The Boston Globe - April 20th, 2013 - Jeremy Eichler
Boston’s loss was Chicago’s gain in 2007, when the ruggedly original composer Lee Hyla moved from his longtime perch at New England Conservatory to a new post at Northwestern University. Fortunately the musical ties forged here over the decades are still paying dividends, as is evidenced by this excellent new disc, “My Life on the Plains,” featuring Boston’s own Firebird Ensemble in expert performances of three recent works. Jeffrey Means conducts.
Hyla’s music generally blends a breed of modernist rigor with the aggressive energy of rock and the soul of free jazz. Moments of arresting beauty are given but they are hard won. As demonstrated in the cannily linked three movements of the title work from 2010, Hyla’s craft has a density of construction that rewards careful listening, but it’s also generous with its visceral pleasures, delivered here through the sinew of the string lines, the elegant swoop of the clarinets, and the physicality of the solo piano writing that, near the end, seems to channel the upwelling ferocity of a Cecil Taylor improvisation.
Hyla’s “Field Guide” from 2006 is a shorter work full of angular yet soulful music woven from the transmuted calls of an Australian lyrebird, a Peruvian wren, even an extinct Hawaiian Kauai-oo. And the opening 2007 work, “Polish Folk Songs,” conjures and recombines actual folk materials into three surging, intensely felt movements by turns ceremonial, madcap, and elegiac, with both keening dissonances and sudden vistas of striking stillness. Firebird plays throughout with all the virtuosity and grit this music requires. And then some.