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Johanna Beyer: Sticky Melodies

Suite for Clarinet No. 1
String Quartet No. 1
Three Songs for Clarinet and Soprano
Bees
The Federal Music Project
Movement for Two Pianos
Suite for Clarinet No. 2
String Quartet No. 2
Ballad of the Star-Eater
Movement for Double Bass and Piano
Three pieces for choir
Sonatina in C

Astra Chamber Music Society, John McCaughey, director
New World Records

Johanna Beyer is a composer who has been woefully neglected. As the composer of what many consider to have been the first electronic piece (Music of the Spheres, 1938), it’s amazed me how little one hears of her. I first became enamored with the 1938 work on a landmark LP with new music by women composers, and am delighted that New World Records is making a lot of Beyer’s music available in a recent 2-CD set. The recordings provide a really nice overview of Beyer’s music since 1930 (her pre-1930 music remains unknown). Beyer was a contemporary of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell and other American “experimentalists” of that era, and her music was very much ahead of its time. She ultimately developed ALS and, along with a worsening relationship with Cowell after his release from prison, made her last years tragic and unfortunate.

Fortunately for us, however, we have these 2 CDs with a good deal of Beyer’s music in extremely sympathetic and skillful performances. Of all the music on the album, the two string quartets particularly stand out. While the fourth movement of String Quartet No. 1 have been described in terms that make it seem proto-minimalist, I’m struck more by its use of repetitive glissandi than its stasis. The string writing reminds me of the one performance I heard years ago of John Becker’s string quartet, another amazing piece that I wish were heard more often (note to performers: I’ll die a lot happier if I could hear the Becker again, it’s that good).

The two works for clarinet solo are gems, as is the piece for contrabass and piano. In fact, all the pieces on these discs are incredible finds, and belong in any new music aficionado’s playlist. I’ve wanted to hear more of Beyer’s music since hearing that early electronic piece of hers, and now want to hear the remainder of her oeuvre.

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