Subtropical Homesick Blues

Five snare drums, each of them precisely tuned to a different pitch, are positioned around a grand piano in the Center for the Fine Arts. When composer Alvin Lucier hits certain notes on the keyboard, the heads of one snare drum or another rattle in discord. This was among the more peculiar scenes at the 1993 Subtropics New Music Festival, and it raises what would seem to be an obvious question: Is this "proper" music or merely an exercise in experimental indulgence? But Subtropics artistic director Gustavo Matamoros will have none of it, routinely brushing aside such queries. "This was someone doing something incredibly interesting," he states matter-of-factly. "Who's to say whether it's music or not? And why even bring it up? You should just enjoy it for what it is."

That kind of encouragement and broad-minded artistic philosophy has defined the Subtropics New Music Festival since it debuted in 1989 with three concerts held in two days at the downtown branch of the Metro-Dade Public Library. The event is now a sprawling ten-day exposition of musical innovation and imagination, held at eight different sites in and around the city and revamped to now include dance, video, and other multimedia presentations. Its participants come from throughout the state and across the globe to try out new ideas, present recent compositions, and witness the work of their contemporaries. Past performers at Subtropics have included avant-garde pianist/composer Don Pullen; the Balanescu String Quartet; and chance-music godfather John Cage.

These musicians and composers have been described as everything from experimentalists and extremists to art composers and simply new music artists. Matamoros isn't crazy about any of the labels, but settles for that last tag. "Every term has some kind of attitude problem," says Matamoros, a composer himself, who moved to Miami in the late Seventies from his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. "I prefer to simply call everything music. I try to think of everything we do in terms of experimental music, with its roots in classical concert music. What we offer is an avenue for those musicians who are working outside of any notions of becoming rich or famous A who are concentrating instead on making music that encompasses a wide variety of styles."

Matamoros claims that Subtropics provides an alternative to the traditional fare offered by subscriber-supported mainstream symphony orchestras, which typically include warhorses by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, et al. "Orchestras are going through very hard financial times and they basically survive on the basis of selling seasonal subscriptions," Matamoros explains. "Most people who subscribe are advanced in age and they are a nineteenth-century audience, meaning they've learned to appreciate music that was made in the Nineteenth Century, and they have maintained that sensibility. And many composers today are writing what they feel is accessible music, and it is successful because it resembles nineteenth-century music.

"But this is the Twentieth Century, and the orchestras are not generating new audiences," he continues. "They are not drawing the younger audiences to the concert halls. But if you can provide people with the art that's made today -- as opposed to yesterday -- they will react and respond to it. One of the ideas behind Subtropics is to provide a venue where people can say 'This is new music time,' and have an opportunity to hear some new things, and for composers to try some new things. Who wants to listen to music they already know? It's like going to see the same movie over and over. I have a lot of respect for history because it's a trampoline for invention -- it's a good way of keeping informed. But the task we have is to facilitate the evolution of that history. This isn't a revolution, this is reality."

Along with that reality comes the challenge of drawing an audience to hear obscure and often iconoclastic music. From 1990 to 1994, Subtropics organizers charged an admission of five to eight dollars. Beginning last year, events were presented for free, with funding for the festival provided primarily through grants from organizations such as the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council, the South Florida Arts Organization, and the New York City-based group Meet the Composer (which helps fund similar events across the nation), as well as the State of Florida.

Free admission certainly helped the festival's attendance. "When we decided to go free, concerts in the past that would've drawn twenty people were suddenly drawing more than a hundred," Matamoros states, adding that a 1995 concert at Lincoln Theatre featuring the SouthBeat Percussion Group drew close to 500 people. "This is all new to a lot of people here. They just don't know about these artists because their music isn't in the record stores or on the radio stations. So in a way we're providing access to information that's not readily available. And there is something of an audience here for this type of music, but it's not a paying audience. If you make it free, though, they'll come and check it out. I'm sure a lot of people who came last year will come back this year."

Chicago composer/cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm made his Subtropics debut last year and will return next week to perform some pieces from his upcoming compact disc Personal Scratch and other original works. He says he and his musician friends in Chicago and New York City have known about Subtropics for years now, and goes on to point out how impressed he is with the consistent quality of the festival. "It's pretty unusual for something like [Subtropics] to be held anywhere in America," notes Lonberg-Holm, who has performed and recorded with avant-garde luminaries such as saxophone pioneer Anthony Braxton, composer/alto saxophonist John Zorn, and the New York City noise unit God Is My Co-Pilot. "Events that are run as well as Subtropics usually cater more to established musics rather than, for want of a better term, less established musics. When I played there last year I was very surprised that a relatively unknown cello player and composer could present his own works in a city where no one knows him and have an audience that was really interested in listening."

Matamoros believes the festival's open-mindedness makes it attractive to artists, and he hopes soon to host monthly concerts in the same vein as the yearly festival. "I think of Subtropics as a curated event," he states. "The performances are like pieces unto themselves and are presented like sound installations. We're not in the business of defining the music for people, but rather presenting it so they can get their own experience from it. The artists can come here and try things out that they maybe wouldn't do anywhere else. The whole thing is a celebration of experimentation and giving people something new and different that breaks with tradition."

Subtropics 8 New Music Festival is being held today (Thursday) through April 13 at various sites and venues. All events are free. Consult this week's "Calendar" and "Calendar Listings" for more information, or call 758-6676.

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John Floyd