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