composer • educator

Prototyping 1: Sound Sculptures

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

Michael O'Brien, that brother of mine, and I are up to prototyping sound sculptures and musical instruments. Much of our collaborative process is done by text, short videos, and phone calls since we live far apart. Soon I'll start sharing our work process with the my favorite part, Michael's photos of his coffee napkin sketches which he creates on the fly during work breaks from his day job. These drawings are some of my favorite glee-filled dreams and works of art. 

Down in Texas, Michael is completing a top secret project that we will reveal in Spring 2018. Yesterday up yonder in Illinois, I worked on a prototype for a series of pinwheels that can be played like a panpipe when spun and blown across the tops. You can see that below, but give my performance the benefit of the doubt. I have zero flute breath control (never could do a decent beer bottle solo,) so I'll be asking my wind-instrument-playing betters to help me with these babies when the time comes. I have some other tricks up my sleeve too, but I won't reveal those until I have proof of concept, a phrase and concept Michael has helped me to adopt. I'll be implementing the next steps with these pinwheels this week. I am truly enjoying the experimentation process, especially the part when I get to work with my hands. It's like playing with blocks, tinker toys, etc. So far, I'm having the tinkering time of my life!  

Inventing some instruments to amuse myself and use in future shows. Today I made a prototype for a pinwheel with a crank out of cardboard, dowels, wood stand, and boba straws cut to different lengths and crimped at the ends to create something akin to panpipes.

Tin Toy Tintinnabulation and Other Shenanigans to the Left of Academia

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

Well, for those one or two of you who are following at home, I flew off the blog radar again. The 2016-17 U.S. political climate has done my work and mental health no favors, but I think what I needed even more was to sleep off my adrenaline depletion after the many years I spent in grad school. I haven't stopped working, though. I am taking some time to think about where my voice truly belongs. Big things are afoot– fun things, childlike things, things that lead me more towards equal collaborations in other performative and multi-disciplinary settings. 

I am currently working on a show that reveals these new ideas, place and date TBD soon, hopefully in late May/early June 2018. I will post about the progress my comrades and I are making. This show builds on the non-stop show concept I used for my doctoral recital, and leans towards something a bit experimental and a more cohesive and abstract narrative. The genre of experimental theater calls to me, however I remain flexible on what this genre will be. I am more than happy to defy labels. I do have brilliant models in mind, though, which I am molding into an amalgam all my own. I'll name a few today, and will always give appreciative nods to everyone who inspires me. Currently, I am in love with the theatrical works of Aperghis and Kagel, as well as the sculptures, costumes and theatrical works of Oskar Schlemmer. My work leans to more childlike pursuits too, such as building instruments that are probably more inspired by Dr. Seuss or Willy Wonka than European examples. I am definitely entering inventor territory, and studying the work of Harry Partch, namely in the way he mixed music with storytelling and sound-sculpture, is very inspiring. I am intrigued by kinetic art, especially the playful works of Calder. I am slowly teaching myself rudimentary mechanics, how to build unusual instruments, and automata. Then there is my ultimate obsession: Victorian era mechanical musical instruments. I will compose for those in the near future, but more on that later. First, I must teach myself to repair a few of the vintage musical toys in my arsenal.

I think it's fair to say that while I will never abandon academic rigor (because of course I am rabidly reading books about experimental theater,) I am also learning to be a bit scrappy, thanks to my brother. These days, being hands-on scrappy is a better teacher for me than any book. I need to get this into my hands, my bones, my spleen. It feels good to use a tactile approach, and as always, I find that I retain these lessons longer when I'm building physical objects. Future shows will always include several sound-sculptures built by and with my brother (a few seen in earlier posts and some more to come.) I have also asked several old and new friends to collaborate with me in the coming years, including musicians, dancers, a juggler, acrobats, visual artists and others. I am finding that some of this experimental stuff is leading me back to more traditional musical forms. For instance, I am filling in some huge holes in my more academic skill-sets, such as learning recording software to aid in composing in sketchbook form, and composing for voice. While most compose for voice earlier into their education, this year will be my first time writing for voice and employing text.

