Often in writing circles, I find myself trying to describe mentorship in a way that elucidates its importance for the process of writing instruction. This is a hard thing to do. In an empirically-preoccupied world, mentorship appears to be unscientific, impossible to quantify, and perhaps even sentimental. From an institutional perspective, moreover, it just doesn’t exist. Or, perhaps, mentorship exists, but only for the purposes of rhetorical lip service, as a slightly ineffable humanist goal that we should appreciate, but upon which we should not waste too much time. When I was a writing student, however, mentorship was the means by which I figured out how to make my way in the literary world; it was how I came to want to struggle with publication at all. I relied upon my undergraduate and graduate instructors, in one way or another, well into my late twenties. Even now I am digesting some of their advice.
The music world has had a vital tradition of mentorship, or, at the very least, of one-on-one instruction in performance and composition, for as long as there have been musicians. Think of Domenico Scarlatti writing most of his 550 keyboard sonatas for his student, Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, or of Miles Davis learning in Charlie Parker’s band, or think of Muddy Waters learning the blues from hearing Son House play in informal settings. Whereas the university has become the default model for learning craft in the arts, there was once a much more mentorship-oriented approach, in which artists learned from other artists. And music has historically been an important example of this tendency.
This year, in June, a noted contemporary composer, Lee Hyla, died at an age that was universally considered too young (61), leaving behind a legacy of artful, challenging, complex, playful, serious new music much admired by a large contingent of composers of my acquaintance. Hyla, however, was more than just a highly-regarded contemporary composer; he was also a much-admired instructor in composition, at New England Conservatory for fifteen years, and later at Northwestern. Like Frank Conroy, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hyla was a teacher who shaped a great deal of the music created by the present generation.
What follows below is an attempt to quantify mentorship, therefore, in the case of serious music, by talking about Lee Hyla and his legacy with one of his best-known students, Daniel Felsenfeld, a composer who has not only written much serious vocal music (operas at a dizzying pace), but has written string arrangements for the likes of The Roots and Jay Z., as well as working with writers like Robert Coover and Will Eno. Felsenfeld is among contemporary music’s most unrepentant polymaths, and some of this—the engagement with a wide range of expressions in the arts, across barriers of media—comes from the example of his mentor, the quixotic and ambitious Lee Hyla. This interview tries to track some of the pollination between the two, in order to better describe what mentorship is. This exchange took place by e-mail over the last two months.
The Rumpus: So can you tell me about first meeting Lee Hyla? What was your first impression?
Daniel Felsenfeld: I heard his music before I met him. I was a Graduate Student at New England Conservatory, and I was studying at the time with a legendary composer named Arthur Berger, who was an amazing figure and a truly remarkable composer, but was also quite old, doctrinaire, and never quite understood why I was not prepared to devote my life to writing music in his own free atonal style (which was not without merit but which just wasn’t me). Then at a concert in Jordan Hall I heard Lee’s Second Piano Concerto, which knocked me sideways. Here was atonal music I could get into—fast, rough, rocking, beautiful, beautifully ugly and brutal, vivid, alive. I had to study with him. And hearing his new piece—Howl, written for the Kronos Quartet with Ginsberg himself providing narration—sealed the deal. I tracked him down by leaving a note in his box in those antediluvian days, and when I saw him at a concert I said “I absolutely HAVE to switch to your studio, no question,” which took him aback (I was young and probably far more vehement than I needed to be). So we worked it out—I remember dark days where this was unsure; I remember lighter days when the switch was approved. It was one of the few relatively easy things that happened to me coming up. Best decision I made as a student.
Rumpus: What about the man? As distinct from the first impression of his music?
Felsenfeld: Lee was always difficult to read, and I don’t mean that as any kind of assessment of him—he was just different from me, very different. He had that complex combination of warmth and distance, wryness and sincerity, steeliness and vivacity. We spent hours together as both teacher and student and as friends—later, when I was no longer the “new guy” in the studio I helped him move, we had dinner, we drank, we attended concerts together—and while of course I loved and cherished him, I also felt I scarcely knew him, or that I wished I knew him better. But I also did not doubt that all the affection that he did offer was totally and unreservedly genuine—he was one of those people of few words, which sort of made everything he said extra-valuable. You knew, because his praise—and time—were hard-earned, that it was always deserved. No idle compliments.
