Bryan Hayslett

Steinhardt School, New York University

Gesture and Phrasing in the Music of Lee Hyla: Temporal Perception and Performance

American composer Lee Hyla (1952-2014) was influenced by James Brown and Captain Beefheart, whose improvisational styles affected his conception of musical structure and phrasing. Rather than using a steady metrical pulse as an organizing factor, Hyla constructed his works from small groups of contiguous units, or gestures. Each gesture has its own structure of emphasis, and these gestures relate together to articulate a larger temporal structure. The hierarchical relationship of the gestures suggests how phrases can be interpreted, as heard and performed structures. In order to describe the structure of gestures and how they relate, I apply concepts from linguistic stress theory to phrasing and structure in Hyla’s music. My work is particularly influenced by the writings of Fred Lerdahl, Ray Jackendoff, and Bruce Hayes. Through pairing examples of Brown and Beefheart with Hyla’s works, such as We Speak Etruscan and String Quartet No. 4, I examine the performance traditions that gave rise to Hyla’s sense of time and phrasing. Brown’s “The Popcorn” exhibits the way in which melodies are rhythmically executed around the beat. The inceptions of melodic notes often fall on syncopated subdivisions rather than aligning with the steady beat established by the rhythm section. When the notes do align with the beat, the melody’s sense of freedom is intensified by slight placement ahead of or behind the beat; these discrepancies create a temporal tension that greatly influenced Hyla. He was further influenced by Beefheart, whose “Frownland” shows a texture of nonaligned instruments that combine to create a large-scale sense of time. The melody resembles speech more than song, and the subdivisions of the melody’s rhythms cannot be clearly heard. This melody that does not rigidly fit to a rhythmic grid produces a fluid sense of time that Hyla attempted to capture in his music. Whereas the rhythmic deviations and metric looseness in Brown and Beefheart are stylistic choices made by the performers, Hyla specifically notated these characteristics. His complex notation creates a metric scaffolding to combine varying subdivisions and syncopations to create a structure that sounds free. The precision of Hyla’s notation creates a less rigid feel of the music given the lack of a clearly heard metric structure. However, temporal tension still exists despite the uneven rhythms and meters. Structure generating from gesture rather than meter more fully describes Hyla’s music. My analysis of Hyla’s Dream of Innocent III for amplified cello, piano, and percussion examines the use of gesture in analyzing phrasing and structure. The goal of my work is to understand tension and emphasis created through the hierarchical relationships of gestures and how those relationships affected the heard structure. I hope my work will result in a greater understanding of phrasing and direction in Hyla’s music.


Bryan Hayslett is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University’s Steinhardt School, where he is a member of the Adjunct Artist Faculty. His research centers on musical analysis and its relation to perception and performance, focusing on the music of Lee Hyla. Founder and cellist of the contemporary performance group Juxtatonal, his solo programs often feature premieres of new works written for him; he frequently commissions and works with composers including Daniel Felsenfeld, Kareem Roustom, and Drew Baker, and his releases include “A Special Light”(Innova), featuring music of David Macbride. Hayslett, who holds degrees from The Hartt School of Music and The Boston Conservatory, also improvises music for yoga classes.