Home > Uncategorized > Composer Lee Hyla, Stony Brook alum, dies at the age of 61

Composer Lee Hyla, Stony Brook alum, dies at the age of 61

July 7, 2014

lee-hylaThe Stony Brook University Music Department is deeply saddened by the recent passing of Lee Hyla (1952-2014). Lee was a successful and highly-respected composer who taught at the New England Conservatory from 1992 to 2007 and at Northwestern University from 2007-2014. His compositional talent was recognized with a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and the Goddard Lieberson Prize. He studied at Stony Brook, receiving his Master of Arts degree in composition in 1978; his primary composition teacher was David Lewin.

Lee’s music is heralded for his unique ability to draw on his background in jazz, punk and other popular styles, as well as contemporary classical idioms, in a way that transcends superficial fusion, and his music has been described as seamless, bracingly original, and tactile. He was a favorite among a wide range of performers and performing ensembles, of which the Midori/Vadim Repin commissioning project, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Speculum Musicae, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and the Lydian String Quartet constitute just a small representative number. Among his best-known works are the Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra (1988) composed for long-time friend and collaborator (and Stony Brook alum) Tim Smith, Pre-Pulse Suspended (1984) commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, Polish Folk Songs (2007) drawing on his Polish heritage, Howl (1993) composed for the Kronos Quartet with Allen Ginsberg declaiming, and Wilson’s Ivory-bill (2000) which employs live performers and field recording.

“We were shocked to hear about Lee’s death,” said Perry Goldstein, a composer and chair of the Stony Brook Department of Music. “I’ve always admired his music, which transcended the academic  proscriptions by which we of that generation were often constrained. His music always struck me with its deep visceral appeal, its energy, and its emotional range.”

Almost since its inception, Stony Brook’s Department of Music has drawn creative musicians who have been attracted by the department’s openness to music of all kinds and by its lack of rule-bound rigidity. The department has always been known for its encouragement of new music, and has frequently attracted innovative musicians and composers. Many ensembles were formed by, or staffed with, current and ex-Stony Brook students. These include the New Millenium Ensemble, Yarn Wire, the Elk City Players, The Volta Creek Trio, the Bryant Park String Quartet, Iktus, The Furious Band, STRIKE, among many others.

“Whether they came to Stony Brook together or met here and formed performing groups or composer-performer coalitions, Stony Brook has nurtured exceptionally creative musicians throughout its history,” continued Goldstein. One such group of students formed in the mid- to late-70’s. According to an article published on June 12, 2014 in the online site, “The New Music Box,” after a stint in Boston, Lee, [bassist] Alan [Nagel], and [clarinetist] Tim went on to do graduate work at Stony Brook where the circle widened to include percussionist Jim Pugliese (a close friend whose brilliant drums and percussion are featured in so many of Lee’s works), Rick Sacks, and composer Christopher Butterfield.” Composers Frank Stemper and Tom Flaherty widened the circle even further.

“When I reached out to many of the distinguished professional musicians who were here with Lee in the mid-70’s,” says Goldstein, “I was touched and gratified to receive an immediate outpouring of affectionate reminiscences that not only describe Lee but also capture the freewheeling and lively flavor of the department at that time.” The following reminiscences, from distinguished Stony Brook alums and faculty, paint a vibrant portrait of Lee and the Music Department during that period.

Tim Smith, MM 1978, freelance clarinet with Speculum Musicae, the Prism Chamber Orchestra, and others

Lee liked people and they liked him. He was always the center. There were regular gatherings at the house at Sound Beach, which he shared with fellow grad students Alan Nagel and Jeff Wood, usually with the accompaniment of the Sound Beach Soul Revue, a taped collection of Motown hits, generous doses of James Brown and when the mood was right, the Rolling Stones. Lee’s genius was social as well as musical.

Jim Pugliese, MM 1976, composer in residence, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

In 1974 the percussion department was still in the heavy engineering building. [My] first year [in] graduate school for percussion performance, little did I know that most of the musicians that I would meet in the next two years would become the most important people in my life both personally and professionally. The common trait which bonded us was a genuine and serious passion for “New Music” and hard dedicated work. [I met] Rick Sacks, Christopher Butterfield, Tom Flaherty, Tim Smith, Steve Payson, Robin Peller and many more. My teachers and mentors [were], Raymond Des Roches, Arthur Weisburg, Gil Kalish, Charles Rosen and more.

