”We were playing in Fargo,“ Amy Knoles remembers, ”and there was this old woman in the front row who wasn‘t very happy with what she was hearing — it was Art Jarvinen’s Sextet for Amplified Handcuffs. And so she yelled out, ‘Where’s the music?‘“
Well might she ask. The ”we“ of that dark and stormy Fargo night was the California E.A.R. Unit, whose percussion contingent lists Knoles as a charter member, and this is one of those special ensembles flourishing (sort of) across the landscape whose aim in life is to challenge notions of what constitutes a piece of music, and to lay down an infinite range of possibilities for redefining it. Founded — by a process of osmosis, you might say — at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1980s, the E.A.R. Unit joins such similarly intentioned groups as New York’s Bang on a Can, Philadelphia‘s Ensemble Relache and Germany’s Ensemble Modern — or, in fact, that country‘s Quartett Avance, which performed at the County Museum during the recent ”Resistance Fluctuations“ minifestival — in the ongoing campaign to shatter accepted musical boundaries and plunge onward toward a resounding if undefined future.
There’s nothing all that novel in the fact of composers and performers pushing past previously accepted limitations. Monteverdi‘s operas constituted a major breakthrough; Mozart and Haydn kicked out against the ”correct“ practices, and Beethoven demolished them. So did Wagner, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stockhausen.
Things move faster these days. Six and seven decades ago, when John Cage and Edgard Varese broke through by creating whole pieces for nothing but an ensemble of percussion, those pieces needed a stageful of drums, gongs, cymbals and assorted hardware. When Amy Knoles played her multimedia percussion piece TwoXTenXTenXTen+One (=2,001) at the L.A. Theater Center a couple of weeks ago, she began with a thwack on an actual ashcan, a kind of tribute to the avant-garde spirit of time immemorial. But mostly she got her fantastic range and variety of sound by banging with small sticks on an unimposing, boxy gadget on a table in front of her, ”K.A.T. MIDI Mallet“ by name, that had been preprogrammed to send forth a galaxy of sounds beyond the reach of ”normal“ instruments, infinitely variable, infinitely fascinating, made all the more magical by puffs of stage smoke, and by a video display that included some fancy dance steps by Amy’s pet cockatiel Fu Fo Shit Shit (honest!). Where was the music this time? All around, it was, and you‘d better get used to it.
Knoles — this slender, blond Diana of the Big Bang — remains a mainstay of the E.A.R. Unit while building a couple of parallel careers on her own. One of those involves teaching; I spent a rewarding day with her not long ago at Chino State Prison, where she had guided an eager group of prisoners into building their own instruments and composing on them. She has performed with Bang on a Can, and has recorded Varese’s Ionisation, a cornerstone of the percussion repertory, with the Ensemble Modern — unreleased so far, for reasons somewhat baffling. Her solo disc on Echograph, Men in the Cities, is a collection of works written for performance with various multimedia installations, including the Robert Longo exhibition at the County Museum that gives the disc its name.
The E.A.R. Unit grew out of a larger new-music group at CalArts, the Twentieth Century Players. ”We worked really hard,“ Knoles remembers, ”the way you do when you‘re a student and having a ball. When we came up to graduation in 1982, some of us decided that it just felt right to stay together, so we did. When it came to a name, we decided on EAR, but then we found that another group up north, the East Area Rapists, had already taken that name, so we added the periods. We never decided what it meant. When we gave that concert in Fargo, the critic decided we were Evil Alien Robots, and maybe we were.“
The group started out under the CalArts umbrella, since most of its members had moved on to faculty jobs. ”Those were great times,“ says Knoles. ”Mort Subotnick was working with filmmakers on multimedia pieces, and there were great composers coming through that we could hang out with for a couple of weeks at a time — Steve Reich, Mauricio Kagel, Morty Feldman. Steve Lavine came to one of our concerts, before he became president of CalArts, and I remember him saying, ‘If you can do that here, I belong here.‘ People still think of us as CalArts; some of us — [cellist] Erika Duke, for example — still teach there. We’ve continued to work with Mort, a on his Key to Songs and on the interactive CD-ROM All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis.“ Nevertheless, CalArts eventually saw fit to cut the group adrift, and in 1987 E.A.R. became the resident ensemble at LACMA — a strange but fruitful marriage between the most experimental musicians and the deadest painters.
The group has remained remarkably consistent: Amy, Erika, percussionist Dave Johnson, violinist Robin Lorentz, flutist Dorothy Stone, pianist Vicki Ray. Just this month pianist Lorna Eder dropped to part-time to attend cantorial school, and percussionist Art Jarvinen has recently departed to compose full-time. ”He‘s decided he doesn’t like other people‘s music,“ Knoles reports.
What holds the group together? ”Mostly,“ says Knoles, ”we’ve managed to remain each other‘s best friends. When we’re together, rehearsing, it‘s like a party. When we began, ‘Lucky‘ [Steven] Mosko was the leader, and he had a way of making us care. We’ve held on to that pretty much, and Lucky does come back fairly often. The other thing that holds us together is the fact that music is changing so fast. We never get onto the treadmill that you get with dead composers. There‘s always something new and interesting. Techniques and circuitry that someone might have used five years ago may be obsolete by now — unless, of course, the music itself is good. Over the years, we’ve built a kind of repertory; there are works we‘ve played before that we go back to. We’d love to do more revivals. That rain-forest piece, Amazonia, with Rachel Rosenthal — wasn‘t that a hoot?
“But there’s so much new stuff; a lot of notes to learn for a job that still isn‘t full-time and certainly doesn’t pay full-time. In Frankfurt, Ensemble Modern earns a yearly salary. In New York, Bang on a Can is run by its three composers, but they also have an office staff and a connection to Sony Records. We tried working with a management for a while, but they ran us into the ground and we were never able to explain our repertory to them. Now Dorothy and I pretty much run the group; we handle the bookings, and we produce the ads, the post cards, the faxes. We keep busy, but a lot of our bookings are hectic: not enough long tours, too many one-shot runouts to Kiev, Reykjavik.”
Next season promises more of the same — the same spirit of exploration, that is, not the same music. Electronic performance artist Paul Dresher comes down for an all-technology bash; live-processing performer Mark Gray will put on the MIDI-gloves; one entire evening will feature an accordionist, lying on the stage, seen in profile — or so Amy Knoles would have us know.
“Let me tell you one more thing that holds us together,” says Amy. “You know how hard it is for a composer, especially an experimenter, to get performances these days — even here in Los Angeles, where the Philharmonic‘s service to new music is above average. It may sound corny, but we really, sincerely believe that we are making history with what we play, even the bad stuff. If you want me to define what we do, it’s really very simple: We play music by living composers. The new music that we play isn‘t any one thing; it’s always different, according to who‘s writing it. We’re here to go along with those differences.”