Not-so-new music

Multimedia concert doesn’t live up to experimental promise

Percussionist Amy Knoles rehearses before California E.A.R. Unit’s Chico State performance.

Percussionist Amy Knoles rehearses before California E.A.R. Unit’s Chico State performance.

Photo By kyle delmar

California E.A.R. Unit, Friday, Nov. 4, Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall, Chico State.

Chico State’s Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall was packed last Friday evening for the performance of Los Angeles new-music ensemble the California E.A.R. Unit. Chico State music professor and experimental-music composer David Dvorin’s seven-movement composition As Alice was on the program, as was Long Beach State professor Alan Shockley’s “I feel open to …” and “Belgo II,” penned by E.A.R. Unit percussionist Amy Knoles.

The air in the room was thick with anticipation, fed by the presence of a blank white movie screen flanked by two huge white orbs hanging behind the musicians’ area, which was filled with an array of percussion equipment, from a bass drum on its side to an electric xylophone to an assortment of bowls, as well as a grand piano.

Dvorin, sporting a graying, wavy ponytail, was on hand to introduce the trio, consisting of Eric K.M. Clark on violin, pianist Vicki Ray and percussionist Knoles who, with her closely cropped platinum-blonde hair, resembles Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox of Eurythmics fame.

“I am still in love with children’s literature, whimsy and nonsense,” wrote Dvorin in the program notes about his piece, which was performed first. “In As Alice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is used as a looking glass, holding a mirror to the enigma of childhood/creativity. Each of the seven movements uses a scene in Alice’s story to reflect upon a childhood situation or act of imaginative play. … As for the projected visuals, both Cecil Hepworth’s age-deteriorated 1903 film of Alice in Wonderland, and whimsical illustrations drawn by my daughter were used as raw material to be processed, triggered and controlled by the musicians interactively, reacting to their performance.”

For a fan of experimental music (such as myself), it promised to be interesting.

The musicians, who were accompanied by recorded music and various sound effects, and on-screen and on-orb visuals, began playing in truncated bursts and moans (as they would much of the evening) in the room dimly lit in red and blue, punctuated by the white of music-stand lights.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” echoed a recorded voice early in the first movement, “Tunnels and Doors.” Movement No. 2, “In Others’ Rooms,” featured barely audible, mumbling voices accompanied onscreen by a sketchy line drawing suggesting stairs that morphed into a fan shape and then into a door, followed by a strange, duck-like image, more stairs and then a chair image that broke into a number of chairs.

The sound of breaking cups; disintegrating line-drawings of cups; some odd, grainy, difficult-to-discern footage of a woman and a baby; more sounds of things breaking, followed by a series of electronic beeps—and the third movement, “Hold the Baby,” was over. It was at this point that my companion leaned over and whispered, “This reminds me of The Twilight Zone.”

The rest of the evening continued to resemble a sort of twilight zone—not a bad thing, except that it fell short of the mark and felt more like reruns than something original and inspiring. Some audience members left about halfway through the hour-and-a-half-long evening.

As Alice was, sadly, a disappointment. Philip Glass’/Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête it was not. Not that it needed to be. Glass’ sublime musical take on Cocteau is operatic, for one thing, but Dvorin’s experimental take on Carroll seemed clunky, amateurish, not sufficiently wedded to the content of the Alice story. And it was hardly deserving of the exuberant on-stage back-patting that went on between the trio, Dvorin and visual designer Ted Davis after the piece was performed. It was depressing, disjointed—not much whimsy in sight (or sound).

Ditto for Shockley’s piece, which thankfully included only 78 of the original 1,001 lines of the Denise Duhamel poem, “Mille et un sentiments” (“I feel open to recipes and headlines,” “I feel open to taking a nap, to see what happens,” and so on).

Knoles’ show-ender seemed somewhat boringly derivative of the innovative work of widely known performance artist Laurie Anderson.