Together we pro-actively started music series and performances like “Mostly From The Last Decade” and also an entire week of concerts dedicated to some of the most beautiful and challenging music of that time. We were ambitious. If you look at the careers of just the persons that I mentioned above you will see not only success but a continued passion for music and life that is unstoppable!

The one person that I left out is Lee Hyla and that is because he is the reason that I am writing [this reminiscence]. Lee passed just a short while ago. I can probably count my best friends in life on one hand, persons who have become part of my family. Lee was as important to me as my own brother. A leader, an incredible composer who shared every bit of his knowledge and love for music with me, his friends and students. Whether it was long NYC nights listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elliot Carter, Neil Young or Monk or just the ongoing discussions about music, art and composition or our incredible rivalry, him a Red Sox fan and me a Yankee fan, it was how we cut our teeth in moving on to all of our success as musicians. Any students in the music department at Stony Brook know that our spirits are still there. Bond and learn from each other. It’s important!

Christopher Butterfield, MM 1977, Associate Professor, University of Victoria (Canada)

In the fall of 1979, my band Klo was just starting up in Toronto. We put an advertisement in the Globe and Mail, looking for a drummer ‘familiar with Arnold Schoenberg and James Brown’. Lee Hyla’s spirit is behind the wording for the advertisement. At Stony Brook, he introduced me to James Brown (who provided the sound track for countless parties), whose intensity he manifested in every engagement with music, his own or anybody else’s. Lee’s own musical world was totally inclusive, so he made it possible to imagine these two seemingly incongruous figures in the same sentence. (We didn’t get anybody from the ad – in the event, Rick Sacks came up from New York for a week to play drums – he’s still there, some 35 years later, to Toronto’s great benefit.) When Lee himself came up to Toronto to play in Klo for 6 months in 1980, he brought to the band the true spirit of rock ’n roll – he’d dance around the keyboard, darting in and out to create interjections, accents, impromptu motives – he was endlessly, crazily inventive, and made the band into something remarkable. He’d also sing and play guitar in a couple of his own songs – voice and instrument both howling, as if there were no tomorrow. That’s the way he wanted players to approach music – as if there were no tomorrow. His excitement at discovering music that achieved this (e.g. ‘Entertainment,’ by Gang of Four; James Booker playing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’; Lee Dorsey singing ‘Confusion’) was palpable, and infectious.

Through the 80s and into the 90s I would visit Lee in New York, and then in Boston – and once in Rome, during his year at the American Academy. Eating at the Great Jones Café across the street from his place in New York, then at the Daily Catch on Hanover St. in Boston, were high points. His opinions about music helped define my own – his critical rigor was bracing, and he demanded that you engage – music was too important for small talk. Lee set the bar very high. His spirit and integrity still informs my own thinking about music, nearly 40 years after we first met.

Frank Stemper, MA 1978, composer in residence, Southern Illinois University

In addition to Tom Flaherty, there was bass clarinetist Tim Smith – who was Lee’s life long best friend, composer Christopher Butterfield, and bassist Alan Nagel. Judy [Lochhead] and George [Fisher] were of course in that class as well. Lee and I had a foursome weekly golf game with two other SB classmates – composer Michael Bushnell and cellist James Kohn.

Lee was the nucleus of our group of composers. We were all very serious about writing music but very unpretentious about it. It was great camaraderie, because we’d all arrive at the music building in morning – every day – and spend the bulk of the day composing (and of course taking our classes and/or teaching them), and then we’d horse around most nights. We are all still actively composing, and this was largely because of the warm camaraderie of that time.

We also had a lot of fun playing golf, playing poker, making bogus recordings, going to Red Sox/Yankee games in NYC, and putting on lots of new music concerts (in a series called MOSTLY FROM THE LAST DECADE). One afternoon we even had a rolling desk chair race around the entire music building, including elevators, and David Lewin was the referee!!!

Rick Sacks, MM 1976, percussionist & composer, PhenomeNONsemble, KLO

As a percussionist studying with Ray DesRoches, I was imbued with a desire to rise to the challenges of a new music genre that required technical rigor and a sense of phrase.

