EAR Unit's sedate 'Madness'

Special to The Times

So far, 2003 has provided some interesting times for the California EAR Unit.

Last month, the group played a rare concert in New York City consisting mostly of pieces from its recent CD "Go!," only to receive a withering review in the New York Times. The sextet returned to L.A. for a gig earlier this month at SciArc's downtown address, the former Santa Fe Freight Depot, courtesy of the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series.

That one turned out to be a real treat, an irreverent detour back to what you might call its legacy repertory -- music two or three decades old by the ensemble's mentors, Mel Powell and Stephen Mosko, and like-minded iconoclasts such as Henry Brant and Frank Zappa. In the tradition of the Dada-esque Fluxus movement, the group -- and the audience -- also participated in titled "events" like tossing paper airplanes and chewing on carrots. Although the performance of Zappa's "The Black Page" seemed a bit stiff and cacophonous -- for all its enterprise, the EAR Unit isn't much of a rock band -- there was plenty of playful expertise and imagination to be heard that afternoon.

The EAR Unit returned to its usual hangout, at LACMA's Bing Theater, on Wednesday night, doing its usual service of exposing new music of more recent vintage. Although an EAR Unit postcard called this program "March Madness," there wasn't much madness to be heard in eight mostly brief pieces that were often content to present just one modest, undeveloped idea apiece.

David Lang's "Little Eye" was merely an electronically distorted cello line with percussive punctuation. Linda Catlin Smith's "Moi Qui Tremblais" quietly repeated a Chopin-like piano lament with scraped violin in the manner of Morton Feldman -- but not, thankfully, at his great length. Patricio da Silva's "Periodically Aperiodical-Aperiodically Periodical" was a series of short, swift atonal licks; Cesar Mateus' "Demi Lune" a spare, creepy swatch of nachtmusik. One piece that did present an absorbing progression of ideas was William Roper's "Three Guys on a Hilltop -- The Ascension," illustrating an argument and reconciliation between Christ and his "father" that culminated with a delicious jazz groove.

It's worth noting that the Sites concert drew a larger, more diverse (skewed somewhat older) audience that went wild over the music and the jokes, in contrast to the more settled new-music folk in the vast, gloomy spaces of the Bing. Is the EAR Unit catching on with a new audience that is catching up with new music's past? Or was it just a better program?

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