Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Johanna Beyer and the Mystery of Your Own Devices

There are few more exciting moments in research when you stumble across a hold of unseen work.  There have been many cases of talented artists left out of the eye of the art establishment, with a wide variety of reasons for their hermitage.  One part of being an artist that isn't brought up enough is the importance of being sociable to your fellow artists, and the obscurity of Johanna Beyer (1888-1944) is largely due to simply being withdrawn and odd.  So withdrawn that information about her early life is very hard to come by.  A German expatriate, she came to America in 1923 (although she had been in the country from 1911-1914, though nothing is known about what she did), studying at Mannes College of Music.  Her ticket to possible recognition came when she began studying with Ruth Crawford Seeger (wife of Charles Seeger), Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar, all major figures in the American Ultra-Modernist scene in New York.  She also worked with the even-more-obscure Canadian-American Jessie Baetz, and if anybody has any idea as to how I can get ahold of her scores I'd love to hear them.  Despite having connections to many figures in the scene she remained very private, and her works were rarely performed (though she maintained a friendship, and possible romantic connection, with Cowell until the early 40's).  She eventually succumbed to ALS, dying in her early 50's.  It's difficult to tell if being more outgoing would have helped her reputation more in her lifetime, because long after the fact it's difficult to know where to start with her work.

Beyer's compositions are among the most fearlessly inventive and wide-ranging of her time and place.  Music of the Spheres (1938) is one of the earliest works for an ensemble of electronic instruments; Messiaen's Oraison for ondes martenot ensemble is the only one I can think of that predates it (or Marinetti's Futurist instruments).  It's one of the more accessible entryways for her experimental style, focusing on processes and odd pitch and rhythmic structures rather than arc, harmony or programmatic context.  It's almost minimalistic in feel, but with Beyer it's difficult to tell her real motives by the works alone.  Her pieces range from distressingly naive (such as the Sonatina for piano) to baffling, such as this:

This is only one of a series of such "pieces" at the beginning of the Piano Book, a multi-volume (I think) pedagogical piano series in the same vein as Bartok's Mikrokosmos.  It's possible that these first, note-less works were intended as exercises to coax music-making out of children before they were able to read music; the fact that the plant-like figures vaguely resemble notes makes this page all the more intriguing.  I can't tell if they're not supposed to be played, because what purpose do they serve otherwise?  The music doesn't begin until after a bunch of these things.  Also, the book's progressive difficulty isn't terribly challenging, so my Mikrokosmos comparison may have been un-apt.

If history has remembered Beyer for anything it was her works for percussion of which there were many and make up a significant contribution to the development of percussion music in the 30's.  To be blunt, I'm not really a fan of early percussion music; I feel that too much of it is too taken by the mere fact of percussion instruments playing by themselves to constitute a satisfying musical experience.  I put the Waltz (1939) up because it took up the least amount of time and I've actually seen it live (or maybe it was the very-similar IV).  Normally I'd point out a lack of musicality in these pieces but with Beyer I really haven't the foggiest as to what her motives were.  The Waltz at least leaves you with a smile, and has an identifiable process at work that doesn't overstay its welcome.  Speaking of processes, a work that has attracted some scholarly attention is her Suite no. 1b for solo clarinet, specifically the fourth movement:

(Click for larger view)

I got the score for this, as well as a bunch of other scores by Beyer, off of Larry Polansky's website.  An advocate for the early Avant-Garde in America, Polansky wrote about the use of "tempo melody" in the fourth movement to this and the 1a clarinet suite.  "Tempo melody" is shown in the indication of "m=m", or "measure = measure".  Essentially, however long it took to play the previous measure is how long the next measure is to be played, accounting for different numbers of notes.  For example, if the first measure had two notes in it and the second three, the tempo shift would be a 3 : 2 ratio.  Polansky noted that the integer ratios found in the tempo shifts have related ratios in pitch relations, but I'll not bore you by inserting his chart.  I've heard two decent performances of this movement, and the tempi get outlandish, compounded with the great difficulty of the piece without the speed issues.  There is an effective arc to be found in this piece, but I'm not sure the performers were able to get a handle on it, or if that was Beyer's wish to begin with.  Polansky has become one of her greatest posthumous advocates, as he got many of her compositions published by Frog Peak Music, a composer's collective.

In 2008 the non-profit record label New World Records released Sticky Melodies, a 2-disc retrospective of her work that covers nearly everything she tried to accomplish (in what we've found, that is).  I don't own it, but judging by the preview clips available on Amazon there's a pretty wide swath of moods, techniques and listenabilities.  In addition to that set I would recommend tracking down an album by violinist Miwako Abe that includes her dark and lovely Suite for violin and piano as well as works by Crawford Seeger, Cowell, Polansky and Antheil.  As with all Beyer pieces I suggest treading with caution, because as intrigued and enthusiastic as I am about getting her work out there I'm not sure we'll ever get to her true core.  But that's all part of the uncovering process, and I'm very grateful that people like Larry Polansky are working for her welfare long after her death.


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