Since its launch in 1989, the Subtropics festival has offered South Florida a multi-day event focused squarely on experimental music and sound art. This year the two-week Miami Beach festival starts with a symposium on sound and architecture, then relaxes into a series of concerts.
Most of these will feature improvisation, custom electronic instruments, or unusual acoustic techniques. For example, Paula Matthusen notes only that her performance “involves a candle.” The ensemble Frozen Music explores the acoustic environment of the Botanical Garden while you enjoy a picnic. Alvin Curran opens for a film at Cinematheque, and drummer Abbey Rader interprets the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths with his avant-jazz quartet. And in keeping with its own tradition, the festival closes with the Subtropics Marathon, two afternoons of performances by a range of artists.
We sat down with festival director Gustavo Matamoros last week at his white-walled studio on Lincoln Road for a talk about the origins of the festival and the role it plays in the South Florida arts scene.
We started at the beginning.
The seeds for Subtropics were sown by the New Music America Festival, a nomadic event that originated in the “Downtown” New York scene in the late 1970s. In 1988 it came to Miami, bringing 150 artists to the city over nine days, “from John Cage down.” A young Matamoros served as the technical coordinator. After that experience, the organizers -- also including promoter Mary Luft, oboist Joseph Celli, and composer Orlando Garcia -- pulled together enough grants to launch an experimental music festival of their own.
“From the beginning, the idea was that the festival would feature mostly composers who perform their own music,” he says. In the early years, Subtropics brought in national luminaries such as Cage, David Tudor, and Pauline Oliveros, but it also served as an important outlet for regional artists.
“What happens with the Subtropics festival, it’s become a venue for people to experiment, and to have an audience, where we pay great attention to how things sound,” says Matamoros. “Its mission has been to support the artist who makes this music and give them a venue that helps validate what they’re doing. You know, we want to be in on the exploration. We want to know what people are doing, and we want the community to find out.”
He elaborates: “With experimental art, or experimental music, the premise is that when you begin, you begin at a place where you feel as though you don’t know anything about what you’re doing, because the whole point is to learn something. In other words, you engage in an experiment.” Like scientists, the artist formulates a hypothesis and takes a risk “with the intention of discovering something that becomes a contribution to society, something that helps us understand better who we are in the world.”
Matamoros views sound as a unique avenue into understanding the world, a perceptual gateway that is underdeveloped in our visually oriented culture. “For instance, someone that can’t see, but can hear, is perfectly capable of understanding the world -- not only that, but navigating without having to bump into things. The only thing that is necessary is for that person to learn how to decode the audible signs that things are in front of you.”
Those signs are an important part of what Matamoros explores in his own installations. His ensemble Frozen Music, with Renee Barge and David Dunn, will be featured one afternoon at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. They will set up speakers around the garden, each of them bringing his “own system of sound production” and plugging in. “We think of the systems as ecology. Sometimes what we do is collect sounds in the environment that we’re in. We have hydrophones to collect sounds underwater, insertion mics that we can plug into trees.”
The multi-hour performance emphasizes careful listening. It could be a microcosm for the entire festival: “The music functions as a way to help you understand how sound speaks about what’s around you, help you connect with your environment, in ways that we don’t when we’re simply being intellectual or visual. The ear is our gate towards connecting with things. Of course there’s touch and there’s smell, but the ear is particularly interesting in what it gives us as information, and the way that we can still be mindful of things and aware and then incorporate that into our life.”
Subtropics XXII runs March 1 to 17 at various Miami venues. Most events are free. Visit subtropics.org for more details.