Live review: Morton Subotnick with California EAR Unit at REDCAT, March 24.


Morton Subotnick must be gratified to know he can still drive listeners away. Throughout the electrosquiggle pioneer's performance with California EAR Unit, pairs and singles were stumbling across other patrons' knees and fleeing up the stairs.

Including my wife. "Irritating bugs on a sunburn," she scribbled in my notebook, describing the blippy synthesizers and whirling effects. "Self-immolation soundtrack." "Is it ALL going to be like this?" Okay, I'm keeping the pen. See ya after, sugar pie.

Because, of course, I was loving it. Why? Just because I salivate over the autocratic onanism of a kindred white-haired f*ck? Conceptually, this differed little from an Yngwie axfest: Subotnick twiddled his Buchla analong synth and laptop (no keyboards!), guiding the entire process; most of the EAR Unit's sounds reached us indirectly, being channeled, processed and redistributed by the leader through his mixing board. And since EAR pianist Vicki Ray and drummer Amy Knoles are women, the old bull got to subjugate them, while violinist Eric Clark deferred.

Sorry, that wasn't why. No, I locked in on the intellectual energy, the constantly moving surround-sound carousel, the roller-coaster dynamics, the speed-freak machine rhythms, the crashing noise intrusions, the sheer volume. More than once I flashed on Throbbing Gristle's 1981 Culver City farewell-tour event, the loudest show I've ever heard, where I sneaked into the wings to watch Cosey Fanni Tutti stomping her FX box into a metal pancake as tsunamis of feedback shivered the walls and vintage porn movies twitched behind the stage. It couldn't have happened without Subotnick, whose "Silver Apples of the Moon" became the first sorta popular electronic-music album in 1967.

Not that the REDCAT show attempted Gristle levels of loudness or perversity. Mainly, it highlighted the extreme evolution of the form. Although it was advertised as being based on Subotnick's "Apples" and "A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur," those acted only as signposts in a fluid improvisational field. Electronic instrumentation has gotten sophisticated enough to make the original "Apples" sound primitive/cute, and the composer's own knowledge (he's 78) has grown too. So the expanded timbral palette, the density of the rhythmic experience and the mobility of the soundscape opened up dimensions neither Subotnick nor Gristle could have tapped decades ago.

Some of the zooming tones and marimba-like clonks had antique resonance, but the acoustic/electric mesh sounded fresh -- Ray flossing the piano wires with what appeared to be actual dental floss, Clark stroking rich sustains, Knoles tinkling a triangle, all electromorphed into, yes, some kind of giant insects maybe, but intense dragonflies or cicadas rather than annoying mosquitoes. To funny effect, Knoles, behind a big drum kit, knocked out a thumping solo straight out of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," an artifact from the "Apples" era. I'd like to think she did it with a wink.

Those who stayed were mesmerized. A modern pagan ritual, that's what it was.


Read Josef Woodard's LA Times review here.