I'll go ahead and say it. While I love art song and the human voice, I have found that even approaching the act of composing art song to be very intimidating, and that intimidation for me is all about the text. Getting text, getting the right text and, for that matter getting the legal rights to text is a huge pain in the ass. I have tried five times to be granted permission from the estates of dead poets (but not enough long dead) whose works are not in the public domain, only to be rejected by their estates. I completely respect and understand why this happens. Who wants their words butchered? I respect the setting of text for the voice so much so that I have completely avoided it! However, very recently I have made some wonderful new singer friends who have all offered to help me. With that kind of support, it's time to finally punch my fear in the gut. After years of searching for text both in and out of the public domain, I fell in love with the work of a living poet, wrote to her, and she responded with kindness. She is open to working with me, and I cannot wait to reveal her name later in the year when we have worked out all the details. Her stuff is wonderful, witty, sometimes mythological and fantastical, pithy and concise, and perfect for me. I can't wait to share it with all 2.5 of you who are reading this.

I will leave you now, but not without one more little hint for the impending show. I have a working title which I think will likely be the final title: Spin. In this show, many of the noise-making objects have cranks, are spun in order to make noises, are circular shaped, or the act of playing them uses a circular motion. Yes, a singer will be involved! All of the text is related to this spinning notion. The form of the full show and the individual but interlinked pieces have a circular and often kaleidoscopic narrative. There will be vintage toy instruments all over the place. I leave you with an example of this via video of tin toy tintinnabulation seen below. For now, my composing studio is a noisy place in a Ligeti-esque, micropolyphonic way. However, in academic fashion, I have taken dictation and notated every single note made by these toys to aid in the composing-out of this silly mechanical magic. The final playground will be great fun for all, but one does need a hint of logical organization, doesn't one?

Using my recording software to record an assortment of tin toys for an upcoming show. Decided to learn this software to create in sketchbook form. It's fun. This recording is a rough first draft in a quasi-Ligeti micropolyphonic stage. I could listen to this ridiculousness all day long.

 

 

 

Sound Sculpture #2 with my brother, Michael

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

It has been a very long time since I have posted. I finished my doctorate in June 2016, went into an exhausting tailspin of more composing until the end of the year, and the political climate since the presidential election hasn't helped my process one damned bit. So, I decided what I needed was a break to remember what love is. I went to see family and friends, and to refuel by following another creative avenue that's been on my mind for years. A collaboration that means more to me than all others. Enter my brother, Michael O'Brien, artist, sculptor, collaborator, funny guy, and genius.

Michael and I have been collaborating, or perhaps pre-collaborating, for a while now. This week we finally managed to find some precious time to work together at his home in San Antonio, Texas. I talked about him and his first sound sculpture called Gong Tree in another blog post. If you are new to my brother's stuff, find his website here and his facebook page here. Man, his stuff is very good stuff, and the magical sound sculpture stuff is wonderful most wonderful and indeed also wonderful. His ideas make me laugh out loud, and tear up too. He did it again this week! Michael came up with a gorgeous sound sculpture made with a metal and walnut base, walnut branches, and the surprise ingredient: hole saws that seem to ring for days! You can play the bells by striking them with a metallic object. Probably a higher quality brass mallet would do nicely in concert, but when one is working in a garage one must improvise. We used a long bolt which sounded great. When Michael grinds down the teeth to a safer level, I believe scraping the teeth will create a gorgeous effect too. We have dubbed the sound sculpture Juniper Bells, because it sounds like bells, of course, and because the sculptural base juxtaposed with the shape of the hole saws remind us of the early American colonial practice of trimming juniper into topiary to create pom-poms or cloud shapes. Some of Michael's first sculptures were bronze versions of shrubs like these. Often humorous, some you could even climb while at a temporary exhibit at a sculpture park in Chicago a few years back, and above all, Michael's sculptures are always elegant, finely crafted, museum quality pieces.

In the fall of 2017, Juniper Bells and many other of these sound sculpture collaborations will be featured on a concert with vintage toy musical instruments, hand-punched/cranked music boxes, and professional musicians who are equally excited to play with new ideas. It has been such a great week of making this sibling brainstorming finally become manifest. While we are both grateful for modern communication methods (we text each other about 50 times a day!) it was great to surf this tidal wave of ideas once we could meet in person. Below you can see a quick film of Juniper Bells. We've only begun to discover the sounds it can make. Once the Juniper Bells are in my possession, I will look for an interested percussionist to help me, a person who I am sure will have even more fun with them than I am!

Enjoy! And yay Michael!

