Since its inception sometime in the 1990s — no one is certain of the exact date — the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice has guided a small group of participants through a motley array of avant-garde music. There is always a slightly madcap air around the weeklong seminar, right down to its acronym-derived nickname: Sick Puppy.
But this year, the Institute will take on a more somber,
melancholy air, and the absence of one would-be participant will be acutely felt.
Lee Hyla, formerly on the composition faculty of New England Conservatory and then at Northwestern University, was to have been this year’s SICPP composer in residence. A few weeks ago, his wife, the artist Katherine Desjardins, called Stephen Drury, the institute’s artistic director, to report that Hyla was in a Chicago-area hospital with a serious case of pneumonia, and would have to miss the gathering.
When I first spoke to Drury late last week, he sounded guardedly optimistic about Hyla’s recovery. He’d enlisted the California-based composer Roger Reynolds to take his place, and hoped that Hyla would be able to return in a couple of years.
But devastating news came swiftly: Hyla died June 6 from pneumonia-related complications. He was 61.
I spoke to Drury a second time about 24 hours after news of Hyla’s death became public. The two had known each other for years at NEC, and Drury said that this year’s SICPP would be dedicated to the composer’s memory. A June 17 concert will be especially powerful – it includes three Hyla works, including one (“Migración”) that Drury’s ensemble, the Callithumpian Consort, premiered in February.
“Lee had a voice that was absolutely unique,” Drury said. “The more music I get to know by composers known and unknown, the more it seems clear that people who are speaking sincerely have their own voice. And with Lee the mark was saying something that had never been said before, in a way it had never been said before, and having it completely authentic and original. And at the same time, [being] absolutely in charge of its compositional techniques.
“That’s a music that gives us life, and the vibration of living today,” he continued. “That music speaks to being alive right now, not just pretending to be music because someone wants to be a composer.”
Despite the sadness surrounding it, SICPP still has much of purely musical importance to offer. This year’s guest artist is pianist John Tilbury, a giant in avant-garde circles and an authority on the music of Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew in particular. He’ll be playing works by both of those composers on June 15. On the second half of the recital is Tilbury’s own adaptation of “Stirrings Still,” Samuel Beckett’s final prose piece, in which he will both recite the text and perform what he’s elsewhere called “a soundtrack” for it. Drury pointed out that Tilbury’s piece dovetails nicely with a Reynolds work called “Sketchbook” — for “low female voice accompanying herself at the piano” to a text by Milan Kundera — that will be performed at the closing “Iditarod” concert, always a mammoth affair.
Also of great interest is a June 16 recital by the Tbilisi-based pianist Nino Jvania, who’s quickly gaining recognition for her performances of Stockhausen’s music. She’ll play what’s being billed as the first complete US performance of “Natural Durations,” a cycle of 24 piano pieces completed in 2006, and one of Stockhausen’s final works for the instrument. An extensive meditation on the piano’s timbral, coloristic nuances, it is the third “hour” in the composer’s vast cycle “Klang,” left unfinished at his death in 2007.
The June 17 concert that features Hyla’s works also includes music by Frederic Rzewski, who was SICPP’s composer in residence in 2005, and a brand new piece by Chaya Czernowin, who held that position in 2010. Linda Dusman, the Institute’s second composer in residence, is represented on a June 20 program.
The presence of these composers is no coincidence. Drury had originally thought of making the concerts of this year’s Institute a sort of Sick Puppy retrospective, but quickly realized that the idea was too large to be practical. So he’s spreading the retrospective out over three years, with those works as a kind of down payment.
Before Hyla died, I had asked Drury whether looking back over SICPP’s history had inspired any retrospective wisdom.
“I just feel like the guy who walks across the street and buys one lottery ticket a year and wins,” he answered. “It’s just total luck. I know who the good [composers] are, and whose music I like. Those two sections overlap surprisingly well. It’s a good excuse for me to bring them into town and just do some great music.”
Those words took on a deeper meaning when we spoke after Hyla’s death. “One of the things I mentioned the other day is that I’ve been really lucky in getting to know a lot of wonderful composers, and getting to know a lot of really great people also,” Drury said. “And Lee was just the perfect example of that, the perfect archetype.”