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Johanna Beyer: Sticky Melodies


Release Date: 05/06/2008 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80678   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Kim BastinPeter DumsdayCraig HillMerlyn Quaife,   ... 
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music SocietyAstra Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 36 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



BEYER Clarinet Suites: I; Ib. String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2. 3 Songs for Soprano and Clarinet. Bees. The Federal Music Project. Movement for 2 Pianos. Ballad of the Star-Eater. Movement for Double Bass and Piano. 3 Pieces for Choir . Sonatina in C John McCaughey, dir; Astra C Music Society NEW WORLD 80678 (2 CDs: 99:43 Text and Translation)


This is a major event in terms of rectifying a terrible omission in American Read more music. Johanna Beyer (1888–1944) was part of the “ultramodern” circle that included such names as Ruggles, Cowell, Varèse, and Seeger (both Ruth Crawford and Charles). I had heard just two of her pieces prior to this release: one, The Music of the Spheres , first issued on a 1750 Arch LP of women electroacoustic composers (afterwards reissued by New World), suggested a very original sensibility (though it was a realization by electronic musicians in the 1970s of a score that was more of a concept than a precisely fixed object). The other, a work for violin and piano (performed in fact by the first violinist of the string quartet for this recording) was issued on another New World disc I reviewed in Fanfare 30:3.


Beyer is one of those poignant “What ifs” of American music. A German émigré, she seems to have been eclipsed by the formidable personalities and sexist attitudes of her circle. She carried an unrequited torch for Henry Cowell (something of a lost cause, considering his ambivalent sexuality). She was devoted to the Seegers, but also seems to have languished somewhat in their shadow (and her admiration of Ruth may have cast her as the “other woman” aesthetically in the group, and hence dispensable). And to compound the tragedy, she died prematurely from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).


With all of these crosses to bear, it’s something of a miracle she produced anything. Yet Beyer seems to have been relentlessly engaged with her art, and “fatalistically idealistic.” One cannot but feel the sheer heroism of her project, and her willingness to suffer so much indifference to her art. But there seems to have been a toll. The music we have (at least so far as I can tell) tends to be shorter and more fragmentary, rather like sketches of a magnum opus that ultimately was not to be. This two-disc set is by far the richest representation we yet have of her work, from her most intense creative period (1932–37). (There is also one work, the neo-Classical Sonatina, from the year before her death.) It is particularly strong in that it presents clearly both Beyer’s strengths and weaknesses as a composer.


The strengths first. Beyer has a great, rigorous ear. Listen—for just one example—to the Movement for Double Bass and Piano , and you hear not a single wrong note. I found myself thinking of Beyer’s fellow countryman Stefan Wolpe in places, and then was happy to see that Larry Polansky in his notes drew the same parallel. But there’s also a fiercely independent spirit at work, one that sees no limits to expression or proper “taste.” Thus the First String Quartet has a final movement that is all strange, process-oriented glissandos and repeated notes, a sonic puff of smoke. The Second Quartet uses Papageno’s first aria from The Magic Flute as a sort of recurrent reference point amidst its similarly slithery textures (perhaps a commentary on her feelings about a woman’s “wifely” role, as well as perhaps being “neither fish nor fowl”). The two solo clarinet suites exhibit a brilliantly simple and direct technique of metric modulation (admittedly taken from Cowell), at work decades before Carter’s. And the songs for voice and clarinet, especially “Ballad of the Star-Eater,” have an appropriately transcendental intensity.


But above all, I find the choral music most impressive, even though we only have four short pieces here. The Astra Chamber Music Society (of Australia) seems to have a special affinity for choral works, and they do us an incredible service to bring Beyer’s works in this medium to attention. Both The Federal Music Project and The Composers Forum Laboratory are remarkable pieces. “Meta,” in the sense that they are music about music, they capture the spirit and idealism of the 1930s in their texts (by the composer), describing the buzzing communal creative energy of her compatriots, in uncompromising (but natural!) vocal writing. The former work is, despite its small dimensions, almost overwhelming in its repetitive, incantatory intensity. In a period when most contemporary choral music strikes me as anodyne and almost simpering in its eagerness to please, these fresh and striking works are tonic.