 

Juniper Bells is a sound sculpture by my brother, Michael O'Brien, named so because it resembles a juniper trimmed into a Colonial style topiary. The wood is walnut, and the bell sounds are made out of hole saws. We were elated at the gorgeous sounds that ring for days on end!

I Call to Thee: A childlike, pedagogical view in miniature; J.S. Bach's BWV 639

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

Below is a video of the first rehearsal of a portion of a piece written in tribute to J.S. Bach and his pedagogical contribution to my education. Chosen for both its musical content and its message, Ich ruf zu dir or "I call to thee" is my call to Bach, for help when I most needed it. Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ, BWV 639, was selected from J.S. Bach's pedagogical book, Das Orgelbuchlein. In this miniature-sized arrangement, piccolo and bass flute act as soprano line and bass pedal, respectively, imitating a small pump organ or harmonium, while the toy piano represents the continuo instrument in place of harpsichord, or more closely resembling a celeste. On honor of the pedagogical nature of Das Orgelbuchlein, this is also meant to seem reminiscent of a child's music box. The piece can stand alone, or be juxtaposed with other mechanical pieces, music boxes, et al. and is also meant to work in concert with Ich ruf zu dir, for guitar and piano.

Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ is dedicated with love, respect and admiration to three of the most willing and curious children at heart that I know: Meret Bitticks, Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan. I must also extend a major hat tip to Shanna Gutierrez for suggesting the adorable challenge of using the instrumentation of toy piano and bass flute. This idea has sparked such an insatiable desire in me to compose so many more pieces for them, I don't know how I'll write for anything else!

This is the rehearsal of Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ, (I call to thee Lord Jesus Christ) in miniature, an organ prelude by J.S. Bach arranged for piccolo, bass flute and toy piano. Here we see Meret Bitticks, Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan in the first rehearsal.

Follow the Leader: a short glimpse at the rehearsal process with Mabel and Shanna

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

If you were with me for the Mabel Kwan on toy piano and me on gong tree follow the leader improv experiment perhaps you'd like to see where it went? Yes? Oh good. Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan gave me permission to share this rehearsal. Thank you, friends! It takes courage to share the working process, and I'm grateful for your generosity.

This video shows a short movement, "Follow the Leader Sarabande," from my duo called "Kinetic Suite" for flutes, toy piano and gong tree, written for my beloved Shanna and Mabel. In this particular rehearsal, Mabel is on toy piano with one hand on the keys and the other one using a brass glockenspiel mallet playing glissandi inside the piano. Shanna is giving her flutes a rest and has her own brass mallet to play the gong tree, invented by my brother, Michael O'Brien. This is the first rehearsal and Shanna's first moment with the gong tree. While this could have been stressful for Shanna, she takes to it like a duck to water!! Seriously beautiful performance-ready work. I was trying to see through the camera lens, but was actually pretty teary-eyed because I'm so proud of my friends. If the opening material of the sarabande sounds familiar to you, it is because it quotes Lully's Les Folies d'Espagne, then slowly dissolves into gong strikes and glissandi.

Also in the background is a whooooole lotta booze, and my hubby Bob (lurking in the kitchen) who brought us all croissants and muffins and other yummies and kept our coffee cups filled the entire day. Sigh, what a guy.

Cześć Hyła: A Farewell Piece to Lee Hyla for baritone saxophone, low flutes, and my dearest friends on chirping bird whistles

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

My recital happened. Thanks to a beautiful audience and great friends on stage, it was overwhelming, moving, and exactly what I had been seeing in my mind's eye for the past three years. In fact, it was better! There were some beautiful rehearsals and a lot of tears and laughter, too. Bird whistles created by my new friend Adam Stager made the show very special. My friend, writer China Miéville, described the whistles in this way: "It’s interesting how those birds are funny, but if it keeps going at various levels, it emerges out the other side of funny and becomes… estranging. Amazing."

I asked Shanna Gutierrez, Meret Bitticks and Tom Snydacker for permission to share our first rehearsal of the trio which slowly transitions from sax and flutes to all birds. It was so much fun, I giggled (as usual) and cracked up Shanna (also as usual) and then we all ended up laughing. I cannot wait to share the recording and film of the full chorus with you, dear readers. In the meantime, here's that little amateur video of our first experiment. In addition to the rehearsal video, below that there is a little candid video shot from the balcony by my friend and fellow composer, Nomi Epstein. Read on just below the videos to see the program notes for our full piece in honor of Lee Hyla

–C.O’B

Added 10/29/2016: film footage of final piece.

