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Composer and Bienen School of Music Professor Dies at 61

Lee Hyla wrote for leading ensembles and was known for skill and originality

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June 10, 2014 | by Judy Moore

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University Professor Lee (Leon Joseph) Hyla, an award-winning American composer, known for his ingenious skill and originality, passed away June 6 in Chicago. He was 61.

Hyla, the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music’s Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt Chair in Music Theory and Composition, was fascinated by all types of musical styles and was a master at combining complex contemporary atonal idioms with elements of avant-garde jazz, rock and, at times, punk.

He had “unassailable credentials within both avant-garde and academic circles,” wrote Anthony Tommasini in a 2013 article in The New York Times.

"The Bienen School of Music has lost a great composer and inspirational pedagogue,” Bienen School Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery, said. “The impressive list of commissions Professor Hyla received from artists such as the Kronos Quartet, Midori, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are evidence of the high level of respect Lee commanded from the professional musical community.”

In addition to the Kronos Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Hyla composed for other ensembles, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Speculum Musicae. He received commissions from the Koussevitzky, Fromm, Barlow and Naumberg foundations, the Mary Flagler Carey Charitable Trust, Concert Artists Guild, Chamber Music America and the Meet the Composer/Readers Digest Consortium. His music has been recorded on Nonesuch, New World, Avant, Tzadik and CRI labels.

A 2013 Tzadik recording of some of Hyla’s chamber works starts with a 2007 work titled “Polish Folk Songs.” The work was inspired by memories of his grandmother’s funeral that took place in a Polish community in his hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y., according to the 2013 Times article. Scored for seven instruments, the work is based on the songs of mourning from the old country that Hyla’s grandmother and friends often sang.

Hyla listened to ornithological recordings for “Field Guide,” a 10-minute score he composed in 2006. “The music captures the assertiveness of many birdcalls, the delicacy of others, all folded into a restless yet cohesive score,” Tommasini wrote in the Times article. 

“My Life on the Plains,” which Hyla wrote in 2010 and is the title work of the album, takes its name from the autobiography of George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. Army officer and cavalry commander of the American Civil War and American Indian Wars. The 30-minute work starts with staggered entrances by individual instruments, continues with a series of duos and trios followed by calm and intense passages and a haunting slow movement before it ends with an intensely frenetic section. 

“Mr. Hyla’s young experimental days come to the fore, though the writing is masterly,” the 2013 Times article concluded. 

Hyla’s honors include the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Goddard Lieberson Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the St. Botolph Club Award and the Rome Prize. He served as resident composer of the American Academy in Rome and a composition fellow at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. 

Hyla also recently served as composer-in-residence for the Etchings Festival in Auvillar, France, and an Aaron Copland fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, Italy. He was planning to serve as composer-in-residence later this month for New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. 

Born in 1952 in Niagara Falls, Hyla grew up in Greencastle, Ind. He studied composition at the New England Conservatory and SUNY Stony Brook. He came to the Bienen School in 2007 after teaching at the New England Conservatory. For more information, visit Lee Hyla: contemporary composer

Hyla is survived by his wife, Katherine Desjardins, and his sister, Cynthia Hyla Whittaker.