Perfect Sound Forever

The Discovery of New and Lesser Known Media

Gustavo Matamoros in action

The Subtropics Music Festival
By Gary Gomes
(March 2003)

New music is, unfortunately, a term that can mean anything to anyone. But new music has suffered from neglect and received relief in some forms of subsidy since the 1960's. Occasionally, someone who is roughly identified with the avant garde or new music scenes will achieve a breakthrough and some form of commercial success. Perhaps the best examples--apart from Brian Eno (inspired by John Cage), John Cale (who had an association with the great Greek composer Iannis Xenakis) and Yoko Ono, who attained popularity through their rock work-were the early minimalists like Philip Glass (the most popular of the bunch), John Adams, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley (in my opinion the most talented of this group). Riley was a huge inspiration in the late 1960's on everyone from the Who to Soft Machine to Mike Oldfield, while Glass scored name recognition with pieces like Einstein on the Beach and the movie Koyaanisquatsi (not to mention his soundtrack work on Clive Barker's Candyman series of horror movies) while Adams scored with the opera Nixon in China. During the avant garde-influenced 1980's, collaborations with other artists like Peter Gabriel, brought recognition to performance artist Laurie Anderson, who actually scored a bit of a hit with "O Superman." Part of this was no doubt helped by the popularity of Talking Heads and other groups that had links with Eno and performance art-Diamanda Galas for example was featured on the trailer song to another Barker movie, "Lord of Illusions". The early 1980's actually had Ornette Coleman appearing on national television, and groups like Rip, Rig and Panic (and even the early Red Hot Chili Peppers) were showing some extreme harmolodic orientation.

But these were relatively isolated events, sort of like when Gyorgi Ligeti, Penderecki and George Crumb were heard in the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Exorcist because Kubrick and Friedkin started using pre-existing classical pieces for their soundtracks. Of course, the irony here is that it wasn't Ligeti, Penderecki or Crumb who were recognized or benefited from the soundtracks-it was that Richard Strauss (the "official" composer of the Third Reich), Johann Strauss, and Mike Oldfield who were identifiable to the movie going audiences.

The long winded historical point here is that still, to this day, experimental composers have an extremely difficult time being heard. As a result, composers and performers often organize their own festivals, such as the League of Composers. Initiated in the United States in the 1920's, it has devoted to promoting the works of such pioneers as Varese, Cowell, Ruggles and many others. There was also the ISCM in Europe in the 1950's and 1960's; Fluxus in Europe in the 1960's and 1970's. It has also included various free jazz collectives, from the Jazz Composers Guild in 1960's New York to Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (1960's to present) to St. Louis' Black Artists Group (BAG) to the Improvisors Network in the 1980's-founded by Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith, boasting membership from the semi-famous (Fred Frith) to the incredibly obscure (yours truly). Many others (the London Musicians Collective, Rock-in-Opposition) have formed through the years, and have left recorded and concert legacies. One could even say that the entire independent record production scene had its roots in the late 1960's efforts of labels like El Saturn (Sun Ra's label), Free Music Productions from Germany, Incus from the UK and the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. The JCOA, as the New Music Distribution Service, are generally not credited for the work they did as one of the first organizations to act as a clearinghouse for all types of music on independent labels (including Phillip Glass' first release) in the United States and Europe in the early t to mid-1970's. These companies proved the commercial viability of independent releases out of the necessity of having to distribute their own work without major label support. Rockers did not begin moving in this direction until much later and then often as a launching pad aiming at the larger record companies in order to get big recording contracts. The free jazz and composer community would have no comparable aspirations.

Recently, the need for coalition building has taken on a new, more catholic, mentality. Local groups like the South Florida Composers' Alliance have musical tastes that range across the spectrum of new music. It seems to be founded on the premise of looking at music as the organization of sounds-an ethic essentially initiated by Varese and refined by Cage, but with a wider acceptance of different idiomatic expression than either of these composers would recognize. The most important element of this group is the diversity of types of music that it is willing to present. Many of the groups mentioned earlier were organizations that were geared towards a particular specialty. Yet the Miami-based South Florida Composers Alliance has geared itself towards an international performance base, which it has demonstrated since 1989 when the Miami Subtropics Music Festival in Miami, Florida.

Since 1989, the Subtropics Music Festival has grown from an ambitious local festival to the largest contemporary music festival outside of New York City. It is an eclectic event, as can be seen by the wide variety of artists that have been presented at the festival. Well-known guests at the festival have ranged from people as well known the legendary Sonny Rollins; free improvisation guitarist Derek Bailey; composer/improviser George Lewis; instrumentalists/composers Ned Rothenberg and Robert Dick; contemporary composers Robert Ashley; Pauline Oliveiros, Alvin Lucier, and Dickie Landry.

The festival provides a forum for works by better-known artists, but also provides exposure to many lesser known artists, such as Trimpin, who has worked on player piano mechanisms for composer Conlon Nancarrow, and who also designs his own musical instruments, some of which are Rube Goldberg-like inventions powered by bicycle power. His work, because it is keyed to the environment in which he performs, has never been recorded because he has felt that this presentation would minimize the impact of his performance. Other artists that are covered include James Tenney, who is internationally respected as a first rank innovator, having been a part of major ensembles from Harry Partch's to Phillip Glass' initial ensembles and who has done revolutionary work himself on developing new approaches to harmony-an area of musical innovation that has been largely unexplored in the latter half of the twentieth century, as most new music focused on performance, minimalism, rhythmic experimentation and electronics. Tenney's ideas start to work with some of the implications that the utilization of microtones has for harmony and the beauty that this new complication in the ingredients of music.