Czesc Hyla, Lee Hyla in memoriam, composed by Carolyn O'Brien. Performed by Thomas Snydacker on baritone saxophone, Meret Bitticks on alto flute, Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute, and many friends on a flock of chirping bird whistles created by mechanical engineer, Adam Stager.

Cześć Hyła

Lee Hyla (b. 1952—d. 2014) was my friend, mentor, and hero. Even today in 2016, I have a difficult time using past tense verbs when I talk about Lee. Before he died, I was planning to compose an homage piece to surprise him on my doctoral recital. I was heartbroken in June 2014 when I discovered that this homage would be posthumous.

Lee was an avid bird watcher and his hobby became a recurring theme in his works reaching as far back as the 1980s. He had a special fondness for the nearly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, and the rhythm of its call was a recurring riff in many pieces. In his piece Mythic Birds of Saugerties, composed in 1985 for his dear friend and collaborator Tim Smith on bass clarinet, the ivory-billed woodpecker, mourning doves, and imaginary birds of Lee’s concoction feature prominently. In my piece, Cześć Hyła (pronounced “chesht”, is a casual way to say “see you later” or “ciao” in Polish), I have created a dialogue with Lee via our music. I have taken riffs from Saugerties and developed them into new material scored for baritone saxophone accompanied by alto and bass flute. They are joined by chirping bird whistles of various sizes, commissioned from and invented by mechanical engineer Adam Stager, who is in the audience  tonight. The final piece, composed in operatic recitative style, serves as both an elegy to Lee and a sad reminder that the last piece Lee was composing, an opera based on the life of Italian painter Caravaggio, may never surface.

I was very fortunate to have weekly meetings with Lee even after our formal lessons ended. We met at a place we called his “perch,” and our dialogues were many. He was the kind of man who deserved to do all the talking and whom I would have gladly let do all the talking if he had cared to. However, as his friends and students will attest, no matter who you were, there was always a dialogue with Lee. That is because Lee Hyla was genuinely interested in us. I have missed that dialogue considerably since his death, but I refuse to say goodbye to him. Instead, much like his relaxed way of incorporating “ciao” or “farewell” into some of the titles of his own works, I have chosen to do likewise. I have kept these dialogues close and they occur daily in my own imagination. Thankfully, Lee has made that easy for me. His scores will serve as a personal rare bird field guide for the rest of my life. Cześć, Hyła. –C.O’B.

Lee Hyla’s original notes for Mythic Birds of Saugerties: Mythic Birds of Saugerties was written for Tim Smith's debut recital in New York City. It is a tribute to the birds of upstate New York and contains references to the pileated woodpecker, mourning dove, and other more imaginary species. I was also thinking about the nearly extinct and very beautiful ivory-billed woodpecker. –L.H.

Lucky to Know You #5: Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan, my muses, my problem solvers, and curiosity comrades

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

I am always stumped for words when gushing about my friends, my muses, my problem solving geniuses, my comrades with the most curious nature and the two intrepid women who really will try anything. I am talking about Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan. The have both lifted me from dark days simply by being themselves. They are optimists. I am a depressive that wishes she was an optimist. Fortunately, I have the good sense and taste follow these two around. 

Shanna Gutierrez is a flutist with talent that floors me every time I hear her perform. She can bring so much soul and elegant interpretation to even the simplest of phrases. She's a fearless and ambitious programmer, a loyal supporter of new music, a generous educator for both her private students and composers via instructional videos, and an enthusiastic collaborator with as many ideas in her head as fiery sparklers on the 4th of July. Shanna will not be stopped. I mean that. I have seen and heard Shanna perform while very sick, after injured after a car accident, I'm telling you, it's very Unsinkable Molly Brown with Shanna at the helm. With what can best be described as done with loyalty, empathy and great alacrity, she has dropped everything on the spot to resolve my recital revolving door personnel problems about twenty times just in 2016 alone (and it's only March!) I have learned over the years to rely on others for help. My negative filter can render me hopeless in under thirty seconds. So, where I see cancellation, Shanna sees improvisation, adaptation and says with enthusiasm, "have you tried calling so-in-so A-Z?" and she actually has that rolodex in her head. I do not use this word lightly. I am, quite frankly, in complete awe of Shanna. My negative voice just asked me to add that when Shanna tells me to breathe, it doesn't make it want to punch her in the face. Trust me, that's a huge compliment. Oh and another thing, when I asked Shanna to play bird whistles on my recital, she could have been the naysayer flutist who would have every right to punch me in the face with "that is the oldest cliché in the book!" Instead she gushed with an "oooooooooooooooooooooooh!!! YES!" and started applauding! See? Positive filter. So, I got an inventor to make her four sizes! See this post about that.

