It always works: plan an interesting program and the crowds will come. Monday night’s Green Umbrella event at the Japan-America Theater stands as proof: a program of genuine interest, a near-capacity crowd.
It was a program about daring, about musical exploration into unknown regions — most of all, into unknown sounds. It was an act of some daring, back in 1924, for the expatriate American George Antheil to essay a 20-minute piece scored for nothing but percussion instruments — plus such exotica as electric doorbells and an airplane propellor. As a concert piece or, even better, performed alongside its Surrealist/Dada filmic soulmate and namesake —  concocted by such blithe spirits as Man Ray and the cubist painter Fernand Leger — Antheil’s “Ballet Mecanique” is an exhilarating creation.  He never again composed anything as good.
If the Antheil work, along with the film as beautifully restored by William Moritz, was the evening’s joyous highlight, it did not stand alone. Edgard Varese’s “Deserts” began the program, music by probably the most fearless of all composers, whose every work represented a purposeful step into the unknown. “Deserts” was begun in 1949; it represents one of the first serious attempts  to incorporate electronic sounds into the orchestra.
True, those electronic sounds are, by today’s standards, rather primitive, resembling at times nothing so much as shortwave radio static. Yet the piece moves with abrasive, searing energy; while the orchestral and electronic sections barely overlap, Varese’s own fascination with the power of pure sound comes across.
These are big, seminal works.  In the pre-concert discussion composer Morton Subotnick freely acknowledged his debt to these  musical ancestors. A pioneer himself especially in computer-related music, Subotnick has now developed an easy mastery over this live-vs.-electronic interplay; such works as his “Key to Songs,” and the new “A Desert Flowers” — which had its West Coast premiere at this concert — have despite their considerable complexity even made their way  into crossover circles.
“Flowers” is a considerable work: four movements lasting nearly half an hour. Some of its straightforward, jogging energy may be familiar from earlier works, but the degree of contrast among sections marks a welcome change in Subotnick’s outlook. On one hearing I would single out a long, quiet slow section — a long-held deep droning, illuminated by soft flashes like the calling of distant birds — as the musical high point.
This was the next-to-last of this season’s “Umbrella” concerts, the last of the programs produced by CalArts, with that school’s first-rate New CalArts 20th Century Players, brilliantly led on this occasion by guest conductor Stephen L. (“Lucky”) Mosko — with a taped helicopter as an acceptable substitute for Antheil’s propellor. Along the way there were also smaller program entries of variable delight: James Tenney’s jovial short piece, “Wake for Charles Ives” for nothing but four tenor drums in a steady rat-tat-tat; Charles Dodge’s “Viola Elegy,” a memorial to Morton Feldman, with Laura Kuennen’s rhapsodic if overlong  viola solo wreathed in warm, caressing electronic emanations.
Michael John Fink’s “L’Age d’Or” enlisted the composer at a computer, pumping electronic commands, mostly of a rather bland, minimal content, into a row of playerless Yahama Clavinovas lined up in front of the curtain. If this last represented a vision of a post-atomic musical desolation the rest of the program, I gladly report, was a great deal more optimistic.