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

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