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Triumphantly out there

Special to The Times

Although the California EAR Unit is known for taking left turns away from convention, its performance Wednesday at REDCAT was a special brand of departure. The concert consisted solely of the West Coast premiere of “Crazy Nigger,” an hourlong piece for four pianos written in 1978 by the late gay African American composer Julius Eastman.

Eastman taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo and was championed by fellow composers Lukas Foss and Kyle Gann, but he slipped into homelessness and substance abuse and was dead in 1990 at age 49. Yet he remains an intriguing figure in contemporary music, worthy of further exploration.

At REDCAT, four EAR Unit musicians -- Vicki Ray, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, Dorothy Stone and Amy Knoles -- perched at pianos that were spaced evenly onstage, their backs to the audience.

Fittingly, the visual effect -- what with a deep red screen behind them, the white of the music paper and the black of the pianos -- was mysteriously minimal.

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Eastman’s driving, pulsating music has Minimalist credentials but is also flecked with references to pop. For much of this work, a steady 16th-note parade served as foundation and musical motor, but subtle structural and textural shifts were triggered by Ray.

At some point, the steady pulse scattered, producing a more rolling yet fragmented feeling of time. A dreamily distracted air pulled us away from the once-dominant groove.

In the final passage, Ray’s tolling low notes led into an ever-thickening mass of sound, as musical “plants” slowly joined the pianist ranks until 14 players tickled four sets of ivories. The crazy sonic swirl of piano sound was reminiscent of denser moments in the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, another outside-the-box American maverick.

Tempting though it is to place Eastman’s piece in historical context, comparing it to such Minimalist classics as Terry Riley’s “In C” and Steve Reich’s “Four Organs,” its rough edges and creative exertion show. It refuses to obey the polite, clean-machined style of Minimalist writing, instead revealing a unique personality. The EAR Unit’s unveiling of Eastman came across as a disarming but triumphant experience.

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