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The Sound of Subtropics

Nathaniel Sandler

Alvin Lucier

“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it
back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my
speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the
room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out
any irregularities my speech might have.” — Full text of “I am sitting in a room” (1969) composed by Alvin Lucier

One of the reasons the influential sound composer Alvin Lucier created this seminal work was to eradicate his vocal stutter. He verbally stumbles twice when reading the text of the piece into a microphone, which is then continually played back into the room and recorded again, using the compiling resonances from the walls, floor, and ceiling to change the texture of the piece. Eventually, the words become drawn out to complete incomprehensibility, leaving the listener with a peaceful and reverberating droning. Alvin Lucier’s stutter is healed through the manipulation of sound. The piece rectifies language with sound through harmony. An even deeper exploration of “I am sitting in a room” reveals that Lucier was also trying to understand the acoustic capability of enclosed spaces. He tells you from the start that he is in a room that is different from the one you are in, making it a private space, and one that the listener cannot necessarily visualize but understands to be fixed. The materials, aside from Lucier’s voice and the room, are now dated: a microphone and two analog tape recorders. Upon completion and dissemination, the sound travels to other places via vinyl record, tape, CD, or now mp3, and is played in new spaces, both indoor and outside. It is created from architectural space and that is where it lives on. Lucier was one of the first to realize the capability that architectural space itself has as an instrument.

In 1993, Alvin Lucier came to Miami on commission by the Subtropics Festival and performed “Serenade for Oboe and String Quartet,” a piece he later admitted he was not fond of, considering it “too perfect in an uninteresting way.” The piece was too tight for him, a “product of a perfected system,” and “inexorable.” Having been required to use oboe and strings due to the festival’s resources, perhaps Lucier felt restricted and unable to indulge in the nebulousness of musical experimentation.

Subtropics is an ongoing experimental sound festival founded in 1989 that now takes place every two years in Miami. The original organization, the South Florida Composers Alliance, was founded in 1985 by local artist and composer Gustavo Matamoros and still exists today. Beginning as a platform and community for local composers and sound enthusiasts, the organization has had a malleable and ever changing brand, much like the concept of experimentation with sound itself, transforming from SFCA to Intermix to Word(s)ound, and finally settling on its current name, Subtropics. Matamoros describes it as a chameleon; it adapts to the environment of the local community’s need for sound.

Matamoros feels that some perceive his niche as a weird component of Miami. A current installation by Matamoros outside of the ArtCenter/South Florida on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach’s most ambled tourist and local thoroughfare, creates a shudder of bizarre aural experience , echoing off the side of the the building’s glass façade and playing down to the sidewalk passersby. Some fail to notice the noise whatsoever, others find it unsettling and creepy, while another group may bemusedly laugh in amazement.

Matamoros’s Lincoln Road piece is a manipulation of John Cage’s “Empty Words IV” (1974), which was performed when Cage himself came to Miami for the third Subtropics festival in 1991. Having Cage, the most important composer of the second half of the 20th century, attached to the early history of Subtropics adds serious credibility to the festival’s lineage. His most famous piece, “4’33” (1952), in which pianist David Tudor sat silent at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, effectively broke every traditional barrier of musical composition. Music became silence, or the absence of music.

Through enlivening architectural space, as in the “Empty Words IV” installation on Lincoln Road, Matamoros attempts to further the understanding of sound as a linear narrative. Sound is interdisciplinary in nature and accompanies all of the other arts. With his own projects, Subtropics included, Matamoros hopes to utilize the resonance of architectural and public space, much like Alvin Lucier.

Lucier’s contributions to the Subtropics Festival, in addition to the commission, were a mini-retrospective of his past work, an evening of his piano music, a performance of “Sound on Paper” (1985) at Miami Dade College, and an installation at the Center for the Fine Arts, now the Miami Art Museum. In fact, most of the festival’s past keynote guests have a similar schedule. It is an illustrious list of experimental composers and musicians, including Robert Ashley, and Fluxus artists Alison Knowles, Larry Miller, and Yasunao Tone. Matamoros has an impressive archive of audio recordings documenting the last 22 years of performances and interviews from the festival. The upcoming festival is March 1-17, 2013 and will include more big names in experimental music, including avant-garde jazz musician Anthony Braxton, composers Alvin Curran, David Dunn, and Paula Matthusen, as well as local sound artist Rene Barge. The festival exists as a concert and performance series that brings to Miami individuals who have a history of experimentation with sound while featuring local composers and artists in an exchange of ideas. It one of the lesser known creative scenes in the city, and has been creatively enhancing Miami’s artistic output unseen and sometimes even unheard. Matamoros, through Subtropics, hopes to employ space in Miami in the style of Lucier.

In 1969, when Alvin Lucier composed “I am sitting in a room,” his only method of creating the piece was to physically splice together analog tape and painstakingly layer the sound by hand. This was the original difficulty of experimental musical composition; but now that the means of digital music production have become so plentiful and easy, an artist dealing with sound need not have an expensive acoustic lab. There are people of all ages using computers to create sound that enhances the spaces of their everyday lives. “The world is wide open and we need explorers,” said Gustavo Matamoros, and in Miami he is our most dedicated pioneer.