But as suggested earlier, there’s the other side of the coin. And it’s relatively simple. Beyer’s pieces sound like sketches for something larger that was never realized. They seem to be etudes: brilliant, but awaiting fuller realization after the problems tackled were solved. The longest work is the slow movement of the First String Quartet, and while I’ll give it more listenings, it sounds a little too driven by its process/concept to sustain my interest over its 10-minute span. Some of the lesser works also sound restrained, even timid in their character, despite the overall adventure of the language and gestural palette. They seem to be the efforts of a composer working out technical issues but not taking them to the next level. (If you want an example of this sort of compositional “dirty linen,” but with a payoff, listen to the early serial vocal music of Webern. I find it a terribly hard slog, but in the end it leads us to the pastoral Eden of his Symphony. Beyer seems not to have been given the opportunity to achieve a similar apotheosis.) I truly hate to say this, because there’s so much that I admire about her spirit and vision, which comes through loud and clear. Further, I think a lot of my criticism is in fact an indictment of the era, which probably hamstrung her due to her gender. But in the end, it’s only special moments throughout this set that resonate. The whole doesn’t seem more than the sum of the parts, alas.


And yet this doesn’t keep the disc from being a contender for my Want List. Beyer, even if she’s a near miss, remains an important voice worthy of discovery. If this recording could persuade someone to undertake the release of her orchestral (and more of her choral) music, I might well find my opinions unqualifiedly altered to her favor. So I thank New World strongly for this courageous act, which at least starts to restore one of modern American music’s “foremothers” to her rightful place, and allows us to make the sort of realistic critical judgment that I suspect she would have welcomed, no matter where the chips might fall.


While Fanfare ’s editorial policy forbids that headnotes include performers in a named ensemble, it’s worth noting here the wonderful players in Astra’s roster, who give this music their all. The string quartet is Miwako Abe and Aaron Barnden, violins; Erkki Veltheim, viola; and Rosanne Hunt, cello. The Songs for Soprano and Clarinet and Ballad of the Star-Eater are performed by Merlyn Quaife, voice, and Craig Hill, clarinet. Peter Dumsday performs piano in all the works, but is joined by Kim Bastin in the Movement for Two Pianos , and Bastin is the accompanist in the Movement for Double Bass and Piano . The two clarinet suites are performed respectively by Daniel Goode (the only non-Astra performer, himself a noted New York experimental composer) and Craig Hill. And finally, all thanks to John McCaughey, who not only has coordinated the whole project, but directs the Astra Choir in these visionary performances of Beyer’s choral works.


FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

1.
Songs (3) for Soprano and Clarinet by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
2.
Quartet for Strings no 1 by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
3.
The Federal Music Project by Johanna M. Beyer
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society,  Astra Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; USA 
Length: 5 Minutes 19 Secs. 
4.
Movement for Two Pianos by Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Kim Bastin (Piano), Peter Dumsday (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; USA 
Length: 3 Minutes 59 Secs. 
5.
Suite for Clarinet no 1 by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
6.
Quartet for Strings no 2 by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
7.
Ballad of the Star-Eater by Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Craig Hill (Clarinet), Merlyn Quaife (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; USA 
Length: 7 Minutes 31 Secs. 
8.
Movement for Double Bass and Piano by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
9.
Pieces (3) for Chorus by Johanna M. Beyer
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
10.
Sonatina for Piano in C major by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Chamber Music Society
Period: 20th Century 
11.
Piano-Book: no 21, Bees by Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Peter Dumsday (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Length: 0 Minutes 59 Secs. 
12.
Suite for Clarinet 1b by Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Craig Hill (Clarinet)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932; USA 
Length: 1 Minutes 9 Secs. 
13.
Movement for Double Bass and Piano by Johanna M. Beyer
Performer:  Nicholas Synot (Double Bass), Kim Bastin (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Length: 4 Minutes 7 Secs. 
14.
The Main Deep by Johanna M. Beyer
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; USA 
Length: 2 Minutes 31 Secs. 
15.
The Composers' Forum Laboratory by Johanna M. Beyer
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; USA 
Length: 1 Minutes 58 Secs. 
16.
The People, Yes! by Johanna M. Beyer
Conductor:  John McCaughey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Astra Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; USA 
Length: 4 Minutes 15 Secs. 

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