Mabel Kwan is one of the gentlest, most elegant creatures I've ever witnessed in concert, in conversation, in life. The minute I am with her, I feel my internal wind-up anxiety motor start to ease. She carefully, curiously, and lovingly takes in everything, and always with the sweetest, heart-melting smile. She is patience personified. She often picks repertoire that makes me settle down and be very quiet. Internally quiet. The music is in fact sometimes quiet, but when Mabel plays it, there is the 'speak softly and carry a big stick' aspect, yet, her 'big stick', if we must resort to a violent symbol, is her equal and opposite, gentlewomanly nature. Her rapt attention and complete absorption into the material with which she is working is contagious, magical even. Watching her mind escape into the music I compose for her is a conversation where I feel I have been completely heard, completely loved, and without judgment. Her recent album, "One Poetic Switch" is an example of Mabel's spirit and her gift to composers who have all fallen for her as much as I have. I think my favorite composer collaboration is when she works with Fred Gifford. Those two have an intricate mind meld that intrigues me.

When Shanna and Mabel asked me to compose them, there was a lot of giggling. Yeah, ok, we girl-giggled over wine, and thought the idea was so ridiculous that we must do it simply because we'd be laughing through the entire project. They asked me to compose a piece for toy piano and bass flute. HA! Wow. That's ridiculous. Oh wait, I can kind of hear that now. Holy shit, that's actually brilliant. Yeah. I have to write that. Then Shanna started adding to it, "what I really want is an entire suite for toy piano and all the flutes from piccolo down to bass." Yes please! So, that's what I am doing. I have about four movements of the piece, Kinetic Suite for various flutes and toy piano, and have incorporated a sound sculpture invented by my brother (spoken about in previous posts) called a Gong Tree.

It wasn't all giggles for me, though, because, well, I had to go be alone to compose. That's always a scary place. Also, my ears are very picky, and I was pretty unhappy with the quality of sound from the toy pianos I'd heard. In my fantasy, I wanted a miniature celeste, not some jangly, quasi-tuned toy. I started regretting the project because the sound was kitschy, not elegant. I did some online research to see if we could do better, and I found this wonderful page of Pascal Ayerbe. After playing his virtual Michelsonne toy piano, I fantasized about finding my own, but I knew that these were scarce. In fact, the toy piano company burned to the ground in the 1970s, so these babies are very rare. I channeled Shanna's enthusiasm, though. "have you tried? . . ."

Well, my version of that enthusiasm is late night laptop research with wine and a credit card. "Eureka!" she slosh-slurred. I found an anonymous source in Paris, France. This genderless, nameless but friendly void-spirit had a rare, 37-key Michelsonne toy piano and I could have it shipped to the US for XXX Euros. I immediately spent my creditXs. This toy piano needed to be in the presence of Mabel, especially if it was going to hold up to Shanna's quiver of flutes!  Mabel and I recently played follow the leader with the Michelsonne and the Gong Tree. That spontaneous fun yielded yet another movement of the suite. I am happy to say, and prove to you in this video, that the giggles have returned!

Yesterday, Mabel and Shanna sent me a wee snap shot of their rehearsal and the infectious smiles made my day. On March 11, part of that suite will have its premiere, all thanks to my muses, my problem solvers, my beautiful, positive and curious colleagues, my very favorite kindergarten playmates, Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.

Women, I love you madly. I am lucky to know you both.

–CO'B

 

Even a blurry photo cannot douse the bright smiles of my muses Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.

Even a blurry photo cannot douse the bright smiles of my muses Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.

THANKS, TRISTAN!!

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

I have taken so many knocks for a while, and it seems like ages since I have had a happy thing to post. Today, I have just such a thing: a very inspiring rehearsal process!

