One should know about all the structures of fantasy and the fantasies of structures, and mix surprise and enigma, magic and shock, intelligence and abandon, form and antiform.
Thus spake Stefan Wolpe in a masterful, Dada-inflected 1959 lecture entitled “Thinking Twice.” Lee Hyla would have been seven when it was delivered: probably a tad too young to appreciate its gnomic wisdom. Nor, for that matter, did Hyla get the chance to study with Wolpe, who died in 1972 having never fully received his due. Yet of all the composers to have come along on the American scene in Wolpe’s wake, Hyla has arguably done the most to carry the Wolpean torch, to further the German émigré’s project of marrying openminded eclecticism with total artistic integrity, of fusing the untrammeled freedom of improvisation with the resilient objectivity of aesthetic reason. Hyla, who was formerly active as a free jazz pianist, made this debt plain early on by quoting Wolpe’s Chamber Piece No. 1 in his breakthrough work, 1984’s Pre-Pulse Suspended, and if his music has never drawn directly on Wolpe’s idiosyncratic twelve-tone technique (as is the case with, say, Charles Wuorinen), its spirit has always informed Hyla’s output. From their garrulous, aggressive gesturality to their interest in transmuting opposites into simultaneities (Trans: the title of one of Hyla’s chamber orchestra pieces) and their intuitive sense of le ton juste, the affinities between the two are many and striking. And while none of this is to say that Hyla isn’t very much his own man — the rockist edge and resolute avoidance of intellectual ostentation are among the music’s more endearing traits — the analogy with a Wolpe is particularly apt since Hyla tallies with no school, bows before no trends, and has no real followers. A true American original, he’s difficult to contextualize other than by reference to another one-of-a-kind figure: like Wolpe, Hyla treads a lonely path, always following the courage of his artistic convictions, even if it means some will mistakenly label him a “composer’s composer.”
Hyla’s new portrait disc, My Life on the Plains, contains all the Wolpean awareness of “the structures of fantasy and the fantasies of structures” we’ve come to expect from the current Northwestern University professor, but now newly leavened with a welcome dose of easygoing lightness — a canny choice on Hyla’s part. Some of this is a function of the instrumentation: the three pieces featured here are for “modified pierrot ensemble” (all add an extra viola to the now-standard sextet, while My Life on the Plains and Polish Folk Songs also swap a second clarinet for the customary flute), a combination that can grate on the ears if the composer isn’t careful. The solution: instead of treating the ensemble as a thumbnail orchestra, focus on its flexibility, dexterity, and unique capacity for intricate counterpoints. Another possible hint comes by way of the title, also that of the disc’s longest composition: inspired by time spent in Wyoming, the echt-East-coast Hyla appears increasingly willing here to entertain lengthy prairies of breathing room and “empty” space. While Hyla speaks of “wanting to push the performers a bit into areas where they might not ordinarily live,” such a statement applies just as well to his own compositional practice in My Life on the Plains. Accordingly, the work’s second movement, with its hazy clouds of flageolets and its well-judged shifts in harmonic tension, completely refutes the common image of Hyla as the doyen of hyper-caffeinated punk-brutalism.
Not that Hyla has abandoned his former gritty muscularity completely: his favorite instrument, the bass clarinet, features here heavily in its “wailing” upper register, often in drunken counterpoint with its higher-pitched cousin. Or there’s the demented, schizophrenic piano solo (shades of Cecil Taylor) that interrupts the final movement of My Life on the Plains, providing one of the disc’s most memorable moments, as rendered by keyboardist Sarah Bob. Indeed, Hyla’s trademark rock riffs pervade all three pieces, most idiosyncratically so in Field Guide. The piece is a lively potpourri of birdsong, though with its sharply etched contours and highly dramatic pacing, it couldn’t be more different from the ornithological experiments of a Messiaen. A pounding rhythm filched from a Donovan song constantly butts in (or is it just a particularly insistent woodpecker?), acting as a repeated reminder of human presence. In this sense, the down-to-earth Field Guide proves a suggestive response to the French master: Hyla’s bewildered birdwatcher, Audubon guide in hand, would never have been granted admission into any of Messiaen’s celebrations of Creation and its sublime chaos, all of which were written from a transcendental perspective shorn of any concern for the trivial considerations of man.
If I’ve yet to say anything about Polish Folk Songs, it’s because I’m still working to wrap my head around this extraordinarily affecting, incredibly imaginative score. Initially inspired by the old world Polish chants Hyla first heard years ago at his grandmother’s funeral, it draws on the rustic music of the Tatra Mountain region — also the source for the folkloristic works of Szymanowski, Bacewicz, and Górecki. Yet the miracle of Hyla’s piece is that it’s hardly a mere retread of these composers’ midcentury investigations. With its surrealistic jump-cuts — the distinctive, plangent Tatra fiddle melodies are constantly rubbing shoulders with the poppy strains of Chicago-style polkas and a pair of wheezing melodicas standing in for a concertina — Polish Folk Songs may have been more instructively titled Poland, as Imagined by David Lynch. That said, the piece works in spite of its decidedly quirky surface charms (viz. the melodicas), most notably thanks to a churchy chorale-snatch played on electric organ, which serves throughout as a refrain. A welcome island of calm in the midst of the continual irruptions of subconscious musical memory, it helps ground this uniquely moving slice of cultural autobiography.
The Firebird Ensemble, a group of some of Boston’s finest new music players, have worked closely with Hyla on this music for years, and it certainly shows. Ideally caught by Tzadik in these recordings, their dynamic performances provide a welcome snapshot of a still all-too-frequently overlooked composer.
Matt Mendez is an independent musicologist and critic. His personal blog is http://soundproofedblog.blogspot.com.