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Experimental Orgy

This is your brain on randomly patterned electronic microsounds

You expect a smoky room for this music.

Not the cigarette swirls that surround a sultry jazz singer. Not a dry-ice machine rolling out fog to electronic dance music. I'm thinking more burnt-toast smoke, anything that might explain the sustained high-pitch alarm-tone coming through the speakers just now and piercing the 40 pairs of intent ears of the assembled audience.

Suddenly a gurgling, halting rhythm bubbles up from the bottom register, and the droning high E-flat, which in every other circumstance would clear a room, slowly degrades and gives way to other strange noises. Played by a preprogrammed computer, the "song" morphs smoothly into a new sonic conglomeration, moving in a completely different direction through a process that feels surprisingly organic.

Welcome to the thirteenth annual edition of Subtropics -- Miami's own experimental music festival -- and its opening night, the Subtropics Marathon at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. A project of the South Florida Composers Alliance (SFCA), the monthlong concert series showcases experimental musicians both local and international and is a chance to experience all that is weird and wonderful in the world of music.

Such as "1/F Beethoven," as Tampa-based composer Rob Constable calls the aforementioned piece. "It's the state natural systems can come to, of equilibrium, but where the slightest change can cause a major avalanche," he explains. "I created a computer model of this in sound, the music building to a point where things sound okay. And the critical point is where you're locked into a groove, and things can change from there." Okay.

Even though Constable claims his composition is a work in progress, "because of computing time and an ancient PC," and all the technical explanations, listening to the piece is a viscerally pleasing ride. It's random Beethoven splat against a wall, a collaboration between J.G. Ballard and Throbbing Gristle, sped faster and faster to a single distorted note of tension before crashing into the low rumble of a volcano, then rising up again with the fevered rhythm of a drum kit and the shrill sounds of a futuristic violin. The siren of a passing ambulance on a nearby street seems part of the score.

And while experimental head music, considered coldly intellectual by many, seems to belong more on the wall of an art gallery than on a live stage, there is a wry sense of humor to the proceedings -- a definite sense of fun. SFCA executive director and MC for the evening Gustavo Matamoros describes the marathon in the program notes: "Despite the superstition surrounding the number thirteen, our local composers are defiant -- an indefatigable and steadfast lot. So come listen ... step out and get a snack ... come back in ... four hours of pure musical irreverence by Florida-based artists."

From home-built synthesizers to sampling machines to a simple baby-grand piano, the musical styles vary as much as the methods. "The performance tonight is very eclectic," Matamoros says of the marathon -- a sampler for the shows to come. "The other concerts are much more focused."

This is a festival of music without parameters, in the tradition of avant-garde composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Harry Partch, and John Cage, who were quite happy with its fringe status. But beyond breaking down the conventions of what defines music, the artists of today can use high-tech instruments to look deeper than ever into what music is.

Such as the piece titled "Celia," by Cuban composer Ileana Perez Velasquez, another computer-generated production "based on very small fragments of the voice of Celia Cruz, her voice, and a couple of drums," she explains. This is Celia like you've never heard her before, snippets of her voice stretched into deep sonic expanses with the added depth charge of conga drums.

Following is Alfredo Triff, with all the appearance of a normal classical musician, even with his pearl-white violin plugged into a pre-amp effects box. "This music is the score for an imaginary movie -- a person walking through different rooms in one's mind," Triff says, then plays through half a dozen minor movements, producing sounds ranging from a traditional violin to a shrill scraping to Hendrix-like distortion, a delay effect that would make U2 proud. It's not necessary to have a Ph.D. in philosophy to come up with music like this, but it probably doesn't hurt.

There's "Air's from Granada" for piano and electronic sounds, and "The Headless Glory of Andre Chenier" for pianist/actor and participating public by composer Francis Schwartz. Pounding and plinking on the piano, he recites, "When I play notes in the low register, I think of Andre Chenier," eventually leading the audience in a guillotine chop to various social ills, and a final chop to "The Poet."

"Why did you kill the poet?" he asks. "I manipulated you, but believe me, I'm not the only one."

But perhaps the most bizarre performance of the evening is the impromptu jam session between Galician bagpiper Armando Rodriguez, the random sounds of synthesizer designer George Tegzes, and Gustavo Matamoros on the saw. Like the house band at the end of the universe, the sounds that emanate from this trio of musicians are more aural exploratory than of the foot-tapping variety, sort of the anti-wedding band.

With Tegzes turning knobs to industrial effect and tweaking out bizarre elephant and donkey sounds from an electronically altered children's Sight-N-Sound book, Rodriguez picks up various obscure instruments, such as the saroj and wooden flute, while Matamoros, bow in hand, improvises on the saw. It's a cacophony of conflicting sounds but with each musician listening carefully to the other sounds to form an actual song. "I prefer playing with other musicians dramatically more than alone," says Tegzes of his noteless synth box. "Playing with yourself is masturbating."


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