Restless, Endless, Tactless – Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music

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Meehan/Perkins Duo & the Baylor Percussion Group

“The radical changes in Western music in the 20th century took many forms. While tonality was recast in the 1920s, it was in the 1930s that a pivotal step in the “liberation of sound” occurred, with composers experimenting with percussion instruments as if they were a new discovery. A genre was born—the percussion ensemble—that by its nature was a pliable idiom, clear and free for exploration. After the premiere of Varèse’s Ionisation in New York in 1933, the “percussion orchestra” became the new avant-garde. Percussion was seen as not only the last frontier of traditional instrumentation, but also as expressive of the machine age and the rhythm of modern life. American composers saw it as especially their own: a music of American energy and experimentation, as well as a revolution in music not derived from European ideas.
This historic recording at last presents some of the most overlooked efforts from the early period of percussion music (only Johanna Beyer’s IV and Henry Cowell’s Return are known to have been previously recorded). All from the 1930s, these works are connected through the activity of Cowell. It spotlights the surprisingly different directions composers took in this new idiom. Some works are overtly programmatic and even satiric (Davidson, Green, and Russell), yet they experiment with unconventional playing techniques, found objects as instruments, and the playful contortion of traditional musical forms. The inclusion of the Humphrey exhibits the beginning of a long relationship between modern dance and percussion, which became furthered in the work of John Cage after he became acquainted with these pieces. Perhaps most striking are the works by Beyer, whose conceptual and process-based aesthetic presaged the most daring American experimental music for years to come. Her complete works for percussion form the core of this collection of seminal works.“