Site of Formation 1944

"We Will Join the Spheres Once More": Social Critique and the Scientific Imagination in Johanna Beyer's Status Quo

Sexy cyborgs, gruesome monsters, invasions, and body-snatchings. Common perceptions of science fiction tend to cite such “pulpy” scenarios as evidence that the genre, at best, lacks substance and, at worst, supports misogynist and xenophobic views.1 Yet, if one adopts a broader definition of science fiction as any piece using science-inspired fantasy as a mode of social discourse, the genre then encompasses a dizzying array of canonic literary works spanning the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.2 This expansion of science fiction to include works that traffic in what could be called the “scientific imagination” need not be contained to the artistic discipline of literature ; fantasies about science and technology (both real and imagined) have fueled the aesthetics of modernism in art and music throughout the twentieth century, including avant-garde U.S. composer Johanna Beyer’s (1888–1944) unfinished opera, Status Quo (1938).

Music (especially twentieth-century avant-garde music) produces effects on its listeners that mirror the tropes of science fiction: a sense of “transportation” to another world, an altered sense of time and space, and an evocation of the sublime or numinous. Moreover, both music and science fiction practice social commentary largely through allegory: science fiction creates new worlds that vaguely resemble our own, allowing cultural beliefs or practices to be critiqued from a “safe” distance ; similarly, music evokes new sound worlds in which the listener hears familiar strains but does not know the “landscape” of the unfamiliar piece, ultimately creating space for consideration of the social values articulated by certain sounds and sound-relations3.

I propose not only should musical works in general be considered in discussions of science fiction and the scientific imagination, but that even in its unfinished state, Status Quo uniquely participates in important discourses of science fiction on two levels. On the surface, Beyer’s fragmented, hyper-sensory stage directions critically depict the disorienting, futuristic world of her present, highlighting the way in which the industrialized modern world had become an unfamiliar, almost dystopic place for many of its inhabitants. On another level, her scenario’s pervasive utopian themes and cosmic imagery, in tandem with her ethereal prelude Music of the Spheres, suggest the idea of space as a metaphor for transcending what she perceived as our world’s entrenched “status quo.”

An understanding of Beyer’s Status Quo and its attendant social critique requires some brief context from Beyer’s life and works. In her own lifetime, German-born composer Johanna Beyer played a key role in the “ultra-modernism” circle, a term coined by Henry Cowell describing a loosely affiliated collection of American avant-garde composers who embraced modernist techniques taught by Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Dane Rudhyar4, including tone clusters and dissonant counterpoint. Beyer studied with Seeger and Cowell, and was acquainted with (if not a student of) Dane Rudhyar. Her Suite for Clarinet and Bassoon were performed at Cowell’s New Music Society 1934 San Francisco concert, her Three Movements for Percussion (1939) were performed at least six times by the John Cage Percussion Players between 1939 and 1941, and her work was featured in 1936 and 1937 at the New York Composer’s Forum-Laboratory, a WPA-sponsored public event at which composers could have a piece performed, followed by an open discussion between composers and audience members.5 Although she attained some degree of recognition within her own lifetime through professional associations and performances, much of her work existed only as unpublished manuscripts and thus, out of the public eye. In 2015, Amy C. Beal wrote the first (and thus far, only) in-depth biography of Beyer, depicting Beyer’s musical originality, omnivorous mind, personal triumphs, rich relationships, life-long struggle with poverty, and professional disappointments related to gender, age, and nationality-based discrimination.6

Beyer began working on plans for Status Quo in the summer of 1937. She submitted her proposal for the opera as part of her application for a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1938, and was notified of her rejection in early 1939.7 The opera featured four acts set in countries that would soon become emmeshed in the devastating global conflict of World War II: Act I takes place in the U.S.A., Act II in the Kremlin, Act III in Rome and Berlin (where she describes projected images of fascist marches), and Act IV in Geneva. Each of these locales would be depicted not by dialogue and traditional sets, but by a collection of projected images depicting factories, architectural achievements, and the high-speed momentum of transit. For example, her stage directions for scene one read:

America : New York. Pair, eastern type, in subway discussion world affairs, their point of view.

Screen : stars, globe, America, U.S.A., airoplanes [sic.], steamers, skyscrapers, Broadway, Harlem, Chinatown, Ghetto.