But aside from a certain steeliness (though I hate to describe him thusly because he was complicated, and just when you thought you’d know how he’d react to something you would inevitably be wrong, and this strikes me as one of those stickable words), he was also screamingly funny: a good quipper, whose occasional antic outbursts (I remember one salient moment when he, hosting at his annual New Year’s Day Gathering not only his student but that student’s complicated, quiet-even-by-Lee’s-standards parents, bid them farewell and as they departed he literally leapt from his chair and outlined a bizarre St. Vitus’s Dance of pent-upness, rocking and rolling, but only for a moment; that was Lee) were also earned.
His erudition was not something he wore on his sleeve. I think we had in common a deep love of things cultural unrelated to music (he was a self-made expert in Caravaggio, for example) but that we both felt often out of our depth enough to if not hide these things, keep them private. His bookshelf, CD rack, and studio shelves (with all the Stravinsky, Webern, Carter, Debussy, Chopin, Schumann scores) held riches, and secrets, and I learned a lot when house-sitting and reading.
Rumpus: A couple of examples of bookshelf discoveries there at his house?
Felsenfeld: I presumed you’d ask that. I remember a few choice things: Kazantzakis’s St. Anthony (Lee was saint-obsessed), Andy Warhol’s diaries (read cover to cover more than once; don’t ask), Underworld by Don DeLillo (was brand new then and continues to dazzle), volumes of poetry by John Ashbery, much Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno (Lee’s feelings about him were never clear to me, and when I was in school one had to have feelings about Adorno, especially his derision of Jazz). I am straining my memory to find more literary titles though they were there.
There were also many books of paintings or biographies of artists—Lee got excited by visual art like I did about words. And of course the endless books about all things bird-related, because one could say Lee was rabid for matters aviary. In fact, Blake, the amazing New England Gentleman who delivered us our lunches at the MacDowell Colony, called Lee “Our most ardent bird watcher.” For him to say that is extreme. I think he had at least five or six books called Birds of America (and not the Lorrie Moore), and that was just the local. And of course there were books on wine, film encyclopedias, and how many books he had called simply Lives of the Saints I cannot recall, but it was a lot.
I want to sideline to his erudition here to address the whole notion of erudition in general. When I studied at University before Lee, I just presumed everyone had read everything, because though I fancied myself very literate (I spent a lot of time reading books and accumulated in college enough credits save for one course for a double-degree on which I never made good—but the sheer amount I’ve read has always been a personal selling point, just to show you where my head was) so many of my teachers just seemed to know things not musical. They read, they went to museums, they saw films, they cooked and dined. I felt tremendous pressure to be this way as well, I suppose I still do, not for show but because art or analysis of art struck me as requiring an inhuman amount of interdisciplinary context and these people—Lee among them—had it in spades. What offset him from many is that one had to know him well to know how deep an explorer he really was. Not to deride those teachers of mine who were always up for a chat about De Sade or Proust or Tolstoy or Balthus or Rauschenberg (just reaching in the memory for these talks with former professors), but standing in front of Lee’s shelf was a bit of a revelation about him as a person because here was this vast feast of material that one handily wants to suggest might not all be of cumulative interest to the same person (though we all know that the curious mind is a catholic-with-a-small-“c” mind and that we are all rangy people capable of rangy interests, as I do not have to tell you, Rick) but became a kind of summa in my mind of these occluded crevices of this extraordinary man. It changed my interaction with him because I felt a lot more comfortable talking about a wider amount of material than I had before—because I (naively and insultingly) presumed that since he wasn’t bringing the stuff up that he wasn’t all that knowledgeable. After all, he taught at a conservatory, so he could be one of those music-and-music-alone people. He certainly was not.
I wonder about erudition a lot, about this kind of thinking in breadth and depth that matters so very much to me, because (and here comes middle-aged farrago of generalizations) I find it to be less true among a number of my younger colleagues. I could say that with so much information immediately available it becomes that massive tourist destination in your own town, the thing you don’t need to explore because it will always be there at your disposal. It is also not impossible that what I think of my younger iterations (“What, you’ve never HEARD OF Christine Brooke-Rose??! Does nobody read any more?”) Lee thought of me but never mentioned it. Like I said, he was tough to read. But it is not impossible—it is probably, even—that my dazzling erudition was a surface understanding to him.
