Lee Hyla - My Life on the Plains | Album review
Boston’s Firebird Ensemble carries out the Northwestern composer’s avian-informed, avant-garde vision.
Like New Amsterdam and Innova, composer John Zorn’s consistently reliable Tzadik label is dedicated to releasing some of the country’s most adventurous contemporary avant-garde and experimental music. New York–born composer Lee Hyla, who now lives in Chicago and teaches music composition at Northwestern, is a familiar face on the Tzadik roster. His third album for the label, Life on the Plains, follows the brilliantly quirky Wilson’s Ivory-bill from 2006, which featured a duet for piano and ivory-billed woodpecker.
Hyla’s recent music has lost none of the verve and stylistic range of his earlier compositions. The lively works featured on Life on the Plains brim with the 60-year-old composer’s trademark fusion, merging the rigorous structure of classical music with the impulsive power found in improvised performance. Carried out by Boston new-music powerhouse Firebird Ensemble, the album is a fine example of Hyla’s wildly diverse palette, which touches on a bit of everything.
“Polish Folk Songs,” written in 2007, draws on the unpredictable tempos and meter of songs from the composer’s ancestral home in the Zakopane mountain region, and finds playful expression in the good-natured sparring of two raucous clarinets. “Field Guide,” from 2006, offers further tribute to Hyla’s avian obsession by pairing each of the ensemble’s instruments with the songs of different birds from Australia, Peru, Costa Rica and Hawaii, interspersed with fragments of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Sounds weird, but it works. The star of the album, however, is the 29-minute title work. The closing trio systematically constructs, deconstructs and dishevels its own riffs and offers classic Hyla in spades: expansive, inexhaustible and bristling with genre-blurring gusto.