Taking a break from practicing, the percussionists would sit on the floor in the basement hallway of the new fine arts building. Lee would come down, or meet us in the lobby and suggest we perform in his new work. I had the great experience of being one of these players. His pieces were difficult, requiring hours of woodshedding; tendrils and lines that wove together into fabrics and blankets of beautiful phrases.

At Stony Brook, Lee and I met composer Christopher Butterfield and double bassist Alan Nagel. Christopher returned to Canada and started commuting from Toronto to Montreal to teach. I was commuting from NY to Vermont to teach. Christopher would send postcards, “The Future is Now,” luring me to come to Toronto and play in an art rock band. I began visiting and soon, KLO was born with Christopher on lead guitar and vocals, Lee on electric piano, Alan on Rickenbacker bass and Philip Butterfield on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. In rehearsal, Lee would be draped over a Fender Rhodes piano, lid open and mechanisms pulled out. With screwdriver in hand Lee would adjust the tines in the piano until he had a ‘dirty’, barking sound. His piano playing elevated the band’s sonic quality. These were the best years of that band. After Lee returned to the US, I saw him over the years when we would both visit Manhattan and end up at Jim Pugliese’s apartment in the East Village. I was able to gloat at the two World Series in a row that the Blue Jays won. Lee dismissed them as side attractions to his beloved Boston Red Sox.

Judy Lochhead, PhD 1982, history & theory, Stony Brook University (alumna and faculty)

I got to know Lee when we were both graduate students in the very young Department of Music at Stony Brook. We were among the first to get graduate degrees in this new department and as a consequence there was a sense of “pioneer camaraderie” amongst us. Lee came, as a composer, to study with David Lewin and, as a music theorist, I also came to study with David. So, Lee and I interacted quite a bit.

I have two strong memories of Lee. One was his story of how he avoided the Vietnam draft—he purposefully lost a lot weight so that he wouldn’t pass the physical. It worked and he got a deferment. The other strong memory is of the chair races we used to hold on the third floor of the Staller Center. Late at night—when all the faculty had gone home—the graduate students would use the (then new) rolling desk chairs to run races around the “track” of the third floor. Lee was a very competitive chair-racer.

Over the past several years, I have been in touch with Lee since I often taught his music in my classes on music since 1945. He was very generous with scores and often would send copies for us to use. Lee was a great composer, musical thinker, and human being—he is missed.

George Fisher, MA 1980, Mannes College

I got to know Lee as a grad student colleague at Stony Brook in the mid 70s. He arrived already well connected to several other students and faculty hailing from NEC — Alan Nagel (double bass), Rebecca LaBrecque (piano), Jim McCalla (musicology). While we were not close friends, we were good colleagues. I was infected by his enthusiasm, and admired his sense of purpose about his music and the place of music in his life.

Over the years, I watched his career from afar. A couple of years ago Judy Lochhead and I were able to reconnect with him in Chicago, where he was a composition teacher for our son Chris. (You can be sure THAT made us all feel old.) We shared a seafood dinner downtown, told stories about the old days, caught up on the intervening years. The intensity was still there, and the energy to make a difference, to do something that matters. He certainly did. We are all the richer for that gift and the poorer for his loss.


And here are some appreciative quotes from reviews:

“With his acute ear and impressive harmonic sophistication, Mr. Hyla excels at what every composer strives to do: to take the sounds that capture him and fashion them into a distinctive voice.” –Anthony Tommasini, New York Times 2002

“Hyla’s unabashedly eclectic palette reflected the wide range of his musical background and interests. His style embraced everything from 19th century romantics, complex atonal idioms, avant-garde jazz and pounding piano riffs straight out of Jerry Lee Lewis. So ingeniously absorbed were these diverse elements, however, that the seams never showed.” –John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

“Mr. Hyla found a way to harness the visceral energy and tactile grab of his favorite improvisers and channel them into are fully notated, bracingly original scores that won him the admiration of colleagues, critics, musicians, and listeners.” –Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe

“Known in particular for his chamber music, Mr. Hyla — who cited influences ranging from Beethoven to the avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor to the contemporary composer Elliott Carter — was praised for compositions that were inarguably modern, but which lacked the forbidding qualities that can alienate listeners from modernist music. What made his work so captivating, critics said, was its eclectic originality, propulsive rhythmic force, companionable combination of dissonance and consonance, and masterly command of sonorities from the lush to the spare.” –Margalit Fox, The New York Times

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