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Restless, Endless, Tactless - Johanna Beyer And The Birth Of American Percussion

Meehan Perkins Duo / Beyer / Baylor Percussion Grp
Release Date: 02/08/2011 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80711-2   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johanna M. BeyerGerald StrangJohn Joseph BeckerHarold Davidson,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion GroupMeehan/Perkins Duo
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RESTLESS, ENDLESS, TACTLESS: Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music Meehan/Perkins Duo; Baylor Perc Group NEW WORLD 80711-2 (72:48)

BEYER IV. Percussion . March. 3 Movements for Percussion. Waltz. Percussion Suite. STRANG Percussion Music. BECKER Vigilante 1938. DAVIDSON Read more Auto Accident. GREEN 3 Inventions of Casey Jones. HUMPHREY Dance Rhythms. COWELL Return

The premiere of Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation in the U.S. in 1933 generated a substantial wave of interest in the use of percussion among American composers. Championed by Henry Cowell, who included the subject in his teaching courses, a body of work soon developed. Enough for Cowell to publish, in 1936, edition No. 18 of his New Music Quarterly, which contained six works for percussion ensemble: Beyer’s IV , the pieces on this disc by Davidson, Green, Humphrey, and Strang, plus a piece by William Russell recorded elsewhere. Listening to the five from edition 18 as a group is interesting. The Beyer is enigmatic and curiously powerful for all its simplicity, setting a standard some of the other works seem to avoid aiming for (it comes first on the CD). The piece by Ray Green consists of two tiny movements that are really conventional piano solos, merely decorated by percussion, which frame a more substantial concerted movement. Auto Accident appears to be highly programmatic, the moment of impact depicted by the percussionist smashing panes of glass. Davidson is imaginative in his use of found objects (though it is not always clear from the recording what is going on; immediately after impact there is a lot of shuffling and scratching I couldn’t identify). But, for all its originality, the work relies a lot on melodic invention, whether on piano or tuned percussion, and is also flippant to the point of sarcasm. This is entertaining on first outing, but one quickly feels that Davidson is avoiding the challenge to be truly innovative. Humphrey’s Dance Rhythms is more motoric than most of the other works in this group; however, they all deal in simple rhythmic figurations, presumably accepting that the genre would be so novel to the first audiences that it would be necessary to keep them onboard in this way.

The Davidson and Humphrey pieces strike me as being studies for larger works. Strang’s Percussion Music for three players is more substantial. In three short movements, it sounds the most confident (the Humphrey piece in particular sounds rather tentative—not, I hasten to add, that the present performers are the slightest bit tentative; it’s in the writing itself). However, there is a certain lack of inventiveness, of innovation; the ideas and their developments are rather safe. Becker’s Vigilante 1938 (A Dance) contrasts three martial sections, in which the piano is treated percussively (but sounds like a child having a tantrum!), with two melodic interludes.

With Ionisation in mind, it is interesting to compare the foregoing with the six works on this disc by Johanna Beyer. This set constitutes Beyer’s entire output in this genre. Percussion, March, and Waltz (all 1939) are each just over three minutes. The first, for an ensemble of 11 players, is an impressive and powerful ostinato, almost recalling, as the booklet so perceptively suggests, a Bruckner scherzo, with a confidence and swagger admirably conveyed by this performance. March is equally impressive, the irregular four-and-a-bit in the bar gradually being filled in by vaguely gamelan-like sounds with, again, a confident and impressive climax. If you couldn’t march to the March , at least the Waltz is in 3/4, but the rhythm is interestingly disguised despite a very insistent quarter-note beat in the tom-tom.

Beyer’s Percussion Suite (1933) is her first work in the genre and must be one of the earliest in the genre itself. In three movements running 13 minutes, it is remarkable in its assurance and in Beyer’s willingness not to go for the obvious bang, crash, wallop. Often subtlety is the order of the day. She opens with pianissimo bass drum and Chinese blocks, cymbal, tambourine, and triangle, and allows herself a single climax. In the second movement the xylophone has pitched material, but it is less populist than Green’s piece. In the third movement again it is the delicacy of the interplay of the instruments that is striking. The Three Movements for Percussion (1939) is a real development. The first movement, “Restless,” shows some paring down to essentials; one theme is merely three strokes of the tam-tam. Structurally it is a palindrome (though each measure is itself played forward). The next movement, “Endless,” is, at 10 minutes, by far the longest piece on the disc and, with its ticking woodblock, evokes a real sense of timelessness. There is often so little going on here that working out why Beyer chooses to do what she does do is an intriguing process. This movement, of all the Beyer works here, could have been written at any time in the last 70 years and not sounded anachronistic. “Tactless” develops the mood of the preceding movement into a climax.

With a nod to Henry Cowell, the disc concludes with his Return . Written when the composer was incarcerated in San Quentin, perhaps the piece is a metaphor for his return to society. The more Asian feel to the sound world is attractive, but I do sense a certain amount of feeling the way.

Johanna Beyer’s works are a real find and worth the price of the disc by themselves. If 72 minutes of percussion music is a slight stretch, listening to the six Beyer pieces makes a fascinating and rewarding experience. The other works form a diverse and entertaining backdrop. The performances would appear to be excellent (I don’t have the scores). Certainly I get a sense of verve, of commitment, and of panache. The recording is excellent—exciting, even—capturing the full dynamic range as well as the subtle timbres of the instruments in a realistic and satisfying acoustic. This is a must-hear for anyone remotely interested in the development of music in the past century and is strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
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Works on This Recording

IV by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1935; USA 
Percussion Music by Gerald Strang
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Perussion, Op. 14 by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Vigilante 1938 (A Dance) by John Joseph Becker
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
March by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Auto Accident by Harold Davidson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Three Inventories of Casey Jones by Ray Green
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Movements (3) for Percussion by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Dance Rhythms by Doris Humphrey
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Waltz by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Percussion Suite by Johanna M. Beyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Return by Henry Cowell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baylor Percussion Group,  Meehan/Perkins Duo
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939 

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