Rumpus: Lee’s reliance on rock and roll as an arrow in his quiver, both compositionally and pedagogically, is something that people have referred to a lot in talking about him since his death. Can you sketch out for me how this played out in the classroom? And can you explain it, for the lay person—how he employed this influence in his own work?
Felsenfeld: What one needs to understand is, in the dark ages of the early 90s, it was a severe rarity for any composer to admit rock music at all. Jazz was acceptable, especially through a line of thinking called “Third Stream” (always a ridiculous label which seems even more quaint and out-of-touch now), but rock music had yet to go through its current ossification as one’s parent’s music. I had a previous teacher who felt he was advancing some kind of wild otherness by admitting a fondness for The Beatles, and it was still a form of confession to say one had any truck with rock music period—like a genuine confession, in that people would admit its influence in biographical statements with a kind of fuck-the-man pride, which meant it still held a certain naughtiness. There were a few composers doing things with rock music, but they tended to be “outsider” minimalists like Glass and Andriessen, or the brilliant oddball that was Christopher Rouse who wrote a percussion piece paying tribute to Led Zeppelin and copped, loudly, to the influence of what would now be admitted (without irony) as “classic rock.” (We won’t discuss Frank Zappa here.) And of course there were a few composers trying to simulate “youngsters” combined with a lot of talk about how that might be the Great Savior of Classical Music (much like “Indie Rock, whatever that is, is so often touted as today’s potential road to perdition). This often meant atonal music with an embarrassing backbeat, or something to do with doo-wop harmonies that felt attached like the Little Red Corvette of a mid-life crisis. Rock still held high esteem as a kind of Devil’s Music.
Lee took what he loved—and what he loved was Beefheart and Neil Young, for the most part—and didn’t try to make music that could be confused for it, but rather imported a kind of surface energy into his own work. What was not notate-able about rock music he notated, at least in spirit. Quotes were rare; he did not use songs for models; his approach was not about the glamour or lifestyle. He never bragged about knowing rock stars, never collaborated with them, never strove to be part of their world, and never did anything with a smirking eye over his shoulder saying (as so so many did), “Wow, won’t this be totally fucked up?” as if he was out to defy convention for its own sake. He secreted the “other” music away like he secreted so much away—maybe love made him quiet about what he loved, much like love makes many so voluable—and, like so many great artists, spat it out in his own specific work.
As a teacher, he told us what he loved when we asked, and enthused when appropriate, but never mandated. When he sent me to listen to music, it was always Stravinsky, Late Beethoven, Webern, Carter. But I do remember coming to his house to drop something off one night and he was listening to a new Yo La Tengo CD and that sort of baffled me because I had spent the better part of my own training trying so hard not to listen to anything other than music of the highest order. And to be honest I had so deliberately avoided anything that smacked of popular culture because I truly believed that was my responsibility and so missed a lot of music that might have otherwise helped me at least understand my own time. One of my first teachers, Lloyd Rodgers, used to say “You have to live in your own time, even if you don’t like your own time,” and this was backed up by Lee, whose approach gave me permission, still does.
BUT—there was one summer where I was looking after his apartment—taking in his mail, murdering his plants, enjoying surrogate “grown up” life—when his new Captain Beefheart Boxed Set was due to arrive. This took many trips to the Post Office on my part to retrieve, and when it got there I of course did not open it because in those days people tended to be very sanctimonious about who deflowered a new CD and, wanting to be respectful, I left it for him in the event of his own sanctimony. Over the phone, long distance, I told him I’d managed to get his Beefheart safely home, and he suggested, after careful thought, that what would be best for me to do would be to break in and listen. “I think it will be good for you,” he said, “Yeah, I really think it will.”
Rumpus: Well, let me just bear down on this for a second then. Because, as you know, I too am one of those people for whom Beefheart is magic (as he ought to be) and important, and life-changing, and I know why it’s important for me, but I’m wondering why it was important for Lee, and for you, especially in the context of “new music.” Beefheart, for me, is about wild, improbable rhythmical ideas, the mix of the untutored with the highly sophisticated, repurposing black music so that it again has the capacity to disturb and shock, and lyrical impressionism of the highest order. I can understand thinking Yo La Tengo is low art, but I think of Beefheart as the highest of the high, like Duchamp, or Ornette Coleman, or Sun Ra. Does it mean that in Lee’s pantheon? Or what does he want you to hear in it?