From now on, when I wake up feeling like composing is the worst possible occupation for me, I will request to see Tristan Bruns. Why? Because, after driving in the "SURPRISE, IT'S STILL WINTER" Chicago sleet and snow to our rehearsal, and after Tristan basically nailed every idea I've written down AND put careful choreographic notes of his own into the score, Tristan says things like:

"I really enjoy 'playing' your music."

And when I'm trying to find just the right explosively energetic thing for the end of a piece to trigger the next:

"How about I improvise a cadenza at the end of the third movement to kick off the string quartet that comes right after me?"

"Yeah, how about that, sir? You got something in mind?"

Uh, yeah. He and his Chicago Bears shirt has something in mind, alright. Here is just one of a thousand options right off the top of my pal Tristan's head.

Thanks Tristan!

 

–CO'B

 

Here's an excerpt from the third movement of the collaboration with Tristan Bruns. This part is called The Proud Hoofer. Note the penciled in shorthand for Tristan's secret moves!

Here's an excerpt from the third movement of the collaboration with Tristan Bruns. This part is called The Proud Hoofer. Note the penciled in shorthand for Tristan's secret moves!



Lucky to Know You #1B: Lee Hyla

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

A few more days after Lee’s death, I had a little more courage to talk about him. But this was the last thing I could say. My shock made way for a depressive episode and a very sad year. Below I post a longer story, several in the mix, in fact. Don’t worry about me, though. Today I am strong and can talk about grief with a more objective heart. Today, I am proud to think of him and to laugh about our relationship. It was such a good one.

–CO’B

 

June 10, 2014

Friends, this will be the last one I have the energy to tell. I thought things might be a little easier for me today, but there seems to be a bit of a spiraling waveform to this loss that I didn't anticipate. So, I turn to one of my favorite moments with Lee, when he zinged me, and HOW!

By late November-early December 2008, Lee and I had already given each other multiple recommendations for good restaurants for places we were traveling that year, Lee to San Francisco and I to NYC, which he knew incredibly well. During one lesson, Lee started talking about his annual New Year's Day party and said I'd have to come. Actually, what he said was, I WOULD be coming to the party. “Oh yeah? Why’s that, Lee?” Well, he had a Polish soup recipe passed down for generations that I must try. It had cabbage, sour cream, some secret acidic ingredient that made it very tart, but the surprise kicker was the kilbasa broth. Yes, Polish sausage broth.

 

"Jesus, Lee. That sounds amazing."

"You have no idea."

"I think I'm ready to have some idea. I'll be there."

"Oh, you'll be there. But, you're probably not ready."

 

Lee kept bragging about this damned soup in every lesson until the end of the quarter. I started accusing him or overselling this shit. He said he'd prove me wrong and we had a faux-heated argument about that soup in front of the student who came to his lesson right after me. In fact, Lee provoked that argument for at least three weeks to frighten and entertain that poor undergrad.

So, New Year's Day 2009 had finally arrived, and it's bloody freezing outside. Well below freezing, actually. I get to the party with my hubby, Bob, and he makes a beeline for that goddamned soup. He is really into that soup, imploring that I try it immediately. Lee drags me over to the pot on the stove to have a whiff, and I can’t help but start in with the ribbing. It's just the two of us for a few seconds, so I let him have it.

"Well, I am finally here. Let's have a bowl of your goddamned great granny's soup already. This had better be good, or I'm outta here. I mean, it’s cold outside, it’s like below zero, man! And I have a hangover! (He pours maybe half a ladleful in my bowl.) What? That’s a small bowl man. I mentioned the hangover, right? I mean for Chrissakes man, don't be stingy!"

He was stone cold silent. The whole time! I thought, man, I'd really fucked this one up. Gone too far mocking his family recipe. Then this poor bystander who was not yet privy to any of our usual back-and-forth crap walks up for some soup. I put a spoonful of the stuff in my mouth. Lee turns to the man and this is what happens:

 

Lee: "Hi Kurt (points to me), have you met the Insolent Bitch?"

Me: *soup spit take right into Lee's kitchen sink*

Kurt: "Whoa, wha-? What the hell?!?"

Lee: patting me repeatedly on the back, "Alright, don't choke on it asshole. That soup took a lot of work!" Then he gives me a little smooch-snort on the cheek and runs off.

