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March is a busy month for music fans in South Florida. There's the Calliope Fest at the end of the month, and the brand-new Langerado Music Festival at the beginning. And of course there's that little gathering of DJs called the Winter Music Conference in the middle.
Then there's the Subtropics Experimental Music Festival. Taking place throughout the month, it may be the most impressive event of them all in terms of breadth and artistic vigor, as well as the fact that it has survived fifteen years without a raft of fans arriving from all corners of the globe, with headliners few people have ever heard of.
Encompassing everything from classical and prog-rock to electronic music and performance art, Subtropics stays alive with the help of a low-budget operation run by a small staff. "We don't require as much resources to operate efficiently," says Gustavo Matamoros, artistic director of the South Florida Composers Alliance, which produces the festival. The alliance's efforts are sustained through modest art grants (from Miami-Dade County's Cultural Affairs Department, among others) and collaborations with local organizations like Miami-Dade Community College and the Miami Light Project. It helps, too, that he works with artists who don't require big fees, if any at all; many of them even pay their own way to travel to the festival. "This field is not filled with prima donnas," says Matamoros, who nevertheless tries to support the artists as much as he can. Still, nobody is in it for the money.
New and experimental music is a tough sell in any city but it takes extra effort in Miami, where memories are short and apathy for live music is endemic. For any arts organization to achieve critical mass, at least enough to tip the scales and justify another year's funding, success often relies heavily upon the vision and efforts of one person. In Subtropics's case, that would be Matamoros.
"I think I started saying this from the third festival on: Every year I do it is like doing it again from scratch," laughs Matamoros, who sees the festival's ongoing struggle for survival as the result of the instant-gratification crowd that prevails here. However, he acknowledges, "There's people who've been coming from the first year for fifteen years and continue to come. But it's like I say, in Miami there are no mountains, but everything is uphill."
So while most of Miami's mid-March visitors will be busy bobbing to dance music spun by DJs in cavernous clubs, small but dedicated groups of music fans will be gathered in conference rooms around the city to celebrate those same DJs' predecessors. Before there was Sasha and Digweed or even Frankie Knuckles there were experimentalist legends like Terry Riley, Wendy Carlos, and Kraftwerk, pioneers to a new musical frontier of sound and technology. Riley's phase shifts and tape loop innovations on early-Sixties works like In Cpredate modern sampling. Carlos took the Moog synthesizer and made it commercially viable in the early Seventies through hit albums like Switched-On Bachand the film soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange.Meanwhile Kraftwerk incorporated the work of both these artists and made history with seminal recordings like Autobahnand Trans-Europe Express. Somewhere in Detroit, a young Juan Atkins was paying very close attention to these developments, eventually drawing inspiration from them to create the techno sounds that the Winter Music Conference would subsequently be founded upon.
That much of today's DJ sounds are a legacy of those early experimentalists does little for the fortunes of the Subtropics festival. Of course, there are always exceptions.
"A couple years ago we presented Derek Bailey; he's an older guy, but he's been doing improvisational music a long time," says Matamoros of the avant-garde guitarist well known for collaborating with jazz composer John Zorn. "I never saw so many young people in the audience. And the guy is playing the weirdest stuff on the guitar."
With performances from more than twenty artists, the five-week festival starts off with a literal bang when Chris Cutler sets up his odd mix of drums and appliances at PS 742 in Little Havana on Friday. Cutler has had a long and politically active musical career, starting in London's psychedelic music scene of the Sixties; collaborating with keyboardist Dave Stewart (not to be confused with the Eurythmics guitarist) in the 26-piece art-rock group Ottawa Music Company; forming the prog-rock band Henry Cow; playing with the London Philharmonic and Berlin Radio Orchestra; and working with a who's who list of progressive and experimental rock acts from Pere Ubu to the Residents.
Probably the most recognizable of the performers, Cutler will be using a drum kit that includes an electric toothbrush, Ping-Pong balls, and battery-operated cocktail mixers. Cutler will also perform on the following night as part of the "Surreal Subtropics Marathon," a no-holds-barred musical event inspired by the Fluxus movement of the late Sixties that includes eclectic yet spontaneous performances from electric violinist Alfredo Triff, sound artist Alison Knowles, and others.
"You ask any of the artists that are coming and they'll say there's not that many places to perform anymore," says Matamoros of why Subtropics continues to be a valuable musical asset. As has been proven in the past, such unusual sounds deserve to be heard because they often portend future mainstream music trends. "New music, meaning what's going on rather than a particular style of music, keeps changing," he argues. "What people are doing continues to change. It's basically exploring the unknown in different ways."
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