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John J. Becker (1886-1961) is the Midwestern and least-known member of ‘the American Five’ – with Ruggles, Cowell, Riegger and Ives. Like the ‘Russian Five’ and ‘Les Six’, they sought to establish a national music with progressive tendencies. Becker developed Charles Seeger’s style of ‘dissonant counterpoint’: ‘Dissonance,’ he commented, ‘replaced consonance as the norm’, a modernist simulacrum of Classical style.

Joseph Kubera, stalwart of the experimental scene, is a fine interpreter, who appears on four of the seven Soundpieces. These are abstract chamber works of diverse instrumentation, on the model of one- movement sonatas, and several appear here in their first commercial recording. The acidulous Soundpiece No 3 (1936) features Kubera with Conrad Harris (violin). In Soundpiece No 5 (solo piano, 1937), premiered by Ernst Krenek in 1943, Becker deploys Cowell-like tone clusters, including black keys against white.

On Soundpiece No 7 (two pianos, 1949), Kubera appears with Adam Tendler. At only four minutes, and essentially a four-part chorale, it offers a concentrated hint of Becker’s late trajectory, sadly curtailed by disillusion at lack of performances. Becker may not be a great composer – the dissonance is rather relentless, the rhythms square – but he’s never less than a very interesting and rewarding one.

ANDY HAMILTON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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