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Just playing to his sense of adventure

Cellist and singer, composer and conductor, Robert Een blends disciplines, instruments and cultural influences to create his distinctive, soulful works.

October 02, 2005|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

ROBERT EEN plays the cello. And sings. And, quite often, conducts. All at the same time.

His way of working is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. But Een, one of a respected cadre of post-Minimalist music-makers, with a seemingly boundless musical purview, makes it look and sound effortless.

On a recent weekday at the Casa del Mexicano in Boyle Heights, Een eases his light baritone into a pure falsetto -- "ah, ah, ah, ah, ah" -- that soars wordlessly above his cello's low tremolo to the far reaches of the historic building's cathedral ceiling. In front of him, on a stage and over the floor, male and female dancers glide and fall, tumble and spin.

The Collage Dance Theatre is rehearsing for the company's newest site-specific, community-based work, "The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge," in preparation for its opening this Thursday. And Een is working with a handful of musicians on an original score for the piece -- songs for cello, accordion, mariachis and vocalise.

For him, the process is only the most recent stop on an eclectic creative journey. A week earlier, in L.A.'s World Festival of Sacred Music, he and his Mystical All-Star Band premiered "The Guest House," an Een suite inspired by the Sufi poet Rumi, for cello, reed instruments, oud, accordion, drums, piano and a range of vocalizations.

Next, Een will fly to New York to do the music for a production of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Then he'll perform his 2004 Obie Award-winning score for Dan Hurlin's bunraku puppet drama "Hiroshima Maiden" this month in Washington, D.C., and again in November when the show comes to REDCAT in L.A.

With his wife and two young daughters, the 52-year-old composer -- tall, athletic and bespectacled, with curling silver-and-blond hair and a meditative mien -- divides his time between L.A. and New York. But he has made music in places as diverse as India's Buddhist caves of Ellora, a Shinto shrine in Japan and St. Petersburg's Pushkin Theater.

"I'm not a student of those cultures per se," he says. "It just kind of opens up my ears to the possibilities of sound and combinations of sound."

In "The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge," with a text by Merridawn Duckler, the focus is on the Jewish and Latino cultures that sprang from the communities that have historically called Boyle Heights home.

"Some of the movement vocabulary comes from Hasidic and Mexican dances," choreographer and Collage founder Heidi Duckler, Merridawn's sister, says of the piece. "But because Boyle Heights is such a melting pot, the title became a metaphor for all of us living here in Los Angeles, one on top of the other."

Een's "beautiful, soulful" music, she says, "speaks to the site and to the people both."

To shape his score, Een watched the Collage dancers, who must maneuver over a rope-and-fabric "bridge" during the piece and engage in a stylized Mexican wrestling scene. It represents "religious fervor," Duckler says.

Een also took into account the aural effect of the resonances within the high-domed Casa, as well as the "layers of the neighborhood" inherent in the building's gradual shift over the years from church to synagogue to Latino community center.

Then he added "hints" of klezmer and cantorial music to the score, melding them with the sounds of Trio Pronto: local mariachis Carlos Betancourt and Pedro Pena on guitar and Roberto R. Chavez on requinto. Tracing the area's history further, to a probable Native American encampment, he composed songs that would reflect "the earth of that place" and the nearby river.

Creative cross-pollination

NEW Age, avant-garde, post-Minimalist -- Een wears his labels lightly, whether weaving a melodic classical cello thread through a mariachi guitar figure, matching his cello's sustained notes with the jew's-harp hum of harmonic overtone singing, or vigorously fingering cello strings into a heady jazz bass line.

World music and creative cross-pollination simply reflect "the times we live in," he says.

Een has composed vocal and instrumental works for such choreographers and theater artists as Liz Lerman, David Dorfman, Yin Mei and Stephanie Gilliland. His film scores include "Mr. Jealousy" and "The Rook." He also scored the film for a multipart art installation by Gregory Colbert, "Ashes and Snow," which is opening in Santa Monica in January, and he will be doing the music for an upcoming feature by director Mary Lambert.

Bach's "dancing" cello music, stride pianist Henry Butler and visionary poly-artist Meredith Monk, a pioneer in Minimalist vocal experimentation, are among his inspirations.

He joined Monk's vocal ensemble in 1978 and worked with her for more than a decade; they performed and subsequently recorded an evening-length duet, "Facing North," which Monk composed with Een in mind and developed, she says, with his "enriching" collaboration.

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