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

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before