Originally posted June 7, 2014
I was 22 years old and at the beginning of my masters' program in composition at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, taking my first composition lesson with Lee Hyla, in September of 2006. Lee wore long, stringy hair, a Red Sox cap that looked like it probably preceded Bucky Dent and the 1978 collapse, and a bemused smile. The student before me was enduring some teasing from him and dishing it back as she walked out the door, while I sat, wide-eyed. When the door closed, he turned to me. "So, what's been happening?", he asked, as he would at the beginning of every lesson from then on.
I offered bland, flustered replies that didn't really seem to satisfy Lee, who probed a little bit more about what exactly was happening in my life as his bemused grin grew. But eventually we got on to music. I showed him a piece called Big Fish, for two clarinets, that I had written over the summer at a festival. It was basically finished, but the professor I had been working with hadn't been satisfied, and so I wasn't either, although I didn't know what was missing. The piece was full of repetitive patterns and I had a vague idea, passed on from that professor and others, that this wasn't OK somehow. I had tried to remove them and didn't like the result, so I had put them back. Lee and I listened through the MIDI playback. "Great," he said.
"Yeah. Great piece. Well, you could use one more phrase here."
I made a minor tweak, and that was it. Big Fish is still one of my favorite and most well-received pieces.
That was the beauty of Lee's teaching. Lee let you do things. When I first started working with him, that was what I needed the most. Not to be reminded constantly about the historical precedent for what I was writing (although he was amazing for that too - he was spot-on about Beethoven, Feldman, and Stravinsky, and watching him explain the chordal spacing in Symphonies of Wind Instruments while rocking and swaying excitedly taught me that score analysis could be visceral and fun), and not to be told what you could and couldn't do, but to just write what you needed to write. He was candid about the results, with no hesitation to say "that's pretty square" or "that's not your best", but he let me compose. He also helped me to chill out, both personally and in my approach to composition. And his musical outlook, of course, wasn't limited to Beethoven and Stravinsky. I remember the skepticism in my reaction when he told me to go listen to someone called Captain Beefheart, and to the titles of the Zappa albums he was suggesting. (He was right, though, obviously.) For his part, he let me bring in current pop and hip hop recordings, and we picked them apart together. (His reaction to "Move Bitch" by Ludacris: hysterical laughter and "there's a harp in there!") That first year of my masters degree was when I developed the courage to try a lot of the tactics that are prominent in my work now. There's no way I'd have been able to write any of my recent music without his influence.
Lee was open and sincere, passionate and invested. During the NEC days he was the professor who came to all of our concerts, and often to Uno's across the street with us afterward. He was a constant advocate for us. (His reaction when I told him I was a finalist for an ASCAP award, although I didn't win: "Why didn't they just give you the fucking award?") Respect for formalities was not something he worried about. ("You should apply to that residency! I'm on the committee, so you'll get in.") And the man could gossip. No lesson was complete without at least 10-15 minutes of it. Sometimes, I met with him after faculty meetings. In his recounting of those meetings, names were used and no punches were held. "He/she's fucking nuts" was a common (and always accurate) refrain. Lee and Kate's annual New Years Day parties, first in their home in Boston's North End and later in Chicago (and before my time, in New York, dating back decades) were legendary. You could count on Lee being dressed in his bathrobe and tube socks, serving homemade pierogies and making everyone feel at home.
Lee and I reunited at Northwestern in 2011, after several years apart, over which we kept in touch. He decamped for Chicago in fall 2007 (and NEC has never been the same without him.) I finished my masters degree, spent a year teaching in Boston, and then went to UC Berkeley for a doctorate. At the time, I chose Berkeley over Northwestern for financial reasons and to try a completely new experience, but telling Lee was really hard. As it turned out, my Berkeley experience wasn't a good one. I called Lee in November of my second year, miserable, and he told me to apply to Northwestern again. For the second time, he saved me, in a creative sense. Chicago has been a much better fit for me and for my work. I've had great opportunities through being at Northwestern and I like the path that I'm on at this point, and his teaching, again, has been an empowering force. And Lee was a reminder of where I came from. We both have missed Boston. The gossip in our lessons here has been primarily about people and events there. Lee changed noticeably between 2007 and 2011 - his mother's passing and other losses in his life (I wish I knew more, had asked him more, given him space to talk) seemed to have brought him down. His health was in decline. But talking about Boston always seemed to cheer him up, or at least, to be therapeutic for both of us. When we met for a lesson the day after the Boston Marathon bombings last spring, we comforted each other. No one else in Evanston seemed to really understand.
I feel terrible today, to find out that Lee has passed. Most of us at Northwestern weren't really aware of what was going on with him and his health. He was in the hospital twice this year. Both times, no notification took place to the composition students - his recent replacement with an interim professor happened quietly, and for those of us finished with coursework and lessons, it just seemed that Lee wasn't answering emails, which sadly, wasn't abnormal as of late. I didn't know that he had been hospitalized the first time until months later. I found out about a week ago this time, and in my self-absorption hadn't yet even sent a card - I'll regret that forever. It makes me really sad to think that he could have been in there, maybe not hearing from almost any of his students here, possibly feeling alone or as if we didn't care. I really wish I'd been outside of my own head enough to find out why Lee wasn't reachable, to send well wishes, even to say goodbye. At any rate, it's horrible, but somehow seems perversely fitting, that although I'm here in Chicago with Lee, the text message that informed me of his death this morning came from another Boston friend. Boston looks out for him and always will, and I hope he knew it. That city lost an indispensible musical pioneer today, a defining representative of the best of its contemporary music spirit. Chicago loves him too - everybody does. But Lee, may you rest in peace, and I hope there's a North End condo up there for you in the sky, with no wall space uncovered by shelves of innumerable books and records, with a Red Sox World Series win happening on TV, and with all the Polish food you can eat. We're going to miss you so much.