 

I'm left gagging on soup and laughing uncontrollably in front of one very confused man named Kurt.

 

From that day forward, he whipped out Insolent Bitch to put me in my place, which I usually deserved. Ok, I always deserved it. Sometimes he'd just sneak up behind me in the music department mailroom and say things like, "what's Ms. Insolence up to today?" "Hey, wait, Carolyn O'Brien? They spelled your name wrong on your mailbox, it should read I-N-S-O-L-E-N-T . . . " etc. Or he’d whisper, "settle down, I.B." if I was being unruly in the bar/concert/colloquium/class. I suspect I'm going to miss those stealth attacks most of all.

Cut to several years later, I dunno, let’s say 2012. Lee had another nickname for me. Unlike the other one, it’s one I haven't yet earned. I’ve had multiple health issues over the past few years that have slowed my progress with my degree. Exasperated, I’d occasionally mumble, “I’ll never get this fucking degree, man.” Lee would retort, “Oh, you’ll get your fucking degree,” mock scolding as if it was impossible for me to quit. The first time I did that, he called me Dr. O’Brien on the way out of his office. That . . . felt nice. Whenever Lee and I talked about matters of my progress, committee stuff, all the business stuff, he’d always call me Dr. O’Brien as we were parting. I bumped into him on May 4th of this year. His office door was open and he was buried in a mound of emails and paperwork. He waved me in and we had a brief chat about a committee member change, other shit, funny shit, food shit, business shit. And health shit. His health shit. I had to go, so did he. We scheduled a meeting for Thursday at his “usual perch,” the words I used to describe a precise bar stool where he imbibed after work for precisely fifty minutes before he commuted home. It was strategically positioned near his train station and a TV to watch ‘the game,’ whatever season it may be. The last thing he said was, “Go get it, Dr. O’Brien.” I giggled. We waved each other off.

 

We scheduled other perch meetings.

He postponed our perch meeting with apologies.

Then he postponed again.

Then, he cancelled.

Lee Hyla August 31, 1952 - June 6, 2014

 

 

Lucky to Know You #1A: Lee Hyla, August 31, 1952 – June 6, 2014

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

I am a fortunate woman. I have my problems, of course. We all do. My biggest obstacle is living at the severe end of major depressive disorder. I have been open about this issue for about two years now. Each year I get stronger and more successful at managing it. Each year I find ways to advocate for myself and others. I will post about that more as this blog increases. I have much to say about my composing process and how I get around these obstacles. 

But, let’s get back to the fortunate part for now.

In September 2008, I dragged my husband, my dog, and my possessions away from the California Bay Area to do the only thing that could possibly take me from that place. I got into Northwestern University to study with my compositional hero and mentor, Lee Hyla. The honor was deeply felt and coveted by many. I am even more honored to say that Lee Hyla was a good friend to me, and I still grieve his passing every day. Lately, I have felt him close to me in the composing studio and when I listen to music. He gave me many techniques for my composing toolbox. He gave me compassion, patience and empathy when my composing hit a roadblock. For the next few blog posts, I am going to share some personal stories about Lee. He is on my mind as I near the finish line at Northwestern University. He is on my mind because I am composing a piece in his honor for the finale of my recital. I will post more about that very soon! This post today is Part 1A of a series I am calling “Lucky to Know You.” I will be writing many of these ‘lucky to know you’ posts about the talented people I have the great fortune to call my collaborators and friends. Without Lee Hyla, none of this would have happened for me. So, Lee Hyla, you are first today. Thank you, Lee Hyla. I was lucky to know you.

Below is an excerpt from a post I put on Facebook a day after Lee’s passing. –CO’B

 

June 7, 2014

It is with a terribly heavy heart that I post this today about my dear hero, teacher, mentor and friend, Lee Hyla. I had to find out from text messages from friends on the East Coast who got the message first, and later, more details from social media, that he is no longer with us after a very long illness. When I discovered the loss, I wrote to my other professors at Northwestern. My professors and the music department administration had to find out the news from me. This horrifies me that social media is the way that these bits of horrible news get passed on, but in some ways I am also grateful that the news broken to me when I was in the privacy of my home. It came as a devastating shock. I did not take it well.

