Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944) was born in Leipzig. She moved to the United States sometime around 1924, at the age of 35. After studying at various schools in New York, and with composers including Dane Rudhyar, Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford, she began a highly productive and interesting period of composition which lasted from around 1932 to almost 1940. She died of ALS in 1944, in New York City, at the age of 56. She had no heirs or family, and is buried in a public cemetery north of the city.

During her life, Beyer's music received very few performances, one recording (an excerpt), and one publication (as part of Henry Cowell's New Music Editions). Her work was almost completely overlooked during her life, and for about fifty years after her death. She was a close associate of Cowell's (acting as a kind of administrative assistant for him during his San Quentin years), but she seems to have been an extremely shy, awkward, or perhaps introverted person. For some reason, she was even ignored for the most part by even the experimental music scene in NY during the 1930's. Even with the tremendous renaissance of interest in the works of historical women composers in the U.S., Beyer's work has, until now, been (in her own words) in "total eclipse."

Beyer's music is an astonishing and rich treasure of mid-century American experimentalism. Several of her works from the early 1930's are important examples of Crawford/Seeger dissonant counterpoint, but in their own unique style. She was one of the first composers to focus on percussion music, and her several works for percussion ensemble are unusual (and quite beautiful) in a number of ways. Her two string quartets are small masterpieces of formalism combined with a quirky sense of humour. Her two major piano pieces are singular studies in the 'American dissonant' style, but quite distinct from those of her contemporaries Ruggles and Crawford. Her known works number about 50, and include several works for orchestra, concert band, a large number of chamber works, and works for choir, solo piano, and theatre. Many of her pieces still await their world premieres.

Charles Amirkhanian is largely responsible for "discovering" her work in the 1970's, and Essential Music performed a series of concerts of Beyer's music (working from facsimile manuscripts) in 1988 on the 100th anniversary year of her birth. About three years ago, Frog Peak Music began a "community" project to publish her scores in new annotated editions (10 so far) with the editing and copying done by various composers interested in her work. A biographical article and a detailed annotated catalog of her work is forthcoming in the Musical Quarterly by Larry Polansky and John Kennedy. A double CD of her music is also planned for release by Essential Music and Non Sequitur recordings.

(Larry Polansky and John Kennedy)