CLASSICAL California Ear Unit Newcastle Playhouse

Because of their name, it was pleasing to imagine that the EAR Unit might turn out to be a kind of musical equivalent to the Fast Show's demented Californian scientist, and attempt to make music out of bits of twigs and lengths of string. In fact, despite the presence in the programme of one or two Manson family-type snaps, they are a fairly normal looking bunch: a crack squad of seven instrumentalists with a strong suit in percussion, who specialise in the repertoire of contemporary American composers. Formed specifically to perform the music they like to play best, they manage to avoid the press-ganged feeling common to some European ensembles where, one feels, the aim of a studied informality of performance style goes no further than wearing matching paisley waistcoats on stage.

But in Terry Riley's Four Wolfli Portraits, which closed the first set of this contemporary music network debut, all the old hippy hopes suddenly came true. The violinist abandoned her instrument in favour of a whip, with which she proceeded to energetically flail the floor, while the wind player entoned the words of an impenetrable text, and two percussionists beat out a primitive rhythm reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs". Comically, the cellist waited interminably through the slowly repeated cycle of notes for the moment when she could puff out her cheeks like a cherub and peep a solitary, cathartic note on what looked like an ocarina. Now that's what I call entertainment.

Composed as a tribute to the deranged drawings and poetry of Outsider artist Adolf Wolfli (who died in a Swiss clinic in 1930, after 30 years' incarceration as a patient), the musical portraits were powerful as well as strange. Once the initial disbelief was suspended, you could focus on the extraordinary textures of the music, which veered from German polkas to Mexican mariachi and weird, drunken, Navajo warblings, the whole thing accompanied by slide projections of Wolfli's drawings.

Of the remaining pieces in the programme, John Adams' Road Movies - a duet for violin and piano - was enormously effective, the horizon line of the melody shifting almost imperceptively in a lazy drive through Paris, Texas territory. Two Elliot Carter fragments for flute and cello, and solo cello respectively, were played with passion, and percussionist Arthur E Jarvinen's White Lights Lead to Red displayed the group's command of jazz-tinged harmony, the drums ticking away with all the authority of Tony Williams in a late-Sixties Miles Davis band.

If there was any residue of California prejudice left it was amply rewarded by Earl Kim's Dear Linda, a setting of a letter from poet Anne Sexton to her daughter, which seemed to subscribe to a quiet mind-boggling literalism, providing enough icky emotionalism for several episodes of Thirtysomething.

It seems to be a rule of contemporary music that every programme of minimalist works has to include at least one piece that makes you feel ill. Giddy nausea began almost with the first bars of Louis Andriessen's Zilver, whose dense repetitions of an ad nauseam pulse (played on two vibraphones) continued until you thought your brain might burst like the character in Cronenberg's Scanners. It was, as the title of an old Dave Edmunds album had it, subtle as a flying mallet, and you wondered if its inclusion was part of a CIA plot to discredit European composers in favour of those nice American minimalists. In comparison, California seemed truly a promised land, and the EAR Unit - once kept safely to their own backyard a dream of a group.

On tour: 28 Jan, QEH, London SW1 (0171-960 4242); 29 Jan, Corn Exchange, Cambridge (01223 357851); 30 Jan, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (01424 787949)

Phil Johnson

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage