California EAR Unit’s ‘Premieres!’ at REDCAT

Special to The Times

One couldn’t help but detect a hint of irony in the California EAR Unit’s name for the latest concert in its residency at REDCAT on Wednesday night -- “Premieres!”

This is a group, after all, for which premieres -- and the pursuit of things contemporary -- are both commonplace and fuel for its missionary fire, even after more than 25 years.

And in fact, what may have been surprising to longtime observers of the group, one of the premier new-music ensembles in the U.S., was that only half of the four pieces qualified for the P-word.

Of the disparate offerings, the world premiere of Gordon Beeferman’s “Rites of Summer” was the de facto main event, at least by virtue of its duration (about 40 minutes) and use of resources. The EAR Unit’s full sextet, plus Donald Crockett as conductor, was put to good, busy and technically challenging use.

Beeferman, a New Yorker, was, to quote his statement, in a California state of mind for this work. Clearly, though, the score nods toward Stravinsky and Frank Zappa more than the Beach Boys. Bursts of ensemble activity are almost neurotically tight rhythmically, though tense and ragged in terms of clustered harmonies. Such fervent energy is juxtaposed with passages of airier lyricism, all with a distant kinship to “The Rite of Spring.”

As for the other world premiere, Brooklynite Will Smith’s “Automatic Arms” was decidedly looser and lankier. Violinist Eric km Clark filtered the scratches and wails of his bright red electric violin through sound-processing toys as Kevin Lovelady’s scruffy video component attempted a sensory dialogue.

More impressive, the increasingly acclaimed composer John Luther Adams (recently the subject of a profile in the New Yorker) was represented by a fascinating short work, “The Light Within.” Inspired by James Turrell’s ethereal installation art, Adams’ thick and undulating wall-of-sound approach suggests a musical corollary to Turrell’s sublime manipulations of time, space and color.

In the final analysis, perhaps the best came first on this night. Eric Chasalow’s 2004 piece “Trois Espaces du Son” braves the electro-acoustic divide, deftly blending an electronic palette of sounds, on a laptop, with the very real-time instrumental work of a pianist and percussionist. Wednesday, they were Vicki Ray and Amy Knoles, respectively.

On a sadder and somewhat disorienting note, this was the first EAR Unit concert without flutist Dorothy Stone, a founding member, who died in March. She was a commanding force in this group and on the contemporary music scene generally.