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The Architecture Is Alive: Some Reasons Why You Should Go to Subtropics Experimental Music Festival

styrafoam head subtropics festival.jpg
Nathaniel Sandler

It’s hard to explain to someone what “sound art” is. These are encounters that bend our traditional definition of music, and the truth is CDs and MP3s simply cannot reproduce the experience. 

Luckily, the Subtropics music festival is literally your sounding board—both an introduction and advanced course—and a navigational chart for becoming conquistador of sound.

Sound art performances are typically a reverberating cocktail of pure aural bliss and borderline unsettling behavior. The Subtropics festival takes those performances out of the small corners of galleries and universities that experimental noise typically inhabits.

We’ve posted a primer on the festival and its storied 22-year history. And for those who are still curious, it seems only fair to explain what to expect when you go to Subtropics. And you should go. It is outside of the box, and the box is making bizarre noises.

It’s OK to Laugh because John Cage says so

Really. It’s fine. It’s been done before. John Cage condoned it. It will be done again. Part of the experience of an experimental sound performance is enveloping the absurd and understanding that sound bends, as well as our perception of it. While sometimes the music can be anxious or shrill, it is part of the journey to experience a really distinct moment. And occasionally that moment can be goofy. At the Alvin Lucier retrospective at the beginning of the festival, performer Daniel Yellin gave a rousing rendition of Silver Street Car for Orchestra, for amplified triangle in which he quite literally yelled, purred, and pled aurally to a microphone enhanced Styrofoam head. Despite the impressive and complicated vocal intonations Yellin displayed for the audience, we cannot forget that sound is a weird world. And in weird worlds grown men make cooing sounds at a Styrofoam head. Embrace it. And crack a smile.

Alvin Curran’s “wacky roller coaster inside a temple”

Alvin Curran will be at the festival this year. Curran has an impressive resume with sound experimentation and is big name in these circles. Last year, Curran held an improvisation based concert in Central Park that is part of his series called Maritime Rites which has taken countless different forms since the 1970s, but it mostly consists of orchestrated instrumental experimentation in boats nearby off shore. 


If you're going to attend just one of the concerts left on the program, it should definitely be Curran performing in collaboration with the Miami Beach Cinemateque on Thursday March 14th. His live set is sure to expand your definition of music with what Curran describes as a “wacky roller coaster ride inside a temple.”

Alvin Lucier, and Music on a Long Thin Wire

The simple fact is that Alvin Lucier is one of most important sound composers of the second half of the twentieth century. Lucier himself visited the festival in 1993, and there is an installation recreated by F.L.E.A., the Florida International University’s Laptop and Electronic Arts of his Music on a Long Thin Wire up in the 924 Lincoln Road section of the ArtCenter all month long.


The droning sound is soothing. Not all experimental music is racket. Sometimes you are allowed meditative peace. Each experience is unique. 

That Strip of Road on Lincoln Road Where Things Sounds Really Weird

Honestly, it’s a shame the ArtCenter South Florida doesn’t have a café, because sitting outside and watching the tourists and locals strolling down Lincoln Road react to the Listening Gallery sound installation is a perfect way to spend an afternoon. Most of the festival is taking place in the ArtCenter and Subtropics studio at 924 Lincoln Road. Outside is a piece by the founder Gustavo Matamoros called Sin Ninguna Imperfeccion. This is one of the finer examples of architectural and public space enhancing Miami’s residents and visitors in a singular fashion.


If you make your way over to the ArtCenter there are a few installations on site. Go inside and ask how to find them. But make sure you stand outside for a minute and watch the passersby soak in the atmosphere. The architecture is alive. This is one of the goals of Subtropics, to transform public space with sound.

Gustavo Matamoros, South Florida Composer and Director of Subtropics

The man behind the festival, Gustavo Matamoros, is a true Miami gem. He’s the reason this festival is such an impressive and varied line up of experimental musicians, composers, performances, and installations. He suggests you come to the festival open minded, and hints that, "instead of finding something you were looking for, or listening for, you might find something you not had thought possible." Check out the interview above with Matamoros and WLRN's Alicia Zuckerman, then get to one or all of these amazing events and hear South Florida reverberate beautifully for the first two weeks of March. 

Miami is not New York

And New York does not have this festival. This is exactly the kind of thing that culture hunters bemoan not having in South Florida. If you want to be able to see truly unique art and cultural happenings, Subtropics is homegrown and easily accessible in terms of attending. Accessibility of the music is up to the listener and how you react. 

Subtropics XXII runs March 1 to 17 at various Miami venues. Most events are free. Visit subtropics.org for more details. 

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.