Meehan/Perkins Duo: Early American Percussion Music

April 8, 2011 10:09 am in Concert by Web Team

When asked about the birth of American percussion music, most would probably know the names of Edgard Varese, John Cage, Henry Cowell and perhaps Lou Harrison – but there are a few overlooked efforts from the earliest period of percussion music from composers such as Johanna Beyer, Harold Davidson, Ray Green and Doris Humphrey. In their latest recording project, the Meehan/Perkins Duo has unearthed a treasure trove of previously unrecorded major American repertoire.

Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins discuss their latest recording project entitled,
Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music”:


Excerpts from John Kennedy’s Liner Notes:

This historic recording finally presents some of the most overlooked efforts from the early period of percussion music. All from the 1930’s, these works are connected through the activity of Cowell. As a leader of the American avant-garde in the 1930’s, Cowell was an early champion of percussion, at one point writing in a letter to John Cage, “I honestly believe and formally predict that the immediate future of music lies in the bringing of percussion on the one hand, and sliding tones on the other, to as great a state of perfection in construction of composition and flexibility of handling on instruments as older elements are now.”

Cowell taught courses in music at New York’s New School for Social Research, focusing on new ideas and world music. A number of early percussion pieces are known to have directly grown out of these classes. Since 1927, Cowell had also published a journal of new American scores, the New Music Quarterly (and later the New Music Orchestra Series), and in 1936 he released the audacious edition #18, consisting of six works for percussion: IV of Beyer, Auto Accident by Harold Davidson, Three Inventories of Casey Jones by Ray Green, Dance Rhythms by the choreographer Doris Humphrey, Three Dance Movements by William Russell, and Percussion Music by Gerald Strang (all are included on this recording except the Russell, which is previously available).

The New Music Orchestra Series edition 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. But perhaps most striking in the collection was the work IV by one J.M. Beyer, whose conceptual and process-based aesthetic presaged the most daring American experimental music for years to come.

Johanna Magdalena Beyer was a German-American composer whose music remained mostly obscure after her death in 1944, until it began to receive further notice in 1988 after being revived for performances celebrating her centenary. Beyer settled permanently in New York in 1923 and was involved in the avant-garde music scene centering around Cowell, as well as the Composers’ Forum and WPA music program of the 1930’s. Correspondence shows that she maintained a close friendship with Cowell, serving as his informal secretary between 1936 and 1940. She inscribed her works and correspondence to conductors as “J.M. Beyer”, no doubt to mask her gender.



Johanna Beyer (1888-1944): IV (1935)

Johanna Beyer – IV

Beyer’s daring IV of 1935 is composed for nine parts with unspecified instruments (the title of the work is an enigma). The fifth, or middle part, is simply repeated eighth notes in 7/8 meter. Three other parts enter fugally, but grouping their eighth notes through accents in groups of two, three, and five, displacing emphasis away from the downbeat (which is always supplied in the ninth part). Other parts provide rhythmic subject and cross-rhythms which increase in complexity with each repetition. Yet something else happens in IV that was, at the time, a possible first: the entire work is in a constant state of tempo and dynamic change. In each of its six 8-measure groups, tempo gradually accelerates and volume increases to a local maximum near the center, and then decelerates and decrescendos to the next phrase (although the last phrase crescendos to the end). IV is a composition in constant flux, and is also possibly the first work for unspecified instrumentation.


Johanna Beyer: Three Movements for Percussion (1939): Mvt III / Tactless

Johanna Beyer – Three Movements for Percussion
III: Tactless

Composed in 1939, Beyer’s Three Movements bear a dedication to John Cage, and assume a daring and experimental structure. The final movement, “Tactless”, continues the hypnotic quality of the previous movements with a dialogue of recurring motives. In 5/4 time, “Tactless” features a quarter note ostinato in the tom tom, with a rest on beat three, creating a sense of metrical illusion. The bass drum augments this illusion (literally) with a recurring theme of 4 over 5. At points of intensity near the beginning and end, measures of 1/4 interrupt as sforzando crashes in the cymbals, with the fifth and final time a tutti sforzando. Added to the texture is the appearance of pitched percussion, an e-flat chime whose persistent ring assumes a significant, almost psychological presence in the otherwise “unpitched” landscape.


Purchase a copy of

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