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Johanna Beyer: Sticky Melodies

By Art Lange
Point of Departure

Over the years New World Records has done yeoman’s service in rescuing classic recordings of 20th century American music from defunct or disinterested labels and newly documenting neglected historic (and contemporary) scores – this release being a remarkable example of the latter. The German-born Johanna Beyer came to the U.S. in 1924 at age 36, and quickly gravitated towards a group of unconventional Modernist composers including Henry Cowell, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Dane Rudhyar. According to the extensive explanatory and revealingly analytical program notes by advocates John McCaughey (who also conducted the Australian-based Astra Chamber Music Society in these performances) and Larry Polansky, Beyer’s most provocative music was constructed between 1930 and ’37 – the period from which all but one of these pieces was taken – although she continued to compose, albeit in a simplified and accessible style, until her death in 1944. After that, her music was forgotten until the 1960s, when Charles Amirkhanian initiated some interest in her unusual scores, leading to isolated recordings of the exotic percussion piece “Music of the Spheres� and a few of her piano studies. Polansky introduced the Astra ensemble to Beyer’s music, resulting in concerts in Melbourne and eventually this commission from New World. Tellingly, all of the music on these two discs are world premiere recordings.

I used the word “constructed� above because, as Polansky details, Beyer adopted an intricate mathematical process of composition, influenced by the “dissonant counterpoint� theories devised by Cowell and the Seegers, which determined many of the specific proportions of the musical material. Beyer’s personal choices in combining and contrasting these components, however, were often stunningly imaginative, and gave the music its original character – from the layered offbeat rhythms and extended, wandering, mysterious allure of the “String Quartet No. 1� to the winding chromatic pull and sprightly dance episodes of the two “Suites for Clarinet.� Despite its methodology, Beyer’s music never sounds clinical or predictable. Although her writing for chorus is idiomatic and relatively conservative, the songs for soprano and clarinet offer pure melodies with lyrically abstracted counterpoint. Her most radical approach comes in the way she blends different degrees of activity – including intense glissandi, surprising melodic contours, and “tussling� (the apt description is McCaughey’s) rhythmic shapes – between instruments in the two string quartets; the second is half the length of the first, and alternates between contemplative, playfully Ivesian (featuring a quote from Mozart), and ethereal moods. These quartets present sound-forms as unusual and striking in their way as Brancusi sculptures. The program ends with an atypical solo piano “Sonatina� from 1943, Haydnesque in its classical poise and moderate sturm-und-drang dissonance.

This valuable release raises Beyer from the status of an historical footnote to a position of significance in the early 20th century Modernist exploration that ultimately affected composers like Elliott Carter and James Tenney – and makes one wonder what other equally fascinating music has fallen into the cracks of history, awaiting discovery. Carry on, New World.