Music : energetic, pulsating, syncopated, cross rhythms, dissonant counterpoint, polyphonic.8

The scene’s fixation on mechanization combined with frenetic musical energy reflects a sort of Futuristic obsession with speed, technology, and the urban-industrial landscape. Although strictly defined science fiction works tend to create new worlds (either in terms of space or time), both the technologically focused pictorial content as well as the fragmentary, bombastic visual and musical aesthetics of Status Quo reflect an imagination ignited by a sense of both wonder and estrangement from a world increasingly characterized by technology’s breathless pace of development.9 It is also worth noting that her inclusion of “dissonant counterpoint” in her list of musical descriptors also points to an aesthetic of defamiliarization. Without a score, little can be said about the music in this scene ; however, dissonant counterpoint rests on the premise of inverting normative counterpoint, using consonance only in passing, and resting on dissonance.10 Her intent to use a technique that traffics in estranging musical harmony further supports a reading of this scene as a science fiction–inspired representation of her own world as an unfamiliar, precarious place. Her unsettled representation of New York City reflects a sort of inaugurated eschatology of the future—or to put it in plain terms, that “. . . we now live in a science-fiction world.”11

Beyer’s representations of both America and then fascist-controlled countries (Germany and Italy) read as dystopic, albeit for different reasons. She provides no description of music and very few descriptions of images beyond the “fascist marches” for Rome and Berlin in Act III, perhaps knowing that American audiences would need little convincing to interpret those countries as modernist dystopias. The subtler forms of injustice in her own country seemed to concern Beyer the most. Her friend, composer Ray Green, recalled a meeting with Beyer while she was working on the opera. She informed Green of the political motivation of the piece and that she was “quite vehement by what she thought of as the political injustice of the period in which she was living. She was very indignant about the ‘status quo.’”12 Although it is not certain what precisely Beyer was referring to as the oppressive “status quo,” her first-hand witnessing of the collapse of the American economy at the hands of capitalist industrialization (in addition to her personal struggle with grinding poverty and lack of artistic support) seem to be indicted by her depiction of the modern American landscape as a hostile, alien land.

Yet, at its core, Status Quo is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific and technological progress, nor do its affinities with science fiction and the scientific imagination end with her hyper-modern, estranged representation of New York City. The opera opens with an introductory statement read by a disembodied narrator she calls the “Voice,” who summarizes the opera and informs us that we will “see star systems, happenings of the Universe, to remind us of eternal truth, beauty, infinity . . .” The voice goes on to explain that a harmonious utopia will eventually be established, and that “with this accomplished, we will join the spheres once more.”13 The invisible narrator’s ability to take in the global activities of humanity suggests a detached, cosmically distant vantage point—an idea further reinforced by the music that follows.

Music of the Spheres was written for “three electric instruments or strings” and begins with a repetitious timpani pulse eventually joined by a lion’s roar, subsequently followed by a minor second trill played by one of the electric instruments.14 Her score indicates that the trill should accompany a projected image of star systems, which then leads into the main body of the piece. The trill is briefly taken on by a triangle, and then each instrument enters individually, on ppp or pp, playing slow, measured glissandi between each pitch. The lowest-pitched instrument plays an ostinato alternating between F3 and E3, the middle instrument plays sustained tones, and the highest plays notes in the extreme outer limits of the violin’s range. In keeping with Cowell’s ideas in New Musical Resources, Beyer subjects not only pitch but tempo to the idea of “sliding,” indicating in the score that the piece should gradually, almost imperceptibly accelerate until the midpoint, when it then slows back down at the same rate until the piece’s end.15 The three unspecified “electric instruments” have generated much speculation and intrigue, leading to claims that Beyer wrote one of the “first composed pieces of electronic music.”16 This claim cannot be fully confirmed, especially considering that it remains unknown what instrument she was thinking of (although she wrote to Percy Grainger that she had heard a theremin demonstrated during her association with Henry Cowell).17 Moreover, Beyer stipulates that strings may play this piece as well.