Felsenfeld: Understand: “High” versus “low” doesn’t enter into this except that there was still a kind of taboo then, one Lee happily broke (and in doing so, or in being among those who did so, were doing a service). He adored Beefheart for all the reasons you do, and I adore Lee’s music (and Beefheart, so we are clear) for many of the same. My point is that he not only listened—and his venture into Yo La Tengo was because another student of his had leant him the CD and he was giving it a day in court; I don’t remember how he ended up feeling about it, but the point is he listened, which was Lee’s solution to every musical problem—but took what he needed from these sources (and others, including Sun Ra, about whom he had an hysterical story, or his beloved twin poles of Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, all of whom I listened to avidly because of Lee) and made his own sound.
In the end, I think he felt this student of his, he who adored Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, Ravel and middle-period Stravinsky (and—to Lee’s rare palpable contempt—Tom Waits), could use a bit of loosening up or to have a few fustian scales fall from his widening eyes. He was right.
Rumpus: I’m thinking some of what we’re talking about is mentoring, and how mentoring works among students of composition. In writing, when I speak of mentoring, I mean the human touch in the theater of pedagogy. I mean when someone gives you that kindness that is often absent from instruction in the arts. Is this part of why people, so many people, are so passionate in talking about Lee’s times at New England Conservatory?
Felsenfeld: Absolutely. I remember a lot of moments, real moments, where his caring about me on a human level was beyond touching, certainly novel.
One approach Lee had was the idea that music was made for human hands (which is, I think, why he was so drawn to writing for soloists or chamber ensembles because he knew them, could imagine them playing his music). Yes, sure, he took commissions wherein he couldn’t possibly know each and every member of the group (Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, say) but his musicking was very person-to-person, and it is a vantage I adopted wholesale—I write names of people in my scores, not names of instruments, whenever I can, at least in the initial draft, because I adopted the idea that this is an exchange of ideas and not simply people doing jobs.
But one of the most striking lessons was the time he discussed the moment where he could have, in his words, “pulled a stunt” and did not. He was late on a piece, which was uncommon for him (I wish I had adopted his timeliness), or maybe he was recounting what it was like to be late on something and the decisions one can make then. We sat at the St. Botolph Club in Boston—Lee was there being honored, I was there as, I believe, his guest? His introducer? Memory is a little hazy—and he, somewhat in his cups, talked about this piece he had finished and being late and what he had chosen to do. He suggested he might have “pulled a stunt,” which meant doing the thing he disparaged so many composers for doing: taking the easy road. Slow music is easier to write than fast music, note for note—you get a lot more ground covered in terms of time with fewer notes—and he told me that, at that lateness crossroads, he could have simply opted for the slow ending that he never envisaged his piece having, just by way of completing the commission. But he did—could—not. And he said this not with pride or in any kind of boastful purer-than-thou way, but in an honest and look-you-in-the-eyes fashion. He wanted never to present work after which he felt he could roll his own eyes, and while I cannot remember the exact words (I, too, slightly in my cups) the gist was that you had to always make work that was finished. That you were never doing it right if you sat there thinking “well, I tried, but you know, life got in the way.” It was about not allowing oneself excuses. And being honest about what you make, knowing where the rough edges are and not apologizing for them but also not glossing over them.
It is hard to get a bead on this lesson especially, but it’s very nebulousness is what makes me constantly think and rethink when I can, and try not to pull that stunt. Every time I try to allow myself the leeway—on this piece, I say to myself, I am going to make life easier for myself and then it will be finished quicker—I think of Lee at the St. Botolph Club, and I just note-by-note the work until I am satisfied and can admit it as mine. I like to believe that is what he meant.
He also preferred a certain kind of polish, which always made me think of Ruskin’s observations about perfection: those Cathedrals where even things that are unseen are still done to completion; where corners are not cut; where in the end the totality of the offering matters more than the immediate perception. None of those Cathedrals are stage sets; none of Lee’s music is wallpaper. I suppose there’s a moral lesson here, maybe rooted in his deep and abiding Catholicism? While I never heard him discuss church I know he was quietly spiritual in a way that was private. Not far off from the Talmudic approach I was raised to believe in—that you just kind of did, almost in a vacuum, and that knowledge or art for the sake of itself set its own important rules. It can be a far cry from the “life of an artist” (which involves a lot of jockeying and begging and worry, at least in my experience) but Lee did the hard moral work to keep those things separate. The work was always the work. And his death to me leaves that unfinished, which hurts.
