The California E.A.R. Unit has built a reputation for its proficiency in difficult avant-garde music and absurdist theater. Wednesday night in Bing Theater at the County Museum of Art, the ensemble showcased five works melding the two disciplines, but favoring the thespian side of their talents.
The West Coast premiere of Donald Martino's "From the Other Side" for flute, cello, piano and percussion, proved a pleasantly surprising departure from the composer's previous, strictly 12-tone work. The meticulously wrought score included weighty passages of expressionist, atonal writing but also frequent Romantic melodies, jazz licks and irreverent shoutings.
The last movement, "Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schonberg," reconstructed a risque Viennese cabaret on stage, complete with jazz orchestra and a sexy cocktail waitress who served wine. Cellist Erika Duke donned a jacket and cap, impersonating Schoenberg from his youthful days as a cabaret musician.
Overall, Duke, flutist Dorothy Stone, pianist Gaylord Mowrey and percussionist Amy Knoles approached Martino's music, as well as the theatrical elements, with intelligence and aptness.
Toshi Ichiyanagi's "Pratyahara"(1963) provided another fitting vehicle for the E.A.R. Unit's flair for non-narrative theater and works from the Fluxus movement. Cluttering the stage with various sound-making and visually stimulating objects such as wind-up toys, a popcorn popper and an electric guitar, Mowrey, Knoles, Art Jarvinen and Lorna Eder unfolded the drama slowly and patiently.
The premiere of Jack Vees' "Child Bride," for one cellist, four helpers--each bowing a separate string of the cello--and Macintosh computer, found enticing moments of sustained chords and busy two-handed work on the fingerboard. Richard Amromin's "A Parable for Post-Paranoids"--a revised version of a piece premiered last year for speaker, tape and seven players--tastefully shocked the audience, gently ribbing grotesque images of authority and social order.
Beginning the program was a humorous, deadpan performance of John Cage's "Living Room Music" (1940) for four percussionist-reciters wearing bathrobes.