American Record Guide reviews Lee Hyla: Lives of the Saints

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American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
September 1, 2008

Two spiritually charged pieces from vastly different worlds by Lee Hyla, who has recently lefts his long-time post at New England Conservatory for an appointment at Northwestern University in Chicago. Both of these pieces were written for Nessinger while Hyla was in residence at NEC. At Suma Beach (2003) is a work in four sections for mezzo, solo clarinet, and chamber ensemble, based on the Noh play Matsukaze.

Matsukaze is one of two ghost sisters in love (for 300 years) with the tragically deceased young courtier Yukihira, mistaken at one point for a pine tree by the ever-distraught (but just as dead) young lady. Love eventually prevails, once the immoral notion of emotional attachment in the real world is forsaken. Night fades into dawn, and the wind alone remains, blowing aridly and disinterestedly on the beach. Hyla sets the impenetrable text as a delirious Japanese-tinged monodrama, in an alternating mix of English and Japanese. Ms. Nessinger comes across as a latter-day Jan DeGaetani, declaiming the angular music in theatrical, surreal style. She has trouble toward the end with Hyla's taxing vocal writing, but makes a good case for the piece, which I imagine would be most effective in a properly lit concert hall.

Moving from Buddhism to Christianity without missing a beat, the somewhat earlier Lives of the Saints (2000) pantingly explores experiences of spiritual ecstasy, erotic union with God, and personal self-immolation in His divine presence, in a nearly 40-minute setting of searing texts by Dante and Saints Jerome, Teresa, Lawrence, and Francis, given in interwoven English, Italian, and Spanish. The hysterical texts are druggily set forth in a dizzily possessed endless melody, performed with enthusiasm by the hard-working but occasionally tremulous Ms. Nessinger. Considering the Bernini sculpture of St. Teresa (nicely reproduced in the booklet) while listening to her monolog in Part 1 Section 3 is a provocative experience well worth the price of admission.

Much of Mr. Hyla's music seems to be both improvised (he has worked extensively in rock and jazz, the latter poking through clearly in various places) and coldy calculated (he studied with the late theorist-composer David Lewin). The mix is arresting and individual, through the result is not for casual listeners. Keeping certain deeply God-searching free jazz artists in mind might be helpful to some—I would include both Schoenberg and Coltrane in that group. The production as a whole is one of the more overwhelming I've encountered lately. You will need to be in the right state of mind to deal with this well-produced release from Gil Rose's ambitious label. Notes by the composer and a thoughtful essay by Martin Brody.