At certain points, it always made me wonder if I was “cool enough” for him, or did things in the proper fashion. He was not above praise and certainly always seemed to like what I wrote—high compliments like “This is a weird little piece, Danny” would make me swoony for weeks—but there was always a certain discomfiting elitism in his approach (not just his, mind you) too, an idea that there is a right and wrong in these matters, which was a little more difficult to shake.
One additionally vital piece of advice he gave me officially changed me AND my work, and it is perhaps the most important thing I took from him and took well. Once, when at the MacDowell Colony, there to do a LOT of work in a six-week spate, I played a piece of mine that—I confessed to the group—was secretly “about” September 11th. I was very close to the towers that day; saw everything; and could not work for months, and when I could a piece of mine called The Bridge, which takes as it’s text the opening paragraphs of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, happened. It received one performance in a Brooklyn Church, I was not paid for it, and yet a “colleague” of mine held, semi-publicly, that not only was I “cashing in” on a tragedy, but that I had no right to discuss it because it did not belong to me at all. He, incidentally, was in Texas that day. From there the conversation devolved into him mocking me, me leaving the room, vomiting, weeping, and trying to decide if I could stay at the haven of MacDowell. When I wrote to Lee, told him how I’d tried to cultivate community with these composers and how poorly one had treated me, how badly humiliated I felt, he wrote back the most important document I’ve received to date: a five word email that said, merely, “Go sit with the writers.”
Rumpus: Can we talk a little bit more about Lee’s work, from your point of view? How does his development look to you from here? Maybe we could talk about a specific piece, and you could walk me through its strategies and accomplishments?
Felsenfeld: Let me address the procedure issue in a more general way, and then talk about a few “magic moments” in his pieces that taught me so very much.
Lee wrote atonal music, which does not simply mean “dissonant” or “chaotic” or “disorganized” or “noisy” or “discordant” (I’ll just attack all the common misapplications of a very complicated word) but it means the usual push-pull of chords and keys, tones within chords and keys, and the idea of soprano-bass melody and harmony as the dominant force is not how his music works. And when you write in this fashion, you lack certain conventional means to make your music sound fresh. A tonal or pan-diatonic composer can always modulate, even if the music is way off the scalar construction (say Debussy), using conventional means in unconventional ways—drifting between distant keys by dint of a single common tone. But when you are working in the way Lee did—music favored by gesture more than just about anything (something Charles Ives called, aptly, a “sonic thumbprint,” which just means a recognizable musical idea, however short, unmelodic, dissonant, &c.)—you have to contrive your own route to surprise and freshness, because music is all about expectations and resolution of same, and in a way a composer of atonal music is working without a net. Lee would always talk about a notion—and again, it is a very basic idea (as are ALL the building blocks, no matter how “advanced” the setting) that you can create a fresh note by not just avoiding it but using atonal means to obliterate it in the immediate memory so it will be a discovery. An example: you want to write a big moment that centers around the note B, and it is a moment you really want to stand out. So what you do is 1) avoid the note B for some measures before—the longer you wait the juicier the arrival, and 2) if you really want to make that arrival happen you do what Lee called a “whole tone push” over that same note, which means the music preceding the big “B” moment moves from B-flat (a half-step below) to a C (half-step above) thereby almost erasing the B. Again, simple notion, complex executions. Examples of this in Lee’s music are too numerous to mention.
He also talked a lot about music that was essentially devoid of transition. Basically the rhetoric of a tonal composer is smooth arrival: you set up big musical landings in many ways, but before you get to the next bit—especially if it is contrasting—you pave the way, musically speaking. Everything arrives, feels inevitable. Lee’s music is based on a kind of surface drama (built on an edifice of deep structure which I’ll get to in a moment) and as such he is freer to crash from one music to another, which is not exclusive of his music alone (listen to the music of Mario Davidovsky, say) but he does it in a particularly quirky and individual way. So his work oscillates from delicate to open-throttled to motionless to balls-to-the-wall rocking in the least smooth way. (He learned this from Captain Beefheart as well.) So again, working without the proverbial net, Lee’s music is all about proportion, it is where the structure comes from. And proportion—simply how LONG things go on, when things get interrupted, how much slow versus fast music—is all about pacing, and this is where Lee’s total mastery comes out.
