It's not easy selling Miami on avant-garde music. Sometimes you even have to give the stuff away. Gustavo Matamoros knows this. The artistic director of the South Florida Composers Alliance's annual Subtropics 9 New Music Festival -- and a respected avant-garde composer in his own right -- has over the last eight years flip-flopped between charging admission to the event and holding it for free (with funding coming from various grants). For the past two years Subtropics has been presented gratis, but for the ninth annual affair -- taking place May 16-31 at various sites throughout Miami and Miami Beach -- admission fees have been reinstated (albeit small ones).

"As a strategy to help generate more interest in the festival, not charging has been quite an effective marketing tool," Matamoros says. "It was a good strategy as long as we could keep it up, but this year we have projects that are more expensive, and we're holding things at more sights this year, which complicates things in terms of transportation. All these different expenses rise, so I thought we should go ahead and charge again."

Free or not, Subtropics is not only one of the most consistently entertaining festivals in Miami, it's also the most delightfully strange. One of only a few such events in the U.S., Subtropics offers a rare opportunity to sample the wares of a plethora of eclectic, uncategorizable artists from around the world. In past years Subtropics has hosted everyone from chance-music composer John Cage to experimental cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, from the Balanescu String Quartet to the late jazz-based pianist Don Pullen.

The three-part lineup for Subtropics 9 is typically varied. The Latin American Composers Project (May 22-27) includes six concerts charting the innovations of writers and performers from Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela, and is headlined by the New York City Meridian Arts Ensemble. Among the other participants are Matamoros, Tania Leon, former Astor Piazzolla pianist Gerardo Gandini, Luis Gomez-Imbert, and Ana Lara. Improv-v-v-v-v-v-v- (May 28-31) features oddball creations by percussionist Abbey Rader (whose 1995 album Suburban Utopic, a collaboration with local musician Keshavan Maslak, is a near-masterpiece of improvised doodling); the Trans Duo featuring LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams; and the Shaking Ray Levis, a brilliant two-piece outfit from the unlikely locale of Chattanooga. Improv-v-v-v-v-v-v concludes as usual with the self-explanatory Subtropics Marathon, featuring a slew of composers going at it till who knows when.

The most anticipated element of this year's Subtropics is Balseros, which makes its world debut on May 16 and runs through May 20th at the Colony Theater. An opera based on the mass exodus of Cubans from the island in the mid-Nineties, Balseros is the work of Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes and new-music composer Robert Ashley, and is a collaboration by the Florida Grand Opera, Miami-Dade Community College, and the South Florida Composers Alliance. "Obviously because Balseros is a new-music opera it would be only natural for it to premiere during our festival," Matamoros says of the high-profile production. "And because of the relevancy of the subject matter, it's a way for us to expand our audience and reach out to the Hispanic community. It's also a way to highlight the fact that this is a new-music opera, and that new music has relevance -- that it's not just about irritating people. There are all kinds of new music; people don't need to be afraid of it."

And whittling away at the audience's fear of the challenging, often difficult music touted by Subtropics is important, Matamoros states, but not easy. "I think the audience [for Subtropics] is growing," he opines, "but the makeup of the city is in constant flux. There are more people moving down here, but often there's the same number of people moving out. But it does seem like more people who come here are sticking around for a while."

In an effort to expand both the audience for Subtropics and the avant-garde community as a whole, the Composers Alliance is in the process of establishing the Sound Arts Workshop, which will act as a combination performance space/recording facility. The location has not yet been determined, but Matamoros says a space has been promised by Miami-Dade Community College.

"It will be like a laboratory for the creation of new work," he explains. "We're planning on making it a space where people can create work. It wouldn't be so much of a rehearsal space, but it could function as such within the context of a residency -- where artists come in and want to generate a piece. We could set up a situation where they could actually prepare it and give a performance at the end of the residence. It would also become a venue for local composers to document and record their work. Even though there are plenty of studios around Miami, there really isn't a place for artists whose work is experimental and who don't have big budgets to be able to afford studio time."

And by providing the area with a focal point for the creating and performing of alternative music, the space would also act as something of a year-round advertisement for Subtropics. "What usually happens is during the festival there is a lot of music going on, but there's very little else happening around the year. If we have a space where we can program music more regularly, it will give people more of a chance to explore what the music is all about."

For more information on Subtropics 9, call 758-6676.

-- By John Floyd


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