by Gustavo Matamoros
for the lecture
delivered at Mills College
April 22, 2019
I have adapted them
for publication here
as a resource
for those interested
in my stories
a composer/sound artist
I have added
in visual verse style
in lieu of support materials
not yet appropriate
for publication here
or for media
that does not seem
to play correctly
In my family, I am the oldest of six. My father—who is now retired—was an urban planner. He and mom were very smart, but not particularly intellectual. Yet they encouraged us to have creative discussions during family meals about spirituality, the universe, what it means to be human, … You name it.
Weather we knew what we were talking about or not, my parents encouraged us kids to ask ourselves big questions, to which my father would often responded, “You know? Ever since Einstein, everything is relative!” And that has turned out to be true!
I still struggle with what label I should use to identify myself. Am I a composer? Am I a sound artist? Or am I simply a person with an insatiable interest in sound?
If a composer, I would say I am one interested in community.
A sound artist? Well, that’s easy. In the world of the visual arts, I am (and that’s why I call myself one.)
But I feel more of an explorer. It is like I have been conducting a single experiment that has yielded ideas, sound pieces, and community contexts for the nurturing of a better listener.
For example, I often say that what I have been trying to do since very young has been to develop an ever closer relationship with sound. That everything I do creatively with sound comes from it: the need to use sound as a tool for understanding my environment.
That led me to the notion that sound is an invisible, non-verbal description of the world, a world in constant change. The audible manifestation of life!
Let me present some ideas that influenced me along the path I chose to follow, accompanied by audible examples of some of the sound pieces I have produced, as well as some words about the ways I have been able to conduct this three-decade long experiment.
WHEN DOES IT BECOME ONE?
... this is when
I played a video
of John Cage
recounting a story
about his teacher
the moral of his story:
"I will not consider
a piece finished
until it is performed."
what I head?
That is the moment
when it becomes art
A few of the best ideas I have followed over the years predictably come from John Cage, who performed at Subtropics in Miami in 1991.
What Cage’s story tells me is that we [composers] are in the business of producing and presenting experiences. That the job of the composer doesn’t stop with a signature and a date at the end of a written score. To bridge the gap between audiences and the [musical] experience is part of our job.
The label community composer makes me think of Pauline Oliveros, who performed at Subtropics in 1992. She was definitely a community designer.
Allow me to playback a piece I created for her, as the first audible example of the kinds of things I make with sound. The piece is called, Eighty Five Audible Moments (for Pauline Oliveros)
Before I talk about the sounds themselves, I’ll tell you the story of how the piece came about.
Pauline was nearing 85 and her wife Ione wanted to surprise her on her 85th birthday by organizing a very special event. Ione’s idea, was to request 85 pieces from 85 composers (perhaps some of you participated.) I constructed this 85 second long piece by stringing together 85 audibles from my personal sound library, each of a different duration.
Unfortunately, Pauline surprised us all passing away before the event. The event happened nonetheless and was treated as a celebration of her life and achievements.
Now, about the sounds:
Each sound in this piece is a special event, meaning, each sound is an audible—a description of something unique. I sometimes describe this and other pieces like it as a sound melody because each audible follows the next, like pearls in a necklace.
Notice I don’t call them samples. I call them audibles because I am interested in what each sound describes. That means, I am not attempting to make music with them, but instead to emancipate them from the behavioral restrictions musical expectations impose on sound. I actually consider them to be individuals in a somewhat diverse community of sounds.
Now, why is the piece organized the way it is? How do I decide which sound follows which? It is a random situation based on the notion that sounds have a tendency to get along. And they do. So long as each sound says what it intends to say, I don’t worry much about order.
BEBOP IN THE FOREST OF LONELY RHYTHM
Historically speaking, I began to make recordings and work with sounds in this way back in the early 90s, when I was making pieces at the request of specific poets and musicians. At first, I worked with recordings of interviews and used the sound of the performer’s voice as the sonic material for a musique concrète accompaniment to their performances. Here is an example of one of the first, Portrait: Bob Gregory (a.k.a. Re: Bob Gregory,) or Bebop in the Forest of Lonely Rhythm (the name of the poem by Bob.)
Portrait: Bob Gregory (1990)
or Bebop in the Forest of Lonely Rhythm
featuring Robert Gregory
The AERIAL No5, A Journal In Sound
This piece is prominently about the acoustical signature of Bob’s voice. While in the army, he suffered some kind of trauma that resulted in defective vocal cords. Speaking for him was a struggle. But this feature rendered his tone of voice so much more interesting when reciting his poetry. His speaking voice was itself poetry to my ears. And I am sure I wasn’t the only one to experience it that way. The sound of his voice is the sound of his anomaly. It is his sound. It is Bob. It is what I remember most about him. (Note: having not heard from him in a year, I just found out he past away in August of 2018. Too many of the good ones have been leaving us way too soon.)
Vito Acconci was another peculiar voice. In spite of what most people think, he was first and foremost a poet. While on the subject of poetry, I’ll play you a more recent piece I made for the Audiotheque 2.0 sound system in 8 channels titled, String Solo (for Vito Acconci). This piece speaks about pressure and waves in simple terms: progressive changes in frequency, intensity, timber and physical location of the sound of a single string over time. It became perhaps the most poetic of all pieces I made for the Audiotheque 2.0 sound system.
The piece I just played for you is a LIVE stereo recording of the orchestration of String Solo I arranged for eight of the 30 channels of the sound system of my Audiotheque 2.0 project, about which I will talk sooner rather than later.
In musical terms, String Solo is a bit like 85 Audible Moments in that I also think of it as a kind of melody. I predict some—people like Robert Ashley—might have preferred to call it a drone, while others—people like LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams—would have used it in their talk as a lovely example of Portamento.
String Solo became the Audiotheque experience that elicited the most passionate responses from the audience. They talked about intimacy, about a sense of space, about relaxation…
There are many more words used by its audience to describe their experience which are listed in the subtropics.org website, none of which described it as a narrative. It seems to me people mostly enjoyed its presence.
Audiotheque 2.0 was my most recent community design project and the culmination of a 30-year-long experiment in sound art.
What was it?
The community perceived it as a place for experiencing sound art and experimental music.
Funding sources—and our host institution, ArtCenter South Florida—thought of it as a unique presenting venue.
I thought of it as an art piece, a sound installation consisting of the careful tuning of three main elements:
1. The Instrument: a 30-channel custom-designed sound system;
2. The Context: the visual and tunable acoustical properties of the architectural space; and
3. The Content: the sounds heard.
Its aim was to impress upon the audience an eloquent articulation of sound art as an experience.
Judging from the feedback collected through an online survey, I can report that the outcome of the experiment for the first time in my composing career yielded the expected results.
People undeniably had a fulfilling art experience from an uncompromising project. I personally found it—spiritually speaking—very rewarding.
With funding support from Knight Foundation, ArtCenter and other local cultural grant agencies, SFCA [isaw+subtropics] managed the implementation of my design for Audiotheque 2.0 as an art project, including the physical renovation of my then studio space on Lincoln Road.
NOTE: A new administration decided to take back my studio space prematurely in December of 2018 to establish their own project. This proved to me that Audiotheque 2.0 was very successful and a victim of its own success. It also proved that institutions are not people, because you cannot build dependable, trusting, human like relationships with them. Imagine, they don’t even have ears or listen to music. The only kind of relationships you can have with institutions are based on fear and insecurities from the institution itself, a brand of relationship that can only be enacted through contracts designed to protect institutions from people, contracts they are often reluctant to sign. But i digressed…
By tuning I don’t necessarily mean changing the nature of something that exists in order to match something else. In my installations for example, the main idea is to bring out aspects of the acoustical signature of the space I have been assigned to and making audible what normally isn’t.
For this purpose I use a process I learned from Russell Frehling (who I believe, is another Mills graduate.) It is a process that is based on amplification and feedback.
The sounds we hear in this video come out of thin air and represent architecture articulated in sound. This isn’t the technique acousticians use to evaluate spaces for purposes of acoustical improvements for musical performance, etc. They are more interested in frequency bands, rather than single tones.
With the technique I use I have found rooms that yield 300, 400 frequencies that aren’t always harmonically related.
I use the list of found frequencies to create sound stimuli that either admit to or ignore this information in order to interact with that space. All of my sound installations are site-specific that way. The test in the video was performed in order to help me curate sound pieces for a sound art exhibition to be presented in a space that—for people other than Pauline and her Deep Listening Band—would otherwise be inhospitable for most typical musical performances.
This chart illustrates selected landmarks in my artistic activities since 1980 and through 2017. The reason I am showing you this, is that at first there was not a lot of action for me in Miami, where I live. Early on you could have said I was more of an international artist with music performed in Caracas, Paris, Oslo, Oakland, Sao Paolo, Buffalo, Toronto, etc. As time went by, my activities began to concentrate in the Miami area, which means that by now I have proudly managed to become a local artist!
I’m now trying to secure speaking engagements (like this one) in order to reveal—to those who only know me as director of Subtropics—the nature of what I have been doing through presenting. I view it not as art administration, but as experimental composition.
With Cage’s quote in mind, I have created and presented my own experimental music and sound artwork. I also have found ways to think of grants, festivals and public art projects as tools for composing at an even larger scale: these are the tools for composing community.
For me, Miami has been fertile land for experimentation in music, sound, and other fields of practice.
Canal was a 13 hour, 1000 foot long dynamic sound installation and the world-premier performance by the sound art collective Frozen Music (FM).
It was commissioned by the City of Miami Beach for its 2009 event, Sleepless Night, and according to its organizers, “FM created an intense, memorable and meaningful experience for people of all ages and backgrounds … and Canal… was the defining performance of the evening, establishing itself as an almost geographic center of the 150 events and 13 hours that made up Sleepless Night.“
City officials estimate that 50,000 people experienced Canal that evening. That is almost three times the audience of 20 years of Subtropics festivals. The idea to establish Frozen Music was born during the first physical meeting of SFCA’s national advisory board, which took place during Subtropics 20 that same year.
Examining the fact that in 20 years, the average audience for Subtropics was 40-60 people per concert, I think it was Steve Peters who suggested, “if people don’t want to come to the concerts, why not then find ways to bring the music to were people already gather?”
Beside myself, the members of FM include, Miami sound artist Rene Barge, and David Dunn—who is currently teaching at UC Santa Cruz. That is where I’ll be going next.
Guest artists who have performed with us include Russell Frehling and David Behrman.
Listening Gallery (LG) was a Knight Arts Challenge founded project that consisted of a state-of-the-art, multi source sound system hidden from view under the yellow awnings that wrapped around the exterior of the ArtCenter South Florida’s signature building at the corner of Meridian and Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
A first in Miami, LG was designed as a social intervention (or as Knight Foundation likes to call it, “A random act of culture.”) In nearly 5 years, LG exposed millions of unsuspecting Miami Beach visitors—both residents and tourists alike—to round-the-clock experiments that helped redefine the role of sound art in public space.
As a gesture of sound urbanism, Listening Gallery would still continue if not for the fact that in 2015, ArtCenter sold its 800 Lincoln Road building for 88 million dollars, becoming the South Florida based arts organization with the largest endowment.
Having to de-install it after the surprise announcement was delivered to us and the public, we were fortunate to have had started Audiotheque inside my studio earlier, and to have been programing it for two years. The director of ArtCenter at the time, told me, “Gustavo, now we have this money. Around Audiotheque, we can implement our plan to establish the ArtCenter, as a center for sound art in our community, and, don’t worry, we’ll find another location for the Listening Gallery.” When I asked for a contract or written agreement, she asked me to wait until she could figure it out. That’s when I understood my relationship was with her, and a couple of other people on the ArtCenter board, but not with the institution.
CARS & FISH
Commissioned by Miami Performing Arts Center (MPAC) and presented as part of Art Basel 2005, Cars & Fish was a large scale intermedia work.
Justin MacDonnell, MPAC’s Artistic Director, described it as, “a historic event for the city of Miami performed on a global stage.”
Realized in collaboration with video installation artist Charles Recher, the elements of Cars & Fish where: a three hour long video, architectural lights and a soundscape installation presented on the external walls and within the Plaza of the Arts of the Miami Performing Arts Center; plus a 45 minute performance element on Biscayne Boulevard (a main downtown artery which was blocked to traffic for the occasion) that included live musicians (Davey Williams, David Manson and Vicky Richards), a robotic TV, a remote-controlled school of fish, and stilt performers, combined with projected images, and a hypersonic flock.
You have been hearing about Subtropics during this talk. Let me give you an idea of what it is in a Wikipedia-like description:
Subtropics is a Miami festival of experimental music and sound art established in April of 1989 by artist and composer Gustavo Matamoros—its founder and artistic director. Produced and presented by SFCA [isaw+subtropics], Subtropics was voted Best Public Event (1992) and Best Festival (2001) by Miami New Times. By its 20th edition in 2009, Subtropics became biennial and was last presented in the summer of 2017. Its 25th edition is slated for 2020.
The history of Subtropics has been one of electro-acoustic and chamber music, sound installations, outdoor performances, Fluxus events, sound poetry, experimental film, dance and theater, plus workshops, lectures and other outreach events and all new media art exploring sound as a primary element. Website: www.subtropics.org
In a letter of 2006, composer Robert Ashley wrote: “In the situation today, to my knowledge, there is not another organization in the United States like iSAW. Its festival, Subtropics, highlights established composers known in Europe and the Americas and whose work gets too little exposure … The organization has become in the last two decades the most respected and admired new music project in the country.”
In 1991, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s Classical Music Critic, Tim Smith described Subtropics as: “the region`s most ambitious annual exploration of contemporary performing arts.” Since, a typical audience member’s review goes like this: “The caliber of the artists was top notch. The performances and installations were extraordinary. And the community is warm and inviting.”
A main focus of the festival has been to bring to Miami experimental composers and sound artists to perform their own work. Guests have included: Joseph Celli in 1989; Robert Dick and John Giorno in 1990; John Cage in 1991; Joan LaBarbara and Pauline Oliveros in 1992; George E. Lewis, Alvin Lucier, and David Tudor in 1993; Brenda Hutchinson and Augusto de Campos in 1994; Morton Subotnick and Balanescu Quartet in 1995; Tom Buckner and Joseph Kubera in 1996; Shaking Ray Levis and Robert Ashley in 1997; Meridian Arts Ensemble and Gino Robair in 1998; The Glass Orchestra, Yasunao Tone, Derek Bailey, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, James Tenney and Trimpin in 1999; Victoria Hanna, Lucas Ligeti and Jon Gibson in 2000; Lou Mallozzi and Duo Kol-Tof in 2001; Sam Ashley, Anne Hamilton and Meredith Monk in 2002; Absolute Zero, Pip Pyle, Chris Cutler and Morl Drammaz in 2003; Chris Mann, Jaap Blonk and Malcolm Goldstein in 2004; Tom Hamilton, B Blank and Guillermo Gregorio in 2005; David Dunn, David Watson and Seth Josel in 2006; Takehisa Kosugui, Alison Knowles and Larry Miller in 2007; Davey Williams, Jim Staley, Ikue Mori and Phill Niblock in 2009; On Structure and David Behrman in 2011, Paula Matthusen, Ron Kuivila and Alvin Curran in 2013; Alba Triana, John Bischoff, Fast Forward and LaDonna Smith in 2015; Olivia Block, John Driscoll, Jack Wright, Miguel Alvarez Fernandez, Richard Garet and Barbara Held in 2017; all the while highlighting the work of Miami artists alongside that of the visiting guests.
Over the years Subtropics commissioned and produced significant works including Serenade for Oboe and Strings and the installation Music for Piano and Half-Closed Lid by Alvin Lucier; the full opera Balseros by Robert Ashley; New pieces by latin american composers Tania Leon, Ana Lara, Juan Francisco Sans, Gerardo Gandini, and from Brazilian Hermeto Pascoal for the Meridian Arts Ensemble; plus, M.I.A.M.I. Klangflotta (1999) by Trimpin—a fleet of kinetic sound machines, on customized rickshaws that, played automated music, in a parade of computer activated radio controlled mini orchestras on wheels.
To my ears, this kind of description undermines the compositional aspects of the project. I have always understood Subtropics to be a tool for community design. I always approached it from a curatorial perspective. We want to develop an audience with an open ear and an open mind, or at least attract those in our community who gravitate toward it. The festival also helped improve the quality of our local artists who used Subtropics as an opportunity to produce their best work.
Because John Bischoff was part of Subtropics 23 in 2015, he had a chance to experience SOUNDSPACE—a 120-channel soundscape installation by FM—and wrote me a very complementary letter that described his experience of the installation. I hope you don’t mind me quoting from it, John. In the letter, you wrote, “One of my chief delights was to “zoom in” on sounds that caught my attention, (much like one would do with a camera in the visual domain) following closely the detailed evolution of each in time. The artists did an amazing job of incorporating the synthetic elements in such a way as to support and enhance the naturally occurring ones. It seemed as if, the synthetic contours were highlighting features culled from natural environments. I also was impressed with the way the surrounding soundscape of occasional passing cars and people seemed to fit right in. These “non-piece” elements could be, noticed and appreciated for their qualities as well, and never seemed to be a distraction.”
TO REVEAL WHAT’S HIDDEN
“It’s the artist’s job to reveal what’s hidden.” said my friend, Stephen Malagodi—a radio producer at WLRN radio in Miami.
In my world, sound is information about what lies beneath. Listening enables us to unwrap the beauty contained within all things. Listening also deepens our understanding of the environment, natural and man-made.
