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Music review: California E.A.R. Unit at REDCAT

October 23, 2010 |  4:30 pm

EAR In its nearly 25 years in action, the California E.A.R. Unit –- Los Angeles’ premiere new music ensemble –- has brought to life reams of new works by outside composers. The agenda differed, on at least a couple of counts, with the group’s concert at REDCAT on Friday. This was a leaner machine, for one, as the former sextet pared down to a trio –- pianist Vicki Ray, percussionist Amy Knoles and violinist Eric KM Clark -– and the program was atypically more in-house, with compositions by the musicians and CalArts' David Rosenboom.

Other internal issues, of a poignant sort, simmered beneath the surface, concerning past members who have passed on. Knoles dedicated her opening piece, “Belgo II” to the recently departed founding percussionist and lovably eccentric dynamo Art Jarvinen, who left the group several years ago. That loss comes in the wake of the 2008 death of flutist Dorothy Stone, a founding Unit member. The last several E.A.R. Unit concerts have been marked by her conspicuous absence.

On a more vibrant note, Friday’s concert glimpsed into the these musician’s rarely heard compositional personae, moving in distinct and personal directions. “Belgo II” is minimalist-ish, rough and sleek, and full of life, with an abstract, improvised passage in the middle. By contrast, Ray’s impressive “Jugg(ular)ling” abides its titles by juggling rhythmic and harmonic invention with moments of lovely suspended animation. Clark’s “exPAT” was originally written for the New York City-based electric guitar quartet Dither, and this transcription featured suitably rocking voltage, replete with electric guitar-esque distortion on Clark’s violin.

More dissonant material entered the mix with Linda Bouchard’s “Spill Out/Fish Tank,” an incisive, abstractly evocative work.

Rosenboom’s “Champ Vital (Life Field),” the centerpiece event of the night, was written in 1987 for the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio and was thus the most “historical” score of a program of music of recent vintage (the usual E.A.R. Unit m.o.). But the piece, like much of Rosenboom’s writing, is free of fashionable isms which might date it, and the engaging, coloristic mosaic of variations bustles with kinetic, propulsive energy without falling into a groove, as such.

All in all, given the healthy blend of sophistication and energy, it’s safe to say that Jarvinen and Stone would have approved of this night out with the Unit.

-- Josef Woodard

Photo: From left, Eric KM Clark, Amy Knoles, and Vicki Ray. Credit: California E.A.R. Unit