NYNME wraps season with a Hyla tribute and Rosenblum premiere
Western classical composers have always adapted the vernacular music of their day; Josquin did it, so did Beethoven, so did Mahler. Hymn tunes, drinking songs, and marches fit seamlessly into sonatas and symphonies, and their origins are mostly lost on contemporary audiences. Of course, the music of their days did not include jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, and electronic dance music.
Contemporary composers are constantly inserting vernacular ideas into their pieces, it’s become a feature of a burgeoning style. But, for listeners with more than cursory familiarity with the sources, the results are often embarrassing to hear: stiff, square, or show-offy.
A few composers know what they’re doing when they mine material from popular music, and one of the foremost was Lee Hyla, who died last year at the too-early age of 61. The New York New Music Ensemble and composer Matthew Rosenblum paid tribute to Hyla Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall, playing three fine pieces by Hyla, then following with the NY premiere of Rosenblum’s Falling.
Hyla made music that paid respect to both classical and popular traditions. He was a composer who played rock and jazz and could improvise; his trademark qualities were directed energy and an exciting, free sense of expression, both contained within strong, skillful forms.
The opener, Mother Popcorn Revisited, was a microcosm of what made Hyla a distinctive, accomplished composer. The piece is derived from, of all things, riffs from two James Brown songs, “Mother Popcorn” and “Get It Up or Turn It a Loose.” It’s hard to imagine anything more cringe-inducing, a classical composer cherry picking the hard-edged, experimental funk of Brown’s greatest period.
Hyla made it work. He didn’t try to emulate the Godfather of Soul, and barely hints at the original material—one has to know what to listen for to hear it. Written for piano trio and alertly played by violinist Linda Quan, cellist Christopher Frankel, and pianist Stephen Gosling, the piece quickly weaves Brown’s music into the overall flow, and then transforms it into something that resembles late period Stravinsky.
The music never seeks to build any kind of repetitive pulse, an almost invariable direction in adaptations of contemporary pop. Mother Popcorn Revisited instead is a conjuring of form that moves abruptly from phrase to phrase—some so short they seem fragments, or memories. Hyla’s sense of proportion and exactitude keeps the music coherent while leaving the impression that the composing process was some form of automatic writing.
Hyla did more than just transform the vernacular into abstract art, and while truly only scratching the surface of his career, the other two pieces played marked some extent of his range. Field Guide was built from birdsong transcribed for flute (Kelli Kathman), violin, viola (Lois Martin), cello, bass clarinet (Jean Kopperud, who was particularly fine), piano, and percussion (Daniel Druckman). It sounds nothing like Messiaen—the inherent musicality of the birds is nudged into antiphonal/contrapuntal structures that sound like delicate, improvised chamber music. The charm is in the result, not the process.
Polish Folk Songs concluded the first half, and switched the flute part for clarinetist Meighan Stoops. Again, the source is other material that the composer made his own, three sections of rambunctious, sweet, burbling interplay, played with the poise and exuberance the music demands. Conductor James Baker held together all the tricky rhythms.
Falling filled out the second half, and made a strong, lingering impression— enticing, but just beyond certain apprehension. The ensemble of soprano (Jamie Jordan), flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano (with additional microtonal electronic keyboard), and percussion, is amplified so as to blend in with the accompanying electronic sound.
The piece starts with the crackling sound of fire. The instruments play quiet, breathy lines, and there a hiss of percussion accompanied by bursts of static. It’s atmospheric, but then a voice is heard, announcing the death of a “29 year old stewardess” who was swept out of a plane when a doorway sprang open, and the music galvanizes into something strange, phantasmagorical, tragic. The words come from a New York Times article as adapted by James Dickey for his famous poem, “Falling,” and Dickey is heard on the audio, reading lines and stanzas, exploring internal fantasies of desperation and death.
Falling blends electronics, spoken word, and live music more effectively than most other such efforts. The piece compresses foreground and background into a rich, floating mass. As haunting as it sounds, there’s nothing diffuse about it, both the poetry and the music are compelling, each line from Dickey and each instrumental phrase peeling back another layer from a central mystery. The path into the heart of the piece is both clear and infinite.