Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Dutch Treat

November 17, 2008

The California EAR Unit
Photo: mine 2008

It was one of those apocalyptic weekends in LA. The sun was out but you could barely see it through the smoke everywhere, ash raining from the sky. And while the mood was reflected in a wonderful L.A. Philharmonic program led by Thomas Adès, downstairs at REDCAT, the California EAR Unit picked up on the same vibe. Over three nights, the group hosted a Festival of Contemporary Dutch Music that explored some of the most interesting work coming out of Europe today that was often neither easy nor straight forward. Sadly, one of the three programs was canceled because of the fires on Saturday, but Sunday’s program was fantastic – witty, inventive, and often as theatrical as it was musical.

The evening started off with Grab It! by Jacob ter Veldhuis for solo saxophone with prerecorded vocal and video elements. The work explores some of the musical qualities of speech by editing voice samples of prisoners serving life sentences into a dynamic fast paced collage of sound accompanied by a wild saxophone riff. It was a bang-up high energy start to the evening, and although things got quieter, they never got less interesting. The evening ended with another piece dominated by a video component, Yannis Kyriakides mnemonist S for a small ensemble which involved the musicians repeating a sequence of tones laid out in a prerecorded sample not unlike a memory game. Accompanying this was a video projection of a text recounting a 1936 performance from Solomon Shereshevskii in which he recalled a large sequence of highly related syllables. Confusing? Yes, but fascinating to watch and hear.

In between the video there were other points of interest. Considering that Louis Andriessen’s Disco from 1981 for piano and violin was the most staid, the standard for pushing boundaries was quite high. Diderik Wagenaar offered Schigolch a short work of humming and raspy mouth organs directly referring to the character from Berg’s Lulu. The ensemble shuffled on and off stage in formation for the piece, which fit nicely with the next work, Mayke Nas’ Anyone Can Do It. Inspired by George Maciunas’ Fluxus Manifesto, the piece is nothing but truth in advertising. Two volunteers from the audience joined four musicians on stage. The performers have never seen the “score” before the performance and were not allowed to rehearse. All six sat facing the audience and followed a series of directions on video monitors in front of them, crossing and uncrossing their legs, shuffling their feet, pointing and rising up and down. Here, performance has completely supplanted the actual music of the piece in the interest of a universal ease of use and participation. Musical aptitude and skill are called into question in a humorous and not-so-subtle way.

It was hard to pick a favorite piece of the evening, which also included Richard Ayers No. 34b. All of these compositions from the last few years reference a vibrant musical community and the performance by members of the California EAR Unit were both witty and challenging. And while some may grouse about the balance between process and outcome, I found the whole evening very entertaining and certainly thought provoking. It turned out that the challenges posed by mother nature proved to be worth overcoming on this particular evening.


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