he’d had pneumonia. I was hopeful that he would be on the mend. Lee did write a letter for me in the fall, and uncharacteristically quickly. “Dear Davidy. Consider it done.”

Toward the end of May I was at Yaddo, retrieving e-mails from the baby internet they have in the library there, and there was a missive from Kate, sent to a list. Lee has pneumonia again, but is up and conscious and thinks he has to get to a concert. They are micromanaging his blood pressure. When he is better we hope to get him on a list for a liver transplant.


I asked Kate to keep me informed about everything, no matter how small. Then the news from Beff.


Hyla Lick Maneuvers is reprinted with kind permission from David Rakowski. It can be read in its original form at his website: http ://ziodavino.blogspot.com/.

Hyla Lick Maneuvers