Times have been good for my old composition teacher Lee Hyla. After many years on the composition faculty at Boston’s New England Conservatory, he has been hired into an endowed chair at Northwestern University, where he will take up residence in the coming academic year. His impending departure has precipitated a flurry of activity in Boston, including a lengthy and glowing profile in the Boston Globe in mid January and a farewell retrospective concert at New England Conservatory a few days ago. And in November, John Zorn’s Tzadik label released his latest CD “Wilson’s Ivory-bill.” Samples of three of the four works on the CD are available at http://www.leehyla.com/, if you’d like a taste of what I’m talking about here.The disc starts with the Lydian String Quartet tearing into the opening notes of Hyla’s “String Quartet #4” (1999) as if it had insulted their mother. It feels like we’re in the middle of something already in progress, and it takes a moment for us to get our bearings. The music goes in fits and starts, but over time the fits get longer and the starts blur together. And after a couple of minutes the language starts to become clear and we can see where we’re coming from, if not where we’re being taken. Hyla has long been friends with Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, and the somewhat oblique stylistic relationship is recognizable in this piece. The language is modernist, without a doubt, but the fingerprints of Jazz, Rock, and the New York Downtown scene are all over it – sometimes he works with motivic cells, but he breaks them down and cuts to and away from them too fast for them to function as minimalism; at the same time, he manages to build up a sense of groove that propels the music forward much more robustly than can the noodlings of many of his post-serialist contemporaries. By the end of the piece he has turned the long lines that wailed above the ferocious counterpoint into a surprising serenity.
“Wilson’s Ivory-bill,” for piano and baritone voice, begins with a field recording of an ivory billed woodpecker made in 1935, which returns later in the piece as well. The text is a somewhat surprising choice — an excerpt from Alexander Wilson’s early 19th century book American Ornithology. It describes his capture of the Ivory-bill which he drew for the book, its “noble and unconquerable spirit,” and its ultimate death in Wilson’s hotel room. Much of the piano music, wonderfully performed by Judith Gordon ferociously underscores the frantic, wild behavior of the bird as Mark McSweeny sings the text, and at other times plays counterpoint against the field recording. The more pensive moments, especially the final words “and I witnessed his death with regret” are quite beautiful. Because of the narrative nature of the text, the piece feels almost like a short oratorio.
“Amnesia Redux,” performed by Triple Helix, and “The Dream of Inocent III,” performed by Rhonda Rider, Judith Gordon, and Robert Schulz, round out the album nicely. Both are brilliant pieces in their own right, and musically they work well as companions to the String Quartet and “Wilson’s Ivory-bill”. “Amnesia Redux” features, among other things, beautiful long lines against fragmented cuts and jabs by other instruments. “Dream” has some of the best high-modernist rock and roll jamfest music around, which is interestingly similar in effect to the interplay between the woodpecker field recording and the piano and voice in “Wilson’s Ivory-bill.”
If you like Lee Hyla’s music, you certainly can’t go wrong with this album. If you don’t know his music, this would be a good place to start (although if you like orchestral music more than chamber music, his 2004 release “Trans” wouldn’t disappoint either.) And if you don’t like his music, I can’t help you.