Concerts of hard-core contemporary music demand prodigies of courage and loyalty to the cause — from the performers on stage and from the usually undersized audience as well. Nobody expected much ear candy from the California EAR Unit, the ensemble of new-music evangelists that concluded its 12th residency season at the L.A. County Museum on Wednesday; the exhilaration stems rather from the group’s awesome fearlessness in the presence of challenging, abrasive, sometimes (but not always) rewarding new music, and the sense they provide that they’re all in it together for the challenges and for the fun.
Fun? Try this on your cello: a long, rhapsodic solo with the performer also singing out a vocalise just slightly off pitch that seems to twine around the cello line like giftwrap hastily employed, with the harmonic deviations between voice and instrument creating a strange and novel intensity. That’s Joan LaBarbara’s “A Trail of Incan-descent Light,” written for EAR Unit cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and majestically delivered. Or consider “Zilver,” the weird and witty pastiche by Netherlander Louis Andriessen, in which an unidentified but definitely pop-sounding tune plays off against its own image at different speeds, faster and faster until you forget to breathe.
Milder onslaughts on the sensibilities found embodiment in Paul Dresher’s “Double Ikat” — a mellow and richly patterned interweave, by Dresher’s admission his “most blatantly lyrical work to date” — and James Sellars’ accurately titled “Go,” an ice-cold cascade of prickly, changing but hugely propulsive rhythms.
Founded at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1980s, in residence at the County Museum since 1987, the EAR (“Experimental and Recent”) Unit joins the small company of new-music ensembles for whom neither 12-note row nor no-note improv hold terror: Boston’s Musica Viva, Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain, Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern. Honoring its Californian identity, the group has also ventured into mixed-media, notably a memorable, evening-long rainforest piece some years ago, with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal.
Audiences remain small; less than 200 turned up for this season’s final event, scattered through the drab and uninviting 600-seat space that serves the County Museum as a pretty good place for movies but not much else. Better there than nowhere, however; LACMA’s EAR Unit series, and its equally adventurous Monday Evening Concerts serve as a valuable bridge between the notion of “museum” and artistic thoughts swirling in today’s air.