Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Listeners trying to figure out why the California EAR Unit has two percussionists and two pianists in its ranks probably shouldn’t look too hard for a musical reason. “It was really a byproduct of the circle of friends at the time,” says EAR Unit percussionist Arthur Jarvinen. “At CalArts it was never an issue of how can we tour this many people.”

Founded in 1981, the EAR Unit remains a living testament to the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney school of “Let’s put on a show.” The ensemble’s role models were not so much groups they wanted to emulate as ones they wanted to avoid: They never wanted to be Steve Reich and Musicians, gathered together to perform one composer’s music. Nor did they aspire to be a contemporary repertory band, merely reading through another Pierrot Lunaire.

Right from the beginning, the EAR Unit made composing a collaborative exercise. Their 400-piece repertoire ranges from demanding concert hall works to multimedia collaborations. Recordings of commissioned works by Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen, Virko Baley, Morton Subotnick and Joan LaBarbara appear on such labels as Nonesuch, New Albion, Bridge, New World, Tzadik, O.O. and Cambria. Since 1987, the EAR Unit has been Ensemble-in-Residence at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where they present their own four concert critically acclaimed series and also at California State University of Los Angeles.

In extreme cases, the collaborations have been particularly involved, says Jarvinen, particularly in works like Annea Lockwood’s Monkey Trips, where the composer merely brought in a few provisional ideas for the EAR Unit musicians to respond to. Paul Dresher, too, created a special drum set to customize his work for the group.

“The fact that some of us in the group are composers ourselves has played a big role in the direction we’ve gone,” admits Jarvinian, whose own music fills the recording Edible Black Ink on O.O. discs. “It’s been great for me as a composer to be able to use the group as a lab. I can try anything I want and they’re already on my side. It’s a great way to grow in my own creative life.”

The atmosphere has proved enriching even for those who don’t compose themselves. “After that kind of experience of working so closely with a composer, you’re better prepared to evaluate the performance need of another work on your own,” he says. And yet, even non-composing musicians like percussionist Amy Knoles find that the composing bug is easy to catch, as witnessed on her recording Men in the Cities on Echograph Records.

“Finally, she just said, ‘I want to try that,’” Jarvinen says, “and she developed a composers voice surprisingly quickly.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox