"I think I was having such a hard time because I knew all these musics were equally important to me, and I couldn't find a way to reconcile them," Hyla said. Minimalism was one obvious solution in the air at the time, but for Hyla, this pop-inflected repetitive language lacked a basic harmonic tension that he saw as essential. He was seeking a blend of uptown and downtown influences at once more edgy and rigorous. He longed to capture the anarchic spirit of punk rock but his ear was too sophisticated to simply quote guitar riffs or crank up the volume of his string quartets.
Finally the dam broke in 1984, when he wrote a piece called "Pre-Pulse Suspended" for 12 instruments. "I was able to clarify how the energy of rock 'n' roll could come into notated classical music, how to get that energy unencumbered with extra intellectual baggage. The intellectual stuff is all still there, but it had shed its weight."
Lee was a tremendous teacher -- if I have any insight into Varèse, it's entirely due to Lee's influence -- and while I'm sorry (for their sake) to learn he's leaving NEC at the end of this semester, I wish him the best of luck in his new gig at Northwestern. I know he'll enjoy being close to the fertile Chicago improv scene, but I also hope the guys from that crowd manage to slip past the gates of the ivory tower and come check out Lee's stuff, which is always thoroughly killing.
Lee is the most down-to earth academic composer I've ever met. He's got this quiet, unassuming voice, but in class he'd just casually drop these incredibly penetrating observations about the music under discussion that would turn your head around for the rest of the day. He could talk just as authoritatively and passionately about John Lennon and Neil Young as he could about Elliott Carter and Stefan Wolpe. He is incredibly supportive of his students, one of the rare comp teachers who doesn't try to force the kids into a particular mold, but instead tries to help them acquire the tools to express whatever it is that they're trying to express... and maybe, along the way, open them up to some sounds and ideas they hadn't previously considered.
When I was at NEC, there was a bit of a weird vibe between us jazz composers and many of the "legit" comp majors -- I don't think it was outright animosity, just a little of this going on (on both sides, for sure) -- but Lee never distinguished between us, and in fact seemed genuinely happy to have a bunch of unruly, opinionated, and often flaky jazz composers crash his orchestration class. The Globe article mentions a few send-off concerts, including the official one next week, and if I can get free, I'm going to try to Fung Wah it out to Boston to catch the hit.
UPDATE: I think I will also take the opportunity to point you to this piece on Hyla, by listen.'s Steve Hicken. Steve is one of the guys who first hipped me to Hyla's music (long before I ever even considered going to NEC), back in the glory days of Salon Table Talk. Make sure you read all the way to the bottom, including this footnote:
15 In an April 14, 2004 e-mail Hyla writes:
I have a small footnote to add to that. I felt that at that time, some of us were starting to revolt against the idea of the composer as academic, which in the 70's was an overwhelmingly shared belief. When I left school after receiving a masters degree (and not following through with a doctorate) I was told by many composer friends that I was committing career suicide. I didn't pursue teaching positions and was academically unaffiliated with any institution from 1978-1992- something that I believe allowed me to re-claim my own compositional voice. During that time I drove a truck, worked in a bookstore, drove a cab, and managed to pay low rent. Starting in '84 I got lucky with a string of grants and commissions and worked exclusively as a composer until '92 (aided enormously by the low rent factor). At that point I felt it was safe to go back into the teaching world, since I felt more clear about who I was as a composer. Just thought I'd mention that aspect, since it was so important to me at the time.