In nature sound is dependable, but our ability to hear and interpret it is not. I’m interested in sound for its capacity to contain and deliver information beyond language. From this perspective all sounds are equal. It is to our advantage to learn to appreciate and befriend them. I believe sound intelligibility is essential to living creatures with ears to hear.
In my work—whether soundscapes, sound installations, sound videos, or performances—my pieces seek to reveal that which is hidden. I have devoted my life to trying to understand sound better, for myself and in community, through a process of experimentation. I use tools such as microphones and feedback to help me capture and perceive sounds not easily available to my naked ears, so as to explore their nature. I make pieces that reflect knowledge I have learned by way of sound, both intuitively and through interactions with colleagues like David Dunn. As John Cage did himself, it is now common practice among his followers to embrace the idea that art should “imitate nature in its manner of operation.” I follow this philosophy myself.
Words like Community Designer, Sound Urbanism, Soundscaping, are not used here as branding tools, but instead as ways to point to the intention, to the perspective behind the gestures.
Thinking of composing in terms of community could certainly be about, entertaining that community. But, what about composing a community? What are the implications of engaging in something like that?
My friend Aislinn Quinn—of the progressive rock group Absolute Zero—pointed out recently that one of the things she sees me I do as a community designer is help other composers who come to the events I organize to better themselves by becoming the composers of their own lives.
She claims, “not everyone has the ability to strip away the unimportant.”
Many composers feel insecure about their work. I would say that insecurity is excess. Excess is that which we can all afford to let go of. the leanness of being you, is you!
Think of yourself as a mesh of things, some which are you, and others—the excess—which aren’t you. Things you pick up here and there that you find attractive about others.
I don’t intend to do what she describes. I do think that through event production, energy is created that causes composers to feel included. And that includes them in the experiment.
For me, Composing is not about inspiration. I do love music, but I am not that kind of composer. In my book the word inspiration makes no sense (unless we are talking about the “aha” moment of discovery.) Sitting still at the piano waiting for the muse. That’s what I’m talking about. I don’t believe in it—even though that is how voodoo painters describe their process. “I cannot paint until I hear the song,” said to me once Haitian voodoo painter André Pierre. And when I asked him, “Couldn’t you paint without the song?” he replied swiftly: “of course I can. But I wouldn’t know when to finish.”
What I think I do in composing—as an experiment—is to take each sound and strip it of the excess. I try to take away that which is redundant, that which is not what Aislinn calls, “the authentic self.” Then, all I have to do is let it loose among other sounds and enjoy their interactions. It is like going to the Everglades and listening to it speak, or shall i say, make its music!
I can do this because sounds have no feelings. The function of a sound is to describe. Without the excess, a sound becomes more efficient in describing what it does, leaner in communicating its uniqueness with integrity and authenticity. It reveals itself! And becomes a good citizen in any community of diverse sounds. At this point it might be good to point out one of the premises I have been testing about sound for years: the one about sounds having a tendency to get along. I found out through experimentation that they do. But best when they focus on describing their uniqueness, their own reason for being. Because sounds have a proven tendency to get along, I believe people also have a tendency to get along. So the next step in the experiment is to live my life as though this is true. When it isn’t, I try to look for the excess.
ON COMPARING NOTES
People who find and become their unique selves are not independent but interdependent. What I mean by that is that they look for other people, not to be told what to do, but in order to compare notes. That is my understanding of community.
In knowing how to tell what is sound and what is excess, which it is something I think I developed from the practice of listening to—in contrast to listening for—there is also the case when a sound (or audible) did not quite have a chance to express itself completely. That sound deserves enough time to communicate its essence. Give it to it and it will navigate comfortably among other sounds.
These things are what I call composing. And, when we apply these principles to our daily lives, when we help others (for example) examine themselves in terms of discovering their excesses, and suggest possible tools and strategies for getting rid of them, we contribute to the community as composers.
This presentation was followed by a question and answer period.
I would like to add that the format of the talk is an improvisation: a list of notes loosely organized around a series of audio samples and visual slides. I would like to thank John Bischoff and Mills College for giving me this opportunity to start shaping up ideas for the publication of a Subtropics Collection to include text, audio recordings and other relevant documents pertaining to the entire history of the Subtropics Festival, the various ideas, the art, the public interventions, and other significant community gestures that together define the outcome of my three-decade-long experiment.
Comparing Notes, published here for the first time. © 2019, Gustavo Matamoros. All rights reserved. For inquiries please contact Subtropics Editions: info @ subtropics dot org