Sonic Truth

Experimental composer Lukas Ligeti came to town with a mission: Create a new Miami sound

Completing the circle Adrian Castro recites a poem, gesticulating to the rhythm of his words. The Miami-born son of a Cuban father and Dominican mother, Castro wears the pillbox cap of an Afro-Cuban priest, or babalao. Just 32 years old, he serves as a spiritual guide to Font. His copper-color eyes light up as he smiles at his friend. The batá drummer beams back.

A bizarre cyborg that melds musician and machine, Furacan Caribe plugs Miami's immigrant past into an electronic musical future. Furacan means hurricane in the language of the Caribs, one of the ethnic groups that lived in the Caribbean islands before Columbus landed. Within a decade of the Europeans' arrival, the Caribs and other indigenous people were decimated by forced labor and disease. Then the horror of the slave trade began, transporting Africans and African culture to the Americas. Centuries later, when slavery came to an end, indentured laborers from India, China, and the Middle East added to the linguistic and cultural mix. Since the islands gained independence in the last century, political turmoil and hard economic times have sent the multicultural citizens in droves to the closest city in the United States. And from that whirl of Caribbean history, still spinning furiously in the streets of Miami, Furacan Caribe emerges as a fantastic, seven-headphoned beast.

Composer Gustavo Matamoros (top) and museum curator Steve Stuempfle dreamed up an unusual commission
Steve Satterwhite
Composer Gustavo Matamoros (top) and museum curator Steve Stuempfle dreamed up an unusual commission
Furacan Caribe experiments during a preview performance at Words and Music in Coral Gables
Steve Satterwhite
Furacan Caribe experiments during a preview performance at Words and Music in Coral Gables

Furacan Caribe represents the State of Florida in a nationwide project called Continental Harmony: A Musical Celebration of the New Millennium. Launched by the American Composers Forum with $2.4 million in funding from major corporations and the National Endowment for the Arts, Continental Harmony links composers with communities across the nation, and commissions a new work in every U.S. state and territory to mark the millennium year.

In January 1999 the American Composers Forum selected 58 arts organizations to participate in Continental Harmony. In July of last year, each of the organizations selected a composer, from a total of 900 applications, to work with its community. Most of the states proposed traditional commissions for projects, such as the score for a dance drama in honor of outstanding Georgia women and a symphony in tribute to Utah's natural beauty. In the Sunshine State, however, a partnership between the South Florida Composers Alliance and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida won with an unusual proposition: Museum folklorist Steve Stuempfle and Alliance director Gustavo Matamoros crafted a commission that would be not a search for a finished composition but an invitation to a multicultural collaboration.

As a museum curator, Stuempfle documents the ways in which popular music helps build bridges between Miami's fragmented ethnic communities. In 1997, for example, he curated "Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami," an exhibition and series of related concerts and lectures addressing the common island threads in Miami's musical heritage. Stuempfle himself lived in Trinidad from 1989 through 1990, studying the relationships between politics, society, and steel-pan orchestras. "You get a better sense of community life in a place like that," he explains. "In a city like Miami, we only have a few symphony orchestras. Here's a whole country that's smaller than Miami-Dade County, with only a million and a half people, and there are over 100 steel orchestras with as many as 100 members each."

Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, experimental composer and sound artist Matamoros came here 21 years ago to study music at the University of Miami and stayed on. These days he designs "sound installations" for art galleries, public spaces, and radio shows. In 1989 Matamoros founded Miami's annual showcase for experimental music, the Subtropics New Music Festival. In conjunction with the South Florida Composers Alliance, he established the Sound Arts Workshop two years ago.

Together the folklorist and the composer dreamed of an avant-garde electronic experiment ignited by ancient Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Florida's Continental Harmony project description called for a composer who would not only write music but who would do so in collaboration with "an ensemble of local musicians of multiple backgrounds, including Haitian, Bahamian, Afro-Cuban, and Latin jazz musicians." Stuempfle and Matamoros would help the composer recruit musicians with such a broad range of specialties, that the winner would need to be both open to what they call "traditional idioms" and adept at "new musical concepts."

"The idea of 'the masterpiece' created all these mythological creatures," Matamoros notes, "the omnipotent composer and the conductor, who is supposed to make the musicians play the way the composer commands. We want to get away from the idea of a composer as someone primarily concerned with little black dots marching around five black lines on a piece of paper. A composer should be involved in making sound."

With such an unusual set of qualifications, Stuempfle and Matamoros worried they might not find the ideal composer. Their hearts sank when they received only ten applications for the Miami commission. But when they saw Lukas Ligeti's material, says Stuempfle, recalling a meeting of the selection committee, "we knew immediately that he was the one we wanted." The committee was particularly impressed by a series of cultural-exchange projects with traditional musicians that has taken Ligeti across Africa over the past six years, from Egypt to Zimbabwe to the Ivory Coast. "Lukas has all this experience with community collaborations in Africa," Stuempfle elaborates. "And Africa has been such an important influence on Caribbean traditions in Miami."

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