The festival has also conducted performances of major works by Cage, Ashley and Ligeti, also featuring the experiments that Gyorgi Ligeti's son Lukas has undertaken with a wide variety of Latin percussionists from the Caribbean and Latin American areas.

This latter category, as a matter of fact, seems to be the area in which the Subtropics Festival shines. The dominance of Western Europe and New York of the avant garde (despite the fact that Riley comes from the West Coast) has, to a certain extent, dictated a certain direction in avant garde circles in the 1970's and 1980's-everything seemed to need to pass muster in New York before it was accepted elsewhere. The advent of other musical communities and festivals in Austin, Texas, Seattle, Oregon and Miami has helped break the stranglehold that New York has had in this field. Basically, New York becomes one more style or factor in a global community. The festival has helped bring Latin composers and styles to the forefront as a potent avant garde musical force, and the festival prominently features these artists.

Founder Gustavo Matamoros, according to his biography, "is mainly concerned with the notion of building an intimate relationship with sound, experimenting with its use as a vehicle to help us think with our ears. This approach has resulted in work that is essentially interdisciplinary, merging music, sound poetry, performance, media, installation art...Gustavo first developed an interest in sound through experimentation with short wave radios and tape recorders. Recently, he has been making pieces on the carpenter's saw and performing them frequently in a variety of different contexts and venues. His pieces have been commissioned, performed, screened, broadcasted and exhibited across the continental United States and in Latin America and Europe. He has received awards from the Venezuelan National Arts Council (Gustavo was born in Venezuela), and from Meet the Composer, New Forms Florida, and the Florida Arts Council. In 2000, he received the South Florida Consortium Visual and Media Arts Fellowship Award. He has also been artistic director of the SubTropics New Music Festival since its inception in 1989 and is director of the South Florida Composers Alliance and the Sound Arts Workshop in Miami." I have to express admiration for anyone who is open-minded enough to do a splice tape piece using the music of Gentle Giant as source material!

The Sound Arts Workshop is an interdisciplinary incubator providing support to artists and organizations. It contains a state of the art all digital multi-track recording system for professional recording, processing and editing. CD mastering is also available.

Mr. Matamoros has also established an "Understanding Sound Series" focusing on explaining unconventional sound sources like custom built synthesizers, theremins, and musical saws (there they are again!) available to anyone. No special musical knowledge is necessary to attend these workshops, and Mr. Matamoros has also set up new music events in people's homes. Designed to evoke a "salon-type" atmosphere, private individuals host these events that provide concerts and discussion of the music involved, or new music "Tupperware" parties.

Miami would, at initial glance, seem an odd place to host a new music festival. Normally, we get the image of retired folks, party-going youth or partying teenagers involved with the 4 AM disco nightlife as being the basis of Miami. But Miami has, over the past ten years, allured many intellectual types from across the country, attracted by the novelty and open-mindedness (and good weather) of Florida. It has advantages in that its population is growing, usually a source of increased economic prosperity in a region-and the light heartedness and eccentricity of new music thrives in an area that has some financial prosperity. There is new money in Miami as well, and it is a part of a long term trend that is starting to take money and influence from the northern part of the United States-a trend that has been in place since the mid-1970's.

In my life, I have noticed that the further one gets from the Northeastern United States, the easier it is to get people excited about the prospect of experimentation. New York and Boston, although thriving prosperous areas, have a sense of jaded world weariness that is not really conducive to experimentations-the fight to survive is too strong and new music, especially since Cage, has needed fun and a sense of playfulness in order to rejuvenate itself. One of the works that I saw featured in an early Subtropics festival, which consisted of getting a CD to misread as the sound source, would probably be greeted with yawns in the Northeast or in more traditional areas.

The world of music is essentially a playground-some of it serious, some of it wacky, some of it willing to be loud, obnoxious, spoiled and willing to thumb its nose at tradition. I start to get worried when freedom is curtailed in the arts-all sorts of nasty complications follow. One of the very first thing that the Nazis and the Fascists did when they took over government in Germany was start identifying "decadent" art and outlawing it. They were not necessarily referring to strip tease or sexual decadence. They were referring to Shoenberg and Berg and the entire school of contemporary music that had sprung up in Germany before and between the wars. Likewise, the Soviet government started trying to reign in composers like Shostakovitch whose early pieces were quite radical but who backed off under governmental pressure. The need to maintain an experimental attitude to music is essential to freedom-the Subtropics festival, my personal ideology aside, is a joy to behold, because it has the courage to step over the vast boundaries of modern music and create a new Babel or polyglot that encompasses the cultures of the world-and the deviants of those cultures.

This year's primary performers will be Chris Cutler (March 8, 2003), the legendary percussionist from England who was a member of Henry Cow, the Art Bears, and Cassiber, as well as a soloist and ensemble player in settings around the world, and Absolute Zero (March 7, 2003), the pioneering Rock-In-Opposition-influenced group with Aislinn Quinn on vocals and keyboards, Enrique Jardines on bass guitar, and Pip Pyle on drums located out of Coral Gables, Florida. Other featured artists include Alison Knowles, Shelley Hirsch, Here and Now, and Robert Dick. The festival will he held from February 27-March 30, 2003. Biographies of the artists and archives of previous festivals can be found at:

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