The New York Times
Margalit Fox
June 14, 2014

Lee Hyla, an American composer whose work marries the formal rigor of classical music with the driving energy of rock and the improvisational abandon of jazz, died on June 6 in Chicago. He was 61.

His death, from complications of pneumonia, was announced by Northwestern University, where he held the Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt chair in music theory and composition.

Mr. Hyla (pronounced HIGH-luh), whose music was commissioned and performed by some of the world’s most celebrated ensembles, was considered “among the most accomplished American composers of the baby boomer generation,” as Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times in 1999.

Known in particular for his chamber music, Mr. Hyla — who cited influences ranging from Beethoven to the avant-garde jazz pianist Cecil Taylor to the contemporary composer Elliott Carter — was praised for compositions that were inarguably modern but which lacked the forbidding qualities that can alienate listeners from modernist music.

What made his work so captivating, critics said, was its eclectic originality, propulsive rhythmic force, companionable combination of dissonance and consonance, and masterly command of sonorities from the lush to the spare.

“His music wrestles extremes of sound and energy into a form of sagely controlled chaos,” The Boston Globe wrote in 2007. “It is packed with brainy structures and rigorous forms, but at its best it hurls through space with the visceral immediacy of the genres that first sparked his imagination. Moments of surprising beauty arrive like clearings in a forest. He is an uptown composer with a downtown soul, a 12-tone rebel who never gave up on modernism.”

Another hallmark of Mr. Hyla’s style was his exquisite attention to the timbre of instruments, including those — like bass clarinet and hammered dulcimer — typically neglected by concert composers. In one piece, “Wilson’s Ivory-bill,” based on the writings of the 19th-century ornithologist Alexander Wilson, he recruited an ivory-billed woodpecker (on tape) as a member of the ensemble.

His best-known pieces include his Concerto for Piano No. 2; a violin concerto and a bass clarinet concerto; a series of string quartets; “My Life on the Plains,” a chamber work based on the memoir of Gen. George Armstrong Custer; and a setting for speaker and string quartet of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” (Mr. Ginsberg, accompanied by the Kronos Quartet, declaimed the poem at the work’s premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1994.)

Mr. Hyla’s music has also been performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinists Laura Frautschi and Midori, among others.

Previously on the faculty of the New England Conservatory in Boston, he was known for his close collaborations with New England ensembles, including the Lydian String Quartet, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Triple Helix Piano Trio.

Leon Joseph Hyla was born on Aug. 31, 1952, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and reared in Greencastle, Ind. As a youth, he played guitar and keyboards in a funk band and later played jazz.

After studying at Indiana University, Mr. Hyla earned a bachelor’s degree from the New England Conservatory and a master’s in music from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He later moved to the East Village in Manhattan, where he became active in the city’s Downtown contemporary music scene.

In 1992, Mr. Hyla joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory, where he was a chairman of the composition department. He joined Northwestern in 2007 and was at his death a Chicago resident.

Mr. Hyla first came to wide attention in 1984, when his composition for 12 instruments, “Pre-Pulse Suspended,” was performed at Tanglewood. He went on to receive many honors, including the Rome Prize, a prestigious award in the humanities, in 1991.

His other works include the chamber pieces “Trans” and “Polish Folk Songs”; “At Suma Beach,” a composition, inspired by Japanese noh theater, for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble; “Amnesia Redux,” for violin, cello and piano; “Now Exclusively Cello,” for 16 cellos; “Mythic Birds of Saugerties,” for solo bass clarinet; and “We Speak Etruscan,” a duet for bass clarinet and baritone saxophone.

Mr. Hyla’s survivors include his wife, Katherine Desjardins, and a sister, Cynthia Hyla Whittaker.

His work has been released on the Nonesuch, Tzadik, Avant, New World and CRI labels.

Though Mr. Hyla spoke in interviews of his desire to write a piece for full symphony orchestra, the commissions that came his way were invariably for chamber works. Writing in The Times in 2002, Mr. Tommasini illuminated a likely reason.

“American orchestras keep commissioning the same handful of tame Neo-Romantics,” he wrote. He added: “Here is a truly original composer who at 50 has yet to gain the attention he deserves.”