Profile: Johanna Beyer – Enigmatic Modernist

The accepted timeline of Twentieth Century experimental music is one dominated by White men; with female composers emerging only after the cultural revolutions of the ’50s and ’60s. And whilst this is no doubt a product of contemporary institutionalized sexism that simply didn’t afford women the same opportunities as Men; thought, as they were, better left to “light music” and whimsical chamber works or perceived by some as simply unsuited to the task of composition. There is also another mechanism of patriarchy at work, one that serves to condemn to history those female composers who did defy the status quo and position themselves in the vanguard.

Johanna Beyer is just such a figure, contemporary of Cage and Cowell, she has been denied the acres of biographical writing afforded her male counterparts. And so concerning the first thirty-five years of Beyers life, we know almost nothing. Her work went unperformed or curated and in particular, her 1938 piece Music of the Spheres isn’t afforded the importance it deserves; Being, as it is, one of the first examples of Electroacoustic music; predating Cage’s Imaginary Landscape cycle by a year.

A Formal Education

What little we do know of Beyer’s Early years concerns the musical training she undertook in her native Germany. She was Born in Leipzig in June of 1888 a year that also saw the ascendance of Kaiser William the II and a newly unified German nation striding forward in technological and cultural advancement. Beyer’s story from this point until her arrival in New York in 1923, however, is a blank page.

We know that she studied at the Leipziger Singakademie and received a diploma from the Deutscher Konservatorien and Musik seminare, institutions that complimented her natural talent with a mastery of classical forms. A route that follows well the dichotomy that one must learn the rules before breaking them.

Beyer spent time in America between 1911 and 1914 although again no records exist pertaining to this time or to the intervening years between then and her return. And only in her association with the New York Modernists does Beyer receive even a passing mention in histories of the time.

Program notes from her later participation in Composer Forum Concerts reveal that she studied at New York’s Mannes college and following her 1928 graduation, supported herself through teaching Piano; and, for a time, participated in the WPA welfare program. A scheme founded to combat the widespread unemployment that followed the great depression. A path, again, not followed by many single women in the arts.

Indicative too of the role Gender plays in Beyer’s story is her association with Henry Cowell; in particular her position as assistant to him; work undertaken for little or no financial reward. It is an association too that means much of the Biographical resource concerning Beyer exists in the form of correspondence between her self and Cowell. A resource that lay undiscovered for many years in the male composer’s archives.

These letters reveal an intense and most likely Romantic association between the two and many twenty-first Century scholars have pointed out the influence Cowell’s methods may have had on Beyers explorations into Atonality. An influence that of course also operates outside of the Gender politics inherent to the story. Being, as they were, master and pupil.

Cowell, in fact, may also be considered somewhat forgotten in mainstream narratives concerning the American Avant-Garde. His influence on Cage’s use of prepared Piano in particular along with his experiments with generative composition; afford him an important position among those seeking to tear down the Tonal system. Innovative too is his writing for percussion and in particular the use of Polyrhythms borrowed from the music of other cultures; an idea that Beyer would greatly refine and expand upon.

Her 1933 Percussion Suite is a brooding, heavily syncopated exploration of the textures and dynamics of Orchestral Percussion. It is a work that points toward later movements in Composition for Film and contains writing for tuned instrumentation that foreshadows the Minimalist school by some thirty years.

Her Piano works too seem to draw on the innovations of the era whilst hinting towards the Post-war landscape. Clusters, for instance, a piece for solo piano, employs the eponymous chord forms in such a way that the mellifluous discordancy could be born of electronic means. It balances these atonal schisms with a melody that is filled with intervals of a fourth and evokes a use of pentatonic scales more often seen in the Post-Bop of Mcoy Tyner or the spiritual minimalism of Terry Riley.

Another member of the “ultramodern” school who would influence Beyers work at this time is Ruth Crawford; a composer with her own experiences concerning the institutionalized sexism of the time.

Crawford was heavily influenced by Alexander Scriabin’s system of mystical atonality on one hand and Schoenberg’s Serialism on the other. She distilled both these approaches into her work on dissonant counterpoint, a theory first expounded by her husband Charles Seeger and heavily influenced by Crawford’s research. Consisting of a series of operations that reverse the traditional rules of counterpoint it was to inform the work of Cowell, Beyer and latterly Cage.

