Falling on Deft Ears

Eighteen years is a long time for anything — or anyone — to stick around in Miami. Artists come and go; structures are built and torn down; businesses launch and then go bankrupt. But for something as awkward and funky as teenage dramanoid, the Subtropics Experimental Music and Sound Arts Festival has been able to sustain existence and grow stronger every year.

Now marking another birthday, the festival is set to expose Miami to an eclectic mix of local, national, and international composers and sound artists during the next ten days at the Dorsch Gallery, Miami Beach Cinematheque, and ArtCenter/South Florida. Presented by the South Florida Composers Alliance interdisciplinary Sound Arts Workshop, Subtropics is the largest and oldest festival of its kind in our area. "It's unusual for anything to last this long anywhere," says Gustavo Matamoros, an import from Venezuela who launched the nonprofit SFCA in 1985. He founded Subtropics a few years later in order to expose Miami to new music and the fine art of sound. "I've always been interested in the avant-garde. What interested me in being a composer was creating something new, not what other people are already doing." Our fine city's acceptance of the odd, weird, and wild is what first attracted Matamoros to Miami and is what keeps him here. "What brought me here is the tradition of experimentation."

Although his parents were concerned about his desire to be a composer of something other than classical music, Matamoros knew he could make it work. "I had no real definition of music in my head, so I could just follow my intuition." It is the sound that is the music, says Matamoros. "Sometimes the strategies for making the music are different," he explains. It could mean developing a new instrument or coaxing new sounds out of an old one. "I like exploring the potential of the instrument," he smiles.

Matamoros continues to explore the potential of his nonprofit organization as well. "Our plan for the next few years is to get really hardcore," he says. By hosting an artist's residence program throughout the year and becoming more involved in the community, Subtropics ensures the fervor surrounding it will endure all year long. "The Sound Arts Workshop provides an infrastructure for not just composers but also sound artists," including those who work in film production, Matamoros remarks. "Our audience is the artists."

Next year the festival will move to a larger stage — the new Miami Performing Arts Center, despite its lack of parking. "We have a year to reintroduce people to the Metromover," jokes Matamoros. But this is a good relationship, one he hopes will create new programs involving local students who have had many art and music programs cut from their school curricula. "It's about moving forward, into the future, and it requires change," he states.

For now, we have nearly two weeks to indulge in an aural smorgasbord that will stimulate a hunger for sounds stretching beyond thumping bass and screeching guitar licks. Kicking off this year's festival is Alvin Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire, a renowned sound installation first heard in 1977 that features the titular wire straddled by a large magnet. A sine wave oscillator vibrates the wire, and the sounds, which change with the dynamics of the room, are amplified through speakers. The performance will be followed by Hypersonic Test: Florida I, an experimental piece by Matamoros and Charles Recher. Via hypersonic speakers producing directional sound beams, the words of their experimental essays will zip past your head and buzz in your ears like angry horseflies.

After you dodge those pesky noise pockets, David Dunn will take you away from the city and into nature through In Air, in Water, in Earth, in Trees. Dunn, a composer described as a bio-acoustician, uses special microphones to record sounds of nature that most people have never heard. One of the microphones can be inserted directly into the bark of a tree to document the conversations of beetles. His monaural audio samples of earthly voices will be presented simultaneously with Three Strange Attractors, a complex electronic soundscape that uses MODE (Multiple Ordinary Differential Equations) software. It's an unlikely coupling, but according to Dunn, similarities can be detected when juxtaposing the organic sounds with the complex "mathematical generative processes." (Translation: It sounds cool.)

Sometimes the artists themselves have a difficult time describing their music. Bagpiper David Watson was at a loss for words when pressed for details about his contribution to the festival: "Um, well, um [long pause] ... I don't know. Can you ask me another question?" The Brooklyn-based musician has been playing the pipes for about twenty years and has worked with Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. So, does Watson play the bagpipes in an untraditional way? "It's a pretty unforgiving instrument," he says. "You can't make it up." Okay. But the music he plays is original, so don't expect him to squeeze out "Amazing Grace" or traditional highland reels. You can hear Skirl, Watson's indescribable performance, Friday, February 24, at 7:00 p.m.

The festival will also bring more noise to the streets of Miami Beach when Eugenia Vargas Pereira and Odalis Valdivieso present Talking Head Transmitters, a low-frequency radio broadcast that will be stationed by ArtCenter/South Florida on Lincoln Road. "We'll be transmitting right off the street, and we'll be interviewing people walking by as well as having invited artists doing performance pieces," says Vargas Pereira, whose device crackled cultural issues through the airwaves during the recent Art Basel in an attempt to introduce art to the masses in a democratic way. The low frequency means you can pick up the signal only within a block from the broadcast area. "We'll have boomboxes set up on the streets, and people in their cars driving by can tune in to 1610 AM and hear it as well."

Matamoros hopes the diverse and complex menu of performers at Subtropics 18 will attract new listeners to the festival and dispel the notion that experimental music is just bleeps, bloops, and static noise. "I think of everything as music. I want to offer an elegant sound experience."

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Lyssa Oberkreser
Contact: Lyssa Oberkreser