by brett sokol | August 30, 2014 | People
Experimental composer Gustavo Matamoros keeps searching for new sounds for his Listening Club and Subtropics music festival.
Composer Gustavo Matamoros at Miami Beach’s Audiotheque performance space.
“My music is all about the audience,” explains composer Gustavo Matamoros, though his brand of populism is a far cry from being radio-friendly. “My job isn’t to entertain—people already get enough entertainment. When you do things based on what people want, you only get one kind of result. I do things based on what creates an interesting experience.”
Inspired by the avant-garde trailblazer John Cage, Matamoros has spent the past three decades alternately bemusing and baffling Miami audiences—both with his own performances and as the artistic director of the now biennial Subtropics music festival, presenting an array of kindred artists who fall between the cracks of classical, jazz, and underground rock. “I’m not sure there’s a name yet for what I do. How about ‘composer in the community’?” he offers. Matamoros has created a soundscape for the Miami Beach Botanical Garden based on recordings from a nearby bus stop, as well as fashioned a fully immersive sound installation for Coral Gables’ Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. There he deployed the mansion’s 1917 pipe organ to fill the entire mansion with resonant tones, bouncing notes from room to room, playing the mansion itself as if it were a musical instrument.
Composer and curator Alba Triana (BELOW LEFT) talks to the audience during a session of the Listening Club, a series of music-focused salons founded by Matamoros.
This past fall saw Matamoros spend a month in Everglades National Park with AIRIE (Artists in Residence in the Everglades), battling swarms of mosquitoes as he recorded the evening singing of bats. The trick was deploying specially modified microphones to capture frequencies otherwise inaudible to the human ear. Matamoros then digitally transposed these bat “songs” several octaves lower to a range perceptible to our own hearing. The end results, “Distant Bats,” evoke prehistoric eagles crying out to each other across the sky—eerily disturbing at first, and then slowly beautiful.
Call that a good description for what Matamoros plans this month with a new season of intimate salons he’s christened Listening Club. Unfolding within Miami Beach’s Audiotheque, a performance space that Matamoros runs inside the ArtCenter/South Florida, Listening Club invites local arts-scene notables to put on their pedagogical caps and offer a guided tour of their own musical passions. Previous editions have featured gallerist Brook Dorsch and Spam Allstars bandleader Andrew Yeomanson (aka DJ LeSpam).
FROM LEFT: John McMinn and Noah Brandmark of the Abbey Rader Generations Quartet playing tenor sax at Audiotheque.
This fall also sees Matamoros staging a concert with his Frozen Music Ensemble, recording a new piece for the ArtCenter’s Listening Club, and preparing for the 23rd Subtropics festival. The common thread throughout all this activity is Matamoros’s playful sense of exploration, one he traces back to his childhood in Caracas, Venezuela. As a small boy at family gatherings, he recalls, “the adults always wanted to talk to each other, so they put me in a room with a shortwave radio. I would spend hours turning the knobs. The idea of fishing for sound amidst the static stuck with me.” By his teenage years, Matamoros was busy wandering the streets with a tape recorder, capturing the roar of jets flying overhead and chatting passersby, splicing it all together into offbeat sonic collages.
After a year of college in Caracas, he was unsure of what exactly he was seeking in a musical education, but was certain the answer wasn’t within Venezuela’s tradition-bound universities. In 1975, with a US college scholarship in hand, he left for upstate New York. That winter at Elmira College was brutal, and the culture shock no less jarring: “I was one of seven people who spoke Spanish there,” Matamoros says.
Matamoros performing “Small Sounds” from his Music on a Budget at Miami Dade College in 1993.
Still, he was fortunate to stumble across a poster for a campus concert by the New England New Music Ensemble. “I figured any group with the word ‘New’ in their name twice had to be special,” he says with a laugh. Indeed, the concert turned out to be life-changing. “Four people came out onto the stage with what looked like a queen-size mattress,” he recalls. “They set it down, hooked up some contact microphones to it, and then left. So there’s now a big, brown bag in the middle of the stage, and we’re all waiting to see what happens. There’s a slight sound. Then another rustle as the bag moves a little bit. The more the bag moves, the louder it gets. Three minutes later, there’s this bag jumping around the stage and the amount of sound being produced—by a bag!—is just amazing. Suddenly a person breaks out of the bag and the lights go dark before we can see him clearly. The rest of the world fell away. I remember thinking at that exact moment, If this is music, then I want to be a composer!”
By 1979, Matamoros found an academic program in music theory with a simpatico spirit at the University of Miami, and the years since his graduation from UM may have turned him into a veritable institution in South Florida’s art circles. But Matamoros says he still feels unsettled—and happily so. “For me, music has always been about discovery. The idea that an audience has to feel comfortable is a little bit depressing,” he chuckles. For a full schedule of Listening Club and Audiotheque events, visit subtropics.org; Listening Club hosts its sessions at Artcenter/South Florida, 800 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, 305-674-8278
photography by Mary beth Koeth (MataMoros); stephen Malagodi (triana); Juan cabrera (MataMoroS)