Crawford was also one of the first composers to apply Schoenberg’s serial operations to musical data other than pitch; another innovation that is often credited to her male contemporaries. Her later years saw her pursue studies in folk music; another preoccupation among the “Ultramoderns“, And saw her work alongside Alan Lomax in the cataloguing of American Folk idioms. Her children Mike, Peggy and Pete Seeger all becoming major figures in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s.

This shift towards Folk traditions in many ways signalled the end of the Ultramodern school and represented a passing of the batton to Cage and the Post-war Avant-Garde. Beyer too would follow in this rejection of experimentation, returning to her own roots in European Classicism. A shift that came after perhaps her retrospectively most groundbreaking work, 1938’s Music of the Spheres.

Spritual Mathematics

Part of the larger unfinished Opera Status Quo, Music of the Spheres was conceived as a piece for …”three electrical instruments…”. Beyer and Cowell are known to have experimented with a theremin many years before and it is the wide Glissandi of this instrument that lies at the heart of the piece.

The extended slide is a feature of much of Beyer and Crawfords writing and it seems the use of Electronics in Beyers piece represents an opportunity to explore the extremes of this sound as much as the timbres of the new instrumentation. It is like the later work of Milton Babbit, an exploration of pre-existing musical ideas that were previously unachievable.

The tonal palette of the piece hints again towards the minimalist works of Riley and Young in its use of a low two-note drone throughout and the pieces palindromic form suggests Steve Reich’s looping circular constructions.

Music of the Spheres though is, as the title suggests, an exploration of the Pythagorean notion of Cosmic harmony. The physical relationships between the celestial bodies that we find in so many other aspects of reality; not least of all music. And it is intriguing that Beyer would choose such unnatural instrumentation to evoke this most natural of subjects.

Beyer is then in many ways a composer who utilised electronics; as opposed to an electronic composer in the vein of Ligeti or Xenakis. Music of the Spheres was also not recorded until 1977 and as such passed by many who set out their stall in the Post-war field of Electroacoustics.

There was, however, in the ferment of the ’30s experimental music scene a circulation of ideas and influences that, like all cultural movements, occurred in the social lives of its exponents and the orbits of many composers who would later go on to define Electroacoustic practice intersected with Beyers.

Cage, of course, would later go on to explore the intersections of technology and spirituality, whilst Princeton professor and tape-music pioneer Otto Luening was known to be an exponent of Beyers work; at a time when so many were dismissive of it.

A lack of recognition or commercial reward was to be a constant in Beyers life and she struggled to support herself right up until her death, relying on income from teaching and a meagre compensation from Crawford. She was diagnosed too, in 1940, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gering’s disease and her correspondence from the time describes her worsening condition and difficulties with composition.

She did, however, continue to create new works in the Neo-classical Idiom and saw this discipline as a potential new playground for further experimentation. Ultimately however her output ceased as she succumbed further to the disease and her death in 1944 saw her destitute and her oeuvre languishing in obscurity.

It would be thirty-seven years before any renewed interest in her work and the 1977 recording of Music of the Spheres would be the first for any of her compositions. Recordings of other works have followed and the Johanna Beyer Project at Frog Peak Music is responsible for publishing the Scores for many of her works.

She has been the subject too, in the last fifteen years of many articles and scholarly papers that deal not only with her contributions to the Avant-Garde but also the part that Gender played in her lack of recognition.

It is worth pointing out too that Beyer’s nationality may have worked against her, being as she was, a German in Inter-war America. Her decline in health may also have come at a time when Beyer wished to cast off these inhibiting factors. The fact that the end would come just as she discovered a new found strength in facing these constraints, makes the conclusion of her story all the more tragic.

Thankfully, however, Beyer’s music is increasingly finding a place in studies of the Avant-Garde and her legacy serves to inspire successive generations of composers regardless of gender.

In many ways, the lack of information concerning Johanna Beyers life matters little too when we consider that all we need to know is encoded in her music. A true study of which is only just being undertaken.

Many of Beyer’s scores can be purchased from The Frog Peak Collective

An Enduring Cycle”: Revaluing the Life and Music of Johanna Beyer by the University of Miami’s Kelly Ann Hiser is an excellent open access thesis concerning the composer’s work

Modern recordings of Beyers music are available for download or in a 2 CD set

While Amy C. Beal’s 2015 book provides an in-depth biography


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