The New York Times - April 12, 2013 - Anthony Tommasini

The American composer Lee Hyla has unassailable credentials within both avant-garde and academic circles. He spent his early years playing piano in new-music ensembles, rock bands and free improvisation groups. But he has also been a valued teacher of composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston and, since 2007, Northwestern University.

A new Tzadik recording of recent chamber works, played by the dynamic Firebird Ensemble and conducted by Jeffrey Means, begins with a personal piece called “Polish Folk Songs” (2007) inspired, Mr. Hyla writes in a note, by memories of his grandmother’s funeral in 1973 in the Polish community of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where Mr. Hyla was born. She and her friends used to sing songs of mourning from the old country. Scored for seven players, the music boldly shifts from strands of yearning lyricism to aggressive, slashing chords. Quotations from folk songs, much like people, bump heads one moment and get along the next.

In “Field Guide” (2006) Mr. Hyla has his Messiaen moment. This 10-minute score takes its thematic materials from bird song. But whereas Messiaen went into the fields in search of singing birds, Mr. Hyla relied on ornithological recordings. The music captures the assertiveness of many birdcalls, the delicacy of others, all folded into a restless yet cohesive score.

The title work of the album, “My Life on the Plains” (2010), takes its name from the autobiography of George Armstrong Custer. This 30-minute work begins with staggered entrances, searching yet nervous, by individual instruments. A series of duos and trios follow, but you never trust the calm passages, rightly, since frenetic intensity keeps coming. A haunting slow movement leads to a wild frenzied finale. Here Mr. Hyla’s young experimental days come to the fore, though the writing is masterly.

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