Earle Brown died last year a neglected composer, but he has not been forgotten. As a member of John Cage’s New York circle in the 1950s, he has his place in history. At that time, he came into contact with Abstract Expressionist painters and developed what he called his “open-form” technique. Through scores in which the musical events are indicated but not their exact realization, he wanted his music performed the way Jackson Pollock applied paint. A conductor’s descriptive gestures splash the sounds onto the sonic canvas.
The California EAR Unit collaborated several times with Brown, and Wednesday night it began its new season at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with a remembrance of just how interesting a way of making music this can be. And because sculpture -- particularly the mobiles of Alexander Calder -- was another strong influence on Brown, the EAR Unit’s tribute to him proved perfectly timed, what with Los Angeles obsessed with the new Walt Disney Concert Hall and the way it suggests fresh connections between music and the sculptural arts.
So visually animated is Brown’s music, we need yet another art-world metaphor to describe the performance of “Tracking Pierrot,” written in 1992. Conductor Stephen L. Mosko appeared to be molding musical gestures as if they were pliable physical substance, sonic clay. His hands could elongate a note or chop it into fragments, round it into the aural equivalent of a sphere or torso and then, if he cared to, flatten its ends.
It is a wonder to watch and to hear, as sight and sound become unusually complementary. The eye gives the ear a split-second preparation and heightens concentration. But although you think you know what you are going to hear, you’re still surprised that it is really happening.
“Tracking Pierrot” is not a gloss on Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” but an employment of the so-called “Pierrot” ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, with percussion replacing voice. That happens to be the EAR Unit makeup, and the musicians played exquisitely, utterly responsive to the smallest of Mosko’s inspired gestures.
Also on the program was one of Brown’s last works, “Special Events.” Hastily composed in 2001 for cello and piano, it is a written-out spontaneous improvisation. Even so, it gives the impression of a fluid musical mobile, cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and pianist Vicki Ray each sounding as if she were inventing her part on the spot.
Every season it becomes harder to believe that the EAR Unit is a year older. The ensemble’s spirit never changes, its connection to music of the moment no different than it was when some plucky CalArts kids started a countercultural enterprise 17 years ago. Brown was the Wednesday program’s Modernist master, but his music was surrounded by new work from snappy young composers.
Filippo Del Corno’s “L’Uomo Armato” jazzed up a medieval tune; Kenneth D. Froelich’s “Dance of the Green Bird” is a small, bright piece, Dorothy Stone’s flute leading a jovial instrumental race. In his program note, Don Davis called his “A Lunatic Air (On Fire)” “a fire that results from the virtuosic intensity emanating from these six lunatics.” The music has nothing to do with wildfires or the lunatics who may have started them. An ear-catching rhythmic drive asks no more than that a listener enjoy a terrific ensemble, which also includes Marty Walker (clarinet) and Amy Knoles (percussion), being itself.