I am a private griever and an intensely private person sometimes. I deflect with humor, and frankly, I don't want to change that. I need time to process this, but I am not posting this for a pity party for myself, or anyone. I am posting this to tell you all a very funny memory about my man, Lee. I was lucky to know him very well. We were all lucky, his students and his colleagues. Anyone who knows and loves him will find this story endearing, and I want to shine a light on humor today so I can stomach this news.

First, I must mention that Stravinsky was a hero of Lee's. In a class I had with him in 2008, Lee had his students analyze Stravinsky’s groundbreaking opera-ballet Les Noces. Included here is a blog that discusses some of the work Stravinsky did with the Ballet Russes including some discussion of the premiere of Les Noces and some wonderful photos. This class with Lee was a memorable and important class. I am still learning from those ten short weeks. Hyla's idea of non-linear narrative in music was a central part of the class. It took me a long time to really understand Hyla's ideas. Now, I incorporate his concepts into my own work. It certainly didn’t hurt that Lee’s energy was infectious. In fact, Lee was hilariously energetic as hell. He was, for lack of a better phrase, a spasmodic dancer in class sometimes. He had some adorable moves when he got excited about the topic he was discussing. I truly believe Lee Hyla could have choreographed his own feral version of Les Noces.

One day, on the dancingest of days, I had a lesson with Lee right after this happy class. I'd only had maybe three private lessons with him up to this point, and I was still getting to know him. He was quietly looking at my music the way he does, a very close inspection with his eyeballs practically right ON the page. That vision of his, he used to laugh about it. After looking in silence at my shitty little piece for about five minutes, he looked right up at me, straight into my face and said:

"That Stravinsky he was a motherfucker, man. Right?"

"Goddamned fucking right he was, Lee."

"Fuck, man – Les Noces."

"Yeah."

Then he went straight back to my music. It took all my fat and bones and muscles to stifle a huge guffaw that was brimming in my throat. I needed to look cool. For Lee.

Celebrating the talents of Wilbur Hall (b. November 18, 1894 – d. June 30, 1983)

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

 

I am so pleased to present this film footage of Wilbur Hall, vaudeville star and musician, most notably working with Paul Whiteman in the 1930s and later with Spike Jones on the Spike Jones Show. This clip, introduced to me by my dear friend, Trevor Bjorklund, is taken from the film King of Jazz in 1930. Here we see Mr. Hall playing a virtuosic version of Pop Goes the Weasel, in addition to other tidbits from the violin repertoire, all the while doing some ridiculous feats of extended techniques on violin, some fancy footwork in swim fins and eventually taking a solo on, of all things, a tire pump! I post Wilbur Hall today to celebrate his birth month, and because he was essential to my process in writing Caprice for violin, to be performed on my doctoral recital by Ellen McSweeney in March. I looked for a muse to help me capture the juxtaposition of all the virtuosic trappings of the Paganini caprices coupled with the types of pratfalls of Buster Keaton or perhaps more musically so, a blend of Paganini and Thelonious Monk. Once I found Wilbur (also known as Willie) I knew I had my man.

You can find the entire film, King of Jazz linked here on youtube. However, as much as I want to recommend it, and I do, please be warned that this is very much a film of its time, with all the appropriations, exoticism, and racism one will find in films of this era. It has some Warner Bros cartoons which exemplify that very thing, and vaudeville acts, too. Despite these 'of their time offenses,' so many of the numbers are wonderful. I cannot throw it all away. Instead, I watch consciously, as one would while reading Mark Twain, and both appreciate and shake my head at the acts in their historical context. My conscious confrontation of these kinds of historical appropriations is something I obsess about as I compose. What does it mean to be an American composer? When is my creative borrowing appropriate, and when am I outright stealing from another culture? And for that matter, what exactly IS my culture? I am always concerned about these issues, and I always, ALWAYS, give credit where credit is due. Paying homage is important, being grateful for my collaborators, both the living and the dead, and I will touch upon this in later posts.

I hope you enjoy Wilbur Hall and perhaps take a moment to also listen to my piece, Caprice, inspired by Wilbur Hall and performed by Ari Streisfeld in this live recording at New Music on the Point in Vermont in 2014. Also note that this wonderful photo of Renee and Wilbur Hall was taken from Mike Brubaker's blog post. This post has a great deal more information about Wilbur than other online sources I've found. Speaking of credit, if you are up for another diversion, Brubaker's blog is definitely worth a good long look! Enjoy!   –CO'B