Just playing to his sense of adventure

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.

"Right from the beginning, he was such a true and gifted musician," Monk says. "I always feel like the energy of his music is so robust and full, and it is very kinetic, so it has a kind of physical excitement about it."

Een began studying both voice and cello in childhood, but it was only after he had put the cello aside as an adult in New York, to experiment with other art forms, that he began to think of putting the two together.

"I kind of left music just to do theater and modern dance, and it opened up my thinking," he says. "When I came back to composing music, I was very much informed by my study of dance and breath and movement."

He says he returned to the cello with a new ear for its possibilities beyond the prescribed confines of classical music, and for its parallel to the range and tonal quality of the male voice.

"The voice is so powerful," he says. "It has a kind of primal quality, if we want to tap it. When I started singing and playing, I realized that I could do things on the cello that I could do vocally -- or switch parts, interchangeably.

"I think what also inspired me was that -- Steve Reich said something about this once -- when music moves too far away from dance, it gets very cerebral, it gets away from the breath and the heartbeat, which are such a part of music and dance."

Vocalizing and playing, not to mention conducting other musicians with one hand simultaneously, "does take a little bit of coordination," Een acknowledges. Yet his exuberant performance style, the clarity of his voice, its warmth -- "like honey," says Hurlin -- and its unusual complementary quality with the cello have frequently sparked critical praise.

Een's music, Kyle Gann wrote in the Village Voice, "lives on the exquisite sweetness of his communicative skills as a performer."

Hurlin, who had envisioned telling "Hiroshima Maiden" musically, without dialogue, was attracted to Een's gift for translating layers of meaning into musical narratives. Een's signature lyricism was the counterpoint Hurlin wanted for the tonal darkness of his puppet play, which is based on the experiences of Japanese women disfigured by the Hiroshima bombing who came to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery.

"Bob was responsible for the entire aural atmosphere of the piece," Hurlin says of Een's score for hammered dulcimer, vibraphone, marimba, drums, cello and vocalizations. "It has a kind of swing to it and at the same time has these Asian textures all the way through. It's very mournful and elegiac at certain points."

The fact that the day the two men arranged to meet in New York to begin work together was Sept. 11, 2001, "colored some of the images in the piece for both of us," Hurlin adds.

At the Casa del Mexicano, as the Collage dancers leap and roll, and mariachis riff at unexpected length, Een remains the calm eye of a creative storm, even when Duckler comes over to cue his part in her choreography:

Een, accordionist Mader and cellist Laura Thomas-Merino must pick up their chairs and instruments during the performance and trail after the mariachis as the trio serenades the audience -- across the dance floor, in front of the stage and back.

Een gazes across the wide expanse of floor between one side of the space and the other, casting a wry glance at his bulky chair and cello, but then he smiles, accepting the choreographic joke.


Collage Dance Theatre

Where: Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights

When: 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and Oct. 20 to 23; 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Oct. 21 and 22

Price: $40

Contact: (818) 784-8669 or www.collagedancetheatre.org

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World