The California E.A.R. Unit has come a long way since it was formed in 1981--a long way towards an almost institutional respectability, towards established celebrity within the restricted world of contemporary music.
Conversely, it has come a long way from its roots as an elite student collective at CalArts, when all things seemed brash and new, and seldom was heard a boring piece or performance.
The E.A.R. Unit has always been alert for important works by the major composers of our time. But when it comes to pieces by younger and/or less well-known writers, it has shown an increasing attraction to the mundane, the feverishly self-inflated, and yes, the boring.
Monday night, the E.A.R. Unit began a residency at the County Museum of Art, one which will spread out three more concerts through next May. The program--three-quarters of it, at least--tapped the never-hidden wellspring of modern musical mediocrity.
The Unit clearly hears something in the regular silences and shreds of accompaniment of Bunita Marcus' "Lecture for Jo Kondo" that is not audible to all willing ears. To judge from the composer's program note, we are to imagine an unheard part for a soloist, its character implied by what is heard.
Marcus has given a patient pianist, violinist, flutist and percussionist rudimentary mottos, which she slowly alters and reorders in predictable patterns, woven in an equal measure of silence. An active imagination certainly could postulate an interesting solo, but it would be easier just to imagine the whole thing, and dispense entirely with Marcus' hints and the leaden, earnest performance.
"The Rhythm of the Running Plow" by Stephen Jaffe is another quartet--for flute, violin, cello and percussion--though a much more compact, amiable work. It made pleasant, if not memorable, pastoral sounds for 15 minutes. The title, incidentally, comes from a poem by William Everson, not William Emerson, as twice misidentified in Jaffe's typo-laden note.
Stephen Mosko, a former CalArts colleague of the E.A.R. Unit members, conducted these two quartets as more a ritual than a musical presence. He proved much more actively involved in the guidance of his own "The Road to Tiphareth," which employed almost the full Unit: Dorothy Stone, James Rohrig, Robin Lorentz, Erica Duke, Gaylord Mowrey, Lorna Eder, Amy Knoles and Arthur Jarvinen. Member Rand Steiger spent the evening in the audience.
Tiphareth is apparently the realm of beauty in Jewish mystical tradition, a realm that Mosko's spiraling road does not quite reach, though the sounds along the way are a varied, stimulating lot. It is a road traveled for its own deftly scored sake, rather than out of any sense of purposeful direction or destination. Though a feeling of plodding along is never fully banished, there are moments of palpable drama and contrasting serenity.
The E.A.R. Unit seems to have purged the stagy, theatrical aspects from its performances, appearing as sort of musical blue-collar workers. The time the members spent on rearranging their performance setups rivaled the time spent in actual playing.
Thus, it was approaching 10 p.m. when the ensemble began Steve Reich's Sextet, and finally expelled the pervasive feeling of ennui. This was an endlessly energetic, clearly directed performance of sonic variety and clean structural lines. In any context it would have been a triumph. Monday it seemed a shattering revelation.