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Exploring new sonic frontiers

Times Staff Writer

The California EAR Unit has landed on its feet.

An ever fresh, ever with-it new-music ensemble, it had resided at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since 1987. But in paring -- and dumbing -- down its music programs, LACMA unceremoniously cut off its EAR last spring.

Now the group, formed by recent CalArts graduates in 1981, has taken its keyboards, percussion instruments, violin, cello, clarinets, flutes and truckload of electronic equipment to the CalArts-run REDCAT space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And in so doing, the EAR Unit has proved that it’s hip to go home again. Especially if you’ve got an up-to-date new home to go to.

The title of Wednesday’s program was “transPOPsitions,” which was also the title of the last piece on the program. The theme, vaguely, was the insertion of an adventurous pop sensibility into adventurous new music. And whether the ensemble intended to or not, that theme drolly thumbed its nose at LACMA’s middle-brow aspirations.

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The most interesting aspects of the pop/new-music interactions came at the beginning and end of the evening by way of composers from New York and the Czech Republic. The first work was “Fast Black Dance Machine” by Daniel Bernard Roumain, also known as DBR and music director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Roumain is a composer who sees classical, rock, hip-hop and jazz as all integral to the musical world we live in. He’s also a dazzling dreadlocked violinist.

Whether it was the Minimalist riffs in the piano, the contagious rhythms produced by Amy Knoles on the drum kit or the continually shifting funky sounds coming from strings and winds, “Fast Black Dance Machine” is a mouth-watering celebration of all music has to offer these days. Roumain was not on hand Wednesday, but I can’t understand why REDCAT, UCLA and the Los Angeles Philharmonic aren’t all fighting to grab this guy. Currently an artist in residence at Arizona State University, he’s not that far away, and he’s going to be big.

The EAR Unit did have Julius Fujak as a guest artist for his “transPOPsitions.” His biography describes him as a “sonic musical navigator.” He navigated wearing a yellow baseball cap and got the ensemble to follow suit in baseball caps and even more casual than usual outfits.

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On screen, Fujak projected clips, solarized and otherwise distorted, of rock videos (with the likes of Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Eminem) and then devised his own soundtrack.

The ensemble watched and responded, making new-music noises, often around engaging jazz-like tunes, which resulted in the not unamusing situation of a Coltraine-ized Britney. Fujak, who has a nervous energy, couldn’t sit still for more than a minute. He was continually pushing the pianist, Vicki Ray, off her bench or taking over Knoles’ drums, as he inserted himself into the mix.

To give the whole thing a bit of intellectual pizazz, the composer interspersed in the video quotes from Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay on wrestling, beginning with “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess.” He said in the notes that he got the idea while drinking Czech beer in Brno.

Brno happens to have been Janacek’s hometown, and, like Janacek, Fujak has a knack for finding in modern music the rhythms of the vernacular. Janacek did it with speech; Fujak does it with pop music. But the elevation is similar, with familiar language turning arrestingly poetic.

The other two works pitted human against machine. Jacob Gotlib, a student at the Oberlin Conservatory, sought common ground between solo flute and computer-generated sounds. Dorothy Stone’s flute, though, remained irresolutely flesh and blood; the stuff coming out of the speakers never fooled us that it was anything but.

Shaun Naidoo’s “Burning the Future” was more ambiguous. The South African composer, who teaches at Chapman University, entices human-like response from his electronics. In the musical chess match, the computer always wins. It can do more. But our sympathies remain fully on the side of the ensemble, which was expertly conducted by Knoles.

And in REDCAT, an audience’s sympathies were all the more with the EAR Unit. The intimate space, with its terrific acoustics and first-rate audio and visual equipment, added a whole new level of immediacy to the ensemble than it could ever hope for at LACMA’s functional Bing Theater.

But something has been lost in the Disney upgrade as well. Free parking.

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