Hyla Music of the Spheres

Johanna Beyer’s Manuscript Music of the Spheres

Regardless of the instruments Beyer had in mind, she successfully evokes an unfamiliar, otherworldly sonic landscape with or without electronics : the regular pulses of the lion’s roar almost mimic the revving of an engine, and the high-pitched, arrhythmic trill on an electric instrument leaves behind the heavy sound and rhythmic regularity of the timpani.18 An imaginative reading of the music could suggest that we depart from the deeply resonant, earthy sounds of the timpani via the lion’s roar and find ourselves launched into an entirely new sound world, in which the three instruments play in the outer regions of the possible pitch-range on a slow, constant glissando. The steady sliding between tones conjure a sense of the uncanny, the austere texture of the three voices plus an intermittent triangle create a sense of emptiness and vast open space, and the piece’s symmetrical arch form seemingly references the harmony that philosophers and astronomers alike have attributed to the eternal stretch of the heavens.19 Is it possible that Beyer saw her narrator as a witness from the cosmos ? Does the opera’s prelude situate us as spectators seated among the stars ? Through a science fiction reading of the music, Beyer’s unconventional treatments of timbre, texture, and form evoke an ethereal (perhaps “extraterrestrial”?) landscape, aurally situating the listener as a celestial observer (and critic) of the world and its events. Perhaps the narrator is Beyer herself, and her musical evocation of “space” imagines a cosmic utopia (or to revert to Thomas More’s original usage, “outopia,” meaning “no-place”) where her voice can truly be heard, free of the cultural stigmas connected to gender, class, and immigrant status.

Because of Beyer’s unfortunate denial of the Guggenheim Fellowship that would have allowed her to continue her work on Status Quo, much of the discussion about this work is necessarily speculative. And yet, Beyer’s ambitious, innovative undertaking deserves a place in cultural discourse. Considering how little we have of this opera and the impossibility of a full performance or in-depth analysis, what are some ways that we can include Beyer’s unfinished work into our cultural histories ? By both broadening the conversation on science fiction to include music and by locating this genre’s tropes within Beyer’s literary themes and modernist aesthetics, Beyer might join the ranks of H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke, and others who deployed the scientific imagination to invoke new worlds, present cultural insight, and level critique at the “status quo.”

1Rebecca Feasey, Masculinity and Popular Television (Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 57.

2Some examples might include the romans scientifiques of Jules Verne, the study of marginality and the “Other” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the speculative science practiced by Dr. Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the technologically-advanced feminist utopia of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s Herland, and the sinister dystopias of Goethe’s Faust, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale ; Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything : Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge : MIT Press, 2013), 73. Andrew Milner, Locating Science Fiction (Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 2012), 89–114.

3David Kettner, Eric S. Rabkin, and Raffaella Baccolini, “Science Fiction and Imagination,” PMLA 120, no. 1, “Special Topic : On Poetry” (January 2005) : 247.

4 Amy C. Beal, Johanna Beyer (Illinois : University of Illinois Press, 2015), 3, 14.

5Melissa DeGraaf, “Never Calls Us Lady Composers,” American Music 26,
no. 3 (Fall 2008) : 292 ; Amy C. Beal, Johanna Beyer (Illinois : University of Illinois Press, 2015), 42.

6Beal, Johanna Beyer.

7Ibid., 69–70.

8Ibid., 71.

9The term “estrangement” is used in reference to literature scholar and science fiction theorist Darko Suvin’s concept of “cognitive estrangement,” although Suvin’s definition strictly involves the creation of an entirely new world. In order to describe how Beyer portrays her own time and place in science fiction–like terms, I connect Suvin’s “estrangement” with Marx’s concept of the “anxieties of modernity” and sense alienation created by capitalist industrialization ; Darko Suvin, “Estrangement and Cognition,” Strange Horizons (November 24, 2014), http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/estrangement-and-cognition/#concept, accessed May 10, 2019 ; Ron Eyerman, “Modernity and Social Movements,” in Social Change and Modernity, ed. Hans Haferkamp and Neil J. Smelser, 37–54 (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1992) : 37–38.

10Henry Cowell, New Musical Resources, 1930, (Reprint, New York : Cambridge University Press, 1996), 35.

11Kettner, “Science Fiction and the Imagination,” 247.

12 Beal, 71.

13 Beal, 74.

14 A lion’s roar is a percussion instrument consisting of a conventional drum with a cord passing through the membrane. When the cord is pulled through the drum head, it creates a sound reminiscent of a lion’s roar.

15 Kelly Ann Hiser, “‘An Enduring Cycle’ : Revaluing the Life and Music of Johanna Beyer” (Ph.D. diss., University of Miami, 2009), 75.

16 Charles Amirkhanian, liner notes to New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media (Women in Electronic Music – 1977) Electric Weasel Ensemble, Composers Recordings Inc., CD 728, CD 1997. 

17 Hiser, “‘An Enduring Cycle,’” 75–76.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.