California EAR Unit returns to start a lively conversation

Special to The Times

When the California EAR Unit kicked off its four-concert season at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Monday, no great revelations or mind-benders emerged from a bumper crop of premieres. What the concert did offer was proof of the lively, diverse and sometimes contradictory conversations in new-music circles.

It was an evening of electronically modified neo-impressionism, deadpan doomsday humor, audio-video interactions and the usual assiduous playing of the unit. In the pure, real-time music category, Jonathan Thomas Miller’s “Smear” opened the concert with work for quartet in which a fundamental tranquillity and rhythmic steadiness is periodically interrupted by exciting linear “smears.” The closer was Molly Thompson’s “Draft of Shadows,” a clever mash-up of tango and rock rhythmic inferences and taped city noises, more party music than parlor music.

“Panopticon,” the evening’s longest and most involved work, deliriously blended music by Victoria Jordanova (also playing harp and harmonica) and a mosaic-like video by Relja Penezic. The video’s sardonic charm, satirically spinning off the post-Orwellian, better-living-through-surveillance theme, wore out its welcome even as Jordanova’s score kept our interest, with its rueful, aloof rewiring of folk influences.


A more cohesive sight-sound embrace came from Clay Chaplin’s “Tricomatic,” with expressive improvised gestures, by a trio, effectively dialoguing with three different, abstracted video passages.

It was nice to hear again from composer Daniel Lentz, the formerly Los Angeles-based para-Minimalist with a knack for fusing mischief and beauty. Such balance defines his new reworking of a 1975 piece, “Song of the Siren.” Vicki Ray’s florid piano sweeps -- made extra florid via looping -- mixed with Marty Walker’s impressionistic clarinet lines and Amy Knoles’ cool and careful recitation of phonemes, all assembled through delay machinery into the stuff of dreams, simultaneously lucid and fuzzy.