Two moments in his work stand out that just kind of kill me along these lines (because proportion for it’s own sake is just a latticework; these proportions in Lee’s music just serve to make it very moving). The first is the entrance of two things in his Piano Concerto No. 2: the first time you hear the piano after a long orchestral opening is in this sneaky, off-the-beat way, it just kind of sneaks in, but the sneak plays because he’s waited so agonizingly long to actually bring in the piano (again: pacing) that one forgets, almost, the fact that this is a concerto. And the second thing that happens in that piece, which also happens in the beginning, is the entrance of this hard-rocking theme. After some slow shimmer in the beginning, the appearance of this theme is yet another masterpiece of, yes, pacing. Or, to put it in a moral cast, Lee earns his hard rocking music, which is what separates his work from those who say slap a backbeat on an atonal throb. When he rocks, it is not for too long (we always want it to go on and he slays us by not allowing it) and it is not the only thing that happens. Moments. Ideas. Proportion.
But the moment that actually made me want to study with him, that made me weep openly (and perhaps this is for personal reasons as much as musical) is in Howl. It is a simple magic trick, but it works, not just because of the poem but in how Lee chooses to use the music to “read” it. Simple: the opening music, under the famous lines “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” which is a gorgeous, lilting throb. It frames the famous opening quite well, and then is not returned to until the words (movements later, mind you) “Holy my mother in the insane asylum.” A lesser composer would not be able to resist as long as Lee. But that is what makes Howl work.
But for raw gorgeousness, you can’t beat those floating tenths in his small miracle We Speak Etruscan, a duet for the only-likely-to-Lee combination of Bass Clarinet and Baritone Saxophone.
Rumpus: Why isn’t he a little bit better known than he is? Because he gave so much to teaching? Because there were aspects of the work that were sophisticated?
Felsenfeld: Fame: it is complicated, especially for a composer who never did anything with the movies. But there remains the fact that Lee’s work is extremely difficult to play—it takes dedicated souls willing to practice, and those souls tend not to be in the bigger outlets (like orchestras or opera companies) but in smaller groups: string quartets, new music ensembles. Not being governed by union rules, those groups can practice as much as they like. I once asked Elliott Carter (a composer of fiendishly demanding music) why the most incisive moments of his work are in his quartets as opposed to his bigger pieces and he said, simply: “quartets practice.”
Lee also wrote slowly and deliberately, despite how large his output was. And for all the years I knew him, he did everything with a pencil and paper, even the final score, which meant he spent more time on an individual piece than most people did and do; he never composed with a blinking cursor. In fact, he seemed to have an allergy to software—and as someone who did some copying work for him I can attest that there are things in his music that most software is simply not equipped to do, so his allergy was genuine.
But in the end, who can say why certain people rise to the top and certain do not. Fashion, I suppose: Lee had a great career, winning massive prizes (though I always thought he deserved a Pulitzer) and getting big commissions from prestigious places. He wrote for the Kronos Quartet, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for Midori, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, for the Tanglewood Orchestra, and a number of amazing soloists. His work was played often and well, but there is a certain kind of music that will always be boutique because in many quarters dashing things off seems to be the order of the day and his was impossible to do seat-of-the-pants.
I always wanted him to write a big orchestral piece, a symphony, a concerto for large forces, an opera, and I suspect he did too. When he passed, a dear friend of both of ours remarked that Lee had lived in Boston, New York, and Chicago and the orchestras in those big cities had never deigned to play his work, despite the fact that he was a better composer than most. I always thought it was a shame: a Lee Hyla piece for the New York Philharmonic would have been so completely smashing and profound and vital, but those big careers (meaning those who write for the largest groups) are not always reserved for the most nuanced composers, so it hardly shocks.
