composer • educator

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."


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.