Unsuspecting concertgoers at the Subtropics Marathon, a four-hour performance that featured experimental South Florida composers two weeks ago, reported a shocking sight. Two twelve-foot towers, made of stainless-steel buckets suspended from steel rods, flanked the stage to the left of the entrance to Hice Hall inside the Miami Beach Community Church. The steely beast, dubbed the Sectopus, turned this gathering place for God's people into a gruesome seventeenth-century scientific laboratory.
At the center of the stage, six valves fixed to a wooden frame controlled the flow of water that fed the Sectopus. The piercing whistle of this manmade monster switched pitch as water rushed up rubber tubes to the top of the tower, dripped into buckets, and then drained back down through tubes again. Thus wailed the Sectopus, with the last raspy gasp of the genre formerly known as new music, the avant-garde beast that refuses to die.
Appearing at the first of seven concerts in this year's Subtropics New Musical Festival, the Sectopus (created by the Tampa-based Experimental Skeleton design collective) portends bizarre sounds to come. The bulky brute came to town in two vans from Tampa, home to Miami's weird sister new-music festival, Bonk. Tampa and Miami are just two stops on a nationwide festival circuit devoted to the preservation (if not the resuscitation) of a way of making music that went from once seeming very new to now seeming very old. In its postwar bloom, new music brought to a head the feverish experiments of the Twentieth Century that tore apart every cherished precept in Western classical music. Music can be ugly, the new musicians such as John Cage declared. Music can be silent. Music can be chaos. Music can be any kind of sound.
So insistent grew the call for the new that the postmodern turn of the last century exhausted artists and audiences alike. In the meantime the cutting-edge electronic technology invented by new-music pioneers found a happy commercial home in the breakbeats and tape loops of DJ-driven dance grooves. Synthetic sounds that once blew the heads off academia-ensconced new-music geeks are now the standard 4:00 a.m. fare for the zombie throngs of club kids dancing on South Beach.
Yet new music limps on. For Gustavo Matamoros, organizer of the Subtropics festival since 1989, new music was never a fashion, but a life-affirming passion. The experimental composer and sound artist proves his everyday commitment to the avant-garde with his current choice of musical instrument: the saw. Standing in the shadow of the Sectopus at the Subtropics Marathon, Matamoros recounts for the audience happier days, before the Great Depression, when the humble builder's tool could be heard twanging in the hands of homespun musicians throughout the United States.
"Nowadays not so many people use the saw to make music," he deadpans to the crowd, "but I think it is still being used for work."
With this introduction Matamoros begins his short piece for saw and gated tape, "In My Mind as I Work." Rather than play the saw with the standard bow, he places a plank of wood on an instrument stand and attempts to cut the board in half. Electronic shrieks escape the saw as the serrated teeth bite into the two-by-four. Matamoros struggles with the task, yanking his instrument violently back and forth. He flips over the board several times with the hope of hitting a weak spot. Finally the wood splits in two. Matamoros bows.
With a pile of wood shavings still on the floor, the musicians from Tampa take the stage to play a composition by Robert Constable, "The Mechanics of Ignorance." Director of the Slavin Electronic Studio and adjunct professor at the New College of the University of South Florida (USF), Constable sits before an autoharp he found at a thrift store. His USF colleague, David Rogers, takes up a thrift-store tuba. The pair accompanies an audiotape bellowing forth the go-get-'em voice of a motivational speaker.
"These are probably the most important words you'll ever h -- -," begins the disembodied voice, before a computer programmed by Constable phases out the words and substitutes the sound of the bargain-basement instruments. As the fiery motivational speaker insists that listeners' success in the future depends on paying full attention to his advice, the "probability" program running on the computer makes it more and more likely the audience will hear the instruments rather than the tape. When the probability hits 100 percent, the piece ends.
The computer program for "The Mechanics of Ignorance" is simple, especially in comparison to other computer-driven works by Constable. His piano concerto "Crack Head" transposes a computer model of the biological system of drug addiction onto a composition where the piano plays the part of the addictive substance, and the orchestral ensemble plays the part of the craving body. The scientific research and mathematical computations required by such a composition belies the impression that for Bonksters, music is all fun and games.
"We take our music extremely seriously," Constable protests, "but we feel that we shouldn't take ourselves seriously; otherwise we would just quit. Basically new music is down the toilet. We're practicing something that's a dead or a dying art. And we're just doing it, even if people wag their fingers at us. We're doing it because we think the results are strange -- sometimes sacrilegious, sometimes totally hilarious -- but always interesting and wonderful."
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From the grave of a dead art, Bonk composer David Rogers drags his performance piece, "Necrophageteria." Constable sits at a grand piano, like the accompanist at an early silent horror film. Playing with a conventional bow, Matamoros draws squeals from his saw. Between the Sectopus and the steamy blocks of dry ice on the "sublimation piano" stands Devon Brady, who opens and closes the valves that control the pitch of the Sectopus. He presses copper strips and rods against the dry ice of the sublimation piano, causing the copper to scream eerily on contact.
From the back of the room enters Rogers, embracing a kind of human bagpipe called the "necrophone." As the torso of the misshapen human figure collapses in Rogers's grip, a broken dirge bursts from acrylic tubes that dangle like crippled limbs. Rogers presses his mouth against the tube protruding from the head, exhaling with a passionate kiss to inflate the torso again.
The Experimental Skeleton group built the necrophone to Rogers's specifications, sacrificing musical function to visual form where necessary. "I had this vision of an almost unidentifiably human form," the composer explains, "like a corpse that's been in the river too long." He continues with what could be a manifesto for the still exquisite corpse of new music. "I wanted something that would make people watch a performance and be a little uncomfortable. I wanted something disturbing enough that even I wasn't sure I wanted to perform it. I wanted something that would be gruesome, but beautifully gruesome."
The Subtropics New Music Festival continues with Furican Caribe, an ensemble of Miami musicians including Marty Galagarza, Nike Kernahan, Richard LaGuerre, and David Font, at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 7, at the Ponce de Leon Circle Park in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Ellen Band, a "hunter and gatherer of sounds," performs at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 8, at the Miami Beach Community Church, 520 Lincoln Rd. Tickets cost $15. Furican Caribe, conducted by composer Lukas Ligeti, appears again at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 15, at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, 2000 Convention Center Dr. Tickets cost $20. Saxophonist Jon Gibson plays at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 22 also at the botanical gardens. For more information call 305-576-4350.