There is a piece of this question that has been turning around in my mind since he passed, though, and it comes down to his storied aversion to all things self-promotional. I said to David Rakowski—a composer you and I both know to be extraordinary—that coming up in Boston as I did, it was refreshing to watch both he and Lee (my twin poles) not work the room, like ever, that I learned that a career is not always the endgame but the music—your music—when good would do well on its own reconnaissance, as cliché a thought as that is. So as much as sometimes I wish Lee had played the game just a bit, I also know that was not who he was—and I hope the same can be said of me. The fury he had for the “mediocre composer and shameless self-promoter” (as I heard him describe more than one person) was forceful and genuine, and it certainly caused me to check my own premises and mechanisms more than a few hundred times. I didn’t want to be the target of that especial thunder. I still don’t.
Rumpus: What effect did his brand of teaching have on your brand of teaching?
Felsenfeld: I know I teach almost exactly like he did: asking a LOT of questions, and always trying to start where the student is rather than what they ought to be. Lessons are slow, like his were, time spent to really let the intricacies of the music sink in—he used to play chords and let them ring for an ungodly long time (even in fast music) just so the overtones could bounce appropriately. And he was, like I am, interested in structuring pieces not just writing them, but not in a wild pre-compositional way. Rather, he helped me (as I try—try—to help my own students) think like a listener. Structures have to be audible, material has to interrelate. And his inevitable question in lessons was “so what’s going to happen in this piece next?” and while I often changed my tack (and he never forgot anything you wrote or said about what you wrote, a fiendish quality I seem to have as well if the complaints from my students are true) thinking directionally was important to him.
I also stole a few teaching ideas from him in that he introduced me to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which I used as a principal text for a class in Musical Aesthetics I taught at the New School. That’s absolutely direct. But for all his erudition, music was, to Lee, a practical concern: the philosophical notions were seldom discussed but the note-by-note progress of the piece was always discussed in lurid detail. And he never let anything shoddy pass his eyes without mentioning.
Rumpus: Remembering him now, what do you remember best? What’s an archetypal Hyla moment that will presumably stay with you always?
Felsenfeld: Oh man, so vastly many. I could give you dozens of Hyla incidents. As idiosyncratic as his music is, so too was he as a person. But also, while totally distinct, almost impossible to imitate (try though I might, for years). I suppose if there’s one that stands out, it was when, after slaving away to finish a huge orchestra piece of mine called Busmeat: A Parable because he’d helped me slither my way into the finals of a major competition—a slithering which involved finishing a huge piece in a matter of days, copying the score (I did things by hand back then—I recruited two well-meaning friends to help me pencil in whole rests in the hundred-plus-page score) and hopping a bus to New York from Boston to hand it to the appropriate party at a concert intermission—and I had not yet heard from them as to the results. Weeks passed, and finally, at a lesson, I said “Well, I guess I’m really paying my dues now, aren’t I?” to which he looked at me with a terrifying surfeit of sobering intensity and said “Not. Even. Close.” Chilling, and something that managed to both show support (or at least I read that he felt that there would be worse to come for me, which meant I was going to be in the game, not a position he granted everyone) and remind me how far I had to go. I didn’t exactly brush it off, but now, probably the age he was, I get it, finally. Yes there was the moment he told me to move to New York, that it was the only place for me—again, sending me off to the hardest and most intense shark tank—his shark tank—was a quiet, double-edged vote of confidence. There was the time he tried to tell me he’d gotten quietly married by simply displaying a ring prominently throughout the entire lesson (I never noticed). And there was the annual moment where he’d be in his bathrobe on New Year’s Day making Polish horseradish soup and the most astonishing pierogies one can imagine (you could feel your waistline stretching with each bite) for a party that always turned out to be a who’s-who (or at least who’s-who-of-who’s-around, Boston being a town governed by academics).
Or there was the last time I saw him, when he pulled me aside and wanted to have a talk about what was “going on in New York” musically speaking—and while being as brutal and condemnatory of certain trends, still reassuring me I was on the right track and should stay the proverbial course—seeming frantic and yet being extremely conversant in the doings of his former home. But more hysterically, this moment, at a concert which was to be my own last public appearance before the birth of my daughter Clara (which happened three weeks later), when he saw my wife Elizabeth, some nine months pregnant, and said to her, with all the considerable force of his store of wryness: “Elizabeth, you’ve gained some weight.” Not funny to her, of course (would anything be at that moment) but a moment I’ll always cherish, treasure, because there was Lee, for all his seriousness of hands and intensity of purpose, laughing hysterically out of the side of his mouth. Pure Hyla, that.
You only wanted one, didn’t you?