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Lee Hyla, at 61; melded energy, complexity of rock, classical music

<a href="http://leehyla.com/leehyla.html">Lee Hyla, a former professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, wrote bracingly original scores.</a> Kreiter, Suzanne Globe Staff/file 2007

Some composers weaned on rock and jazz later put those genres aside, repent any youthful indiscretions, and begin writing a more abstracted breed of music for the concert hall. Others tread the crossover path, placing a country fiddler, or even a DJ with turntables, right up alongside a classical orchestra.

The composer Lee Hyla, who performed in his earlier years in rock bands and free jazz ensembles, would have it neither way. He refused to turn his back on the genres he first loved, but also resolutely avoided any facile attempts at fusion. The integrity of his approach almost sapped his ability to compose altogether. A single measure of one of his early pieces cost him seven months to write. But ultimately, Mr. Hyla found a way to harness the visceral energy and tactile grab of his favorite improvisers and channel them into carefully notated, bracingly original scores that won him the admiration of colleagues, critics, musicians, and listeners.


“He was the best of us and we all knew it,” said fellow composer Scott Wheeler. “Composers of virtually every style admired and supported his work. The younger generation idolized him, regarded him as a guru.”

Mr. Hyla, who taught composition for 25 years at New England Conservatory, died in a Chicago hospital Friday of complications from pneumonia. He was 61.

His music was recognized with numerous awards, including the Rome Prize and the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the time of his death, he was the Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt professor of theory and composition at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

Mr. Hyla’s catalog included several works for larger ensembles as well as solo instrumental pieces, but the vast majority of his output was chamber music, including a trenchant yet affecting set of “Polish Folk Songs”; a kinetic piece for amplified cello, piano, and percussion called “The Dream of Innocent III”; an impassioned setting of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” memorably recorded by the Kronos Quartet and the poet himself; and four string quartets. Three of those quartets were commissioned by the Lydian String Quartet, one of several Boston-based groups (including the Firebird Ensemble, Boston Musica Viva, and Boston Modern Orchestra Project) that championed his music.


“You really have a very physical feeling when you’re playing [Mr. Hyla’s Quartet No. 4],” Rhonda Rider, former cellist of the Lydian Quartet, told the Globe in 2007. “It not only takes you to another landscape but puts you right there in the moment. We would often program his music with Beethoven. They share an immediacy. It’s as if the music is being written right in the instance that you’re hearing it.”

Speaking by phone this week, Rider added: “For myself, he was the most important contemporary composer.”

Mr. Hyla was born into a Polish-American family in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and grew up in Greencastle, Ind. As a boy he dutifully studied classical piano, but in his teenage years found his cozy musical world blown open by a set of potent discoveries: the hurtling free jazz of Cecil Taylor, the complex expressivity of Elliott Carter’s landmark 1948 Cello Sonata, and the wild, interstellar beauty of Beethoven’s late string quartets. While still in high school, Mr. Hyla founded his first rock band. His formal training in composition came at New England Conservatory and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, though in the early 1980s, he dropped out of his doctoral program, moved to a loft in the New York’s East Village, and immersed himself in the thriving downtown experimental music scene.


All the while, Mr. Hyla kept trying to compose, seeking to bridge the rigors of high-modernism with the expressive fury of genres that thrived far from the ivory tower. A breakthrough came in 1984, with “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,” he told the Globe in 2007. “The intellectual stuff is all still there, but it had shed its weight.”

That work’s cutting dissonances and tenacious rhetoric became signature traits of Mr. Hyla’s later scores, but these qualities in his music are also frequently offset by an elegance and emotional depth looming just behind the jagged surfaces. In one of his string quartets, the score’s markings call for the players to render a particular passage with “fierce tenderness.” Mr. Hyla’s music itself might be said to inhabit, and in the process dissolve, this contradiction.

“His voice as a composer was absolutely unique,” said pianist and conductor Stephen Drury, who commissioned two of Mr. Hyla’s works and performed his music widely. “It’s that explosive rhythmic energy and the craft — those two coupled together — that are absolutely like no one else. I think the reason is that Lee was absolutely sincere in his music, which makes it absolutely original. Nothing in the craft or the writing was just to be innovative for its own sake, and by the same token, nothing was ever derivative.”


In 1992, after a residency at the American Academy in Rome, Mr. Hyla returned to Boston for a teaching position at New England Conservatory. At a gathering for new faculty, he met Katherine Desjardins, a visual artist who was also joining the faculty. “Lee started talking about Italian painting, and that was basically it,” she recalled. The two married in 1998.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Hyla leaves a sister, Cynthia Hyla Whittaker of New York City.

Concerts in his honor are being planned for the fall in both New York and Boston.

As a teacher, Mr. Hyla was widely valued for his candor, a quality that also extended to his own descriptions of the frustrations and joys associated with the creative act itself.

“When you’re composing, you’re alone all the time and there is a tremendous struggle to understand your materials,” he told the Globe in 2007.

“Most of the time it’s not a good feeling because it’s just so frustrating to put a piece together. But the moment when things actually crystallize is one of the most transforming moments I’ve had as a human being. When you can hold the whole piece in your hand, so to speak, and you understand all the levels and layers, there’s a way in which you feel like you’re communicating with the music that’s been done before you, and music that’s still to come. It is a very illuminating moment, a very beautiful moment, actually. You’re a couple of feet off the ground.”


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.