Notes From the Subtropics

Written By ArtBurst Team
February 15, 2016 at 6:50 PM

Space and sound are closely related, even if it often goes unnoticed. Over the course of two weeks, many of the performances at the Subtropics Festival in Miami Beach confronted this relationship. Paula Matthusen, a former Miami resident, spent hours recording sounds in New York City’s historic engineered underground, including Old Croton Aqueduct, which was used in the 19th century to deliver water to the city. Her surround-sound composition prominently featured the acoustic hallmarks of water dripping in caves, even incorporating sounds of a tour guide at one point. But particularly striking were the shifts to a new space. The sonic difference between an underground tunnel and the outdoors is significant, and without a visual aid, the listener is struck by the contrast. At one moment, we abruptly moved from the watery echo of the aqueduct to silence. The background sounds disappeared, replaced by a loud, violent metallic sound, like a hammer striking a metal pipe. In a soundscape composition, these are the equivalents of themes and melodies, and indeed Matthusen described her piece as a “theme and variations.” Water was also prevalent in Dafna Naphtali’s performance. Naphtali is a New-York based vocalist who uses computer processing to significantly alter her voice during performance. In one piece called “Dripsodisiac,” she made sounds with her voice that recalled dripping water. The computer then took those sounds, repeated them, and spun them around the speakers that surrounded the audience, creating a wet, sonic space that falls somewhere between a natural environment and a digital one. Ron Kuivila performed a piece from his laptop that incorporated dial tones, ring tones, and FAX machine sounds from different countries, combining them with actual analog telephones stationed around the room, the sort you will remember if you were alive in the 1970s. The dial tones and the ringing telephones with their bell gave a nostalgic quality to the piece, a reminder that sounds can go extinct like wild animals. Now we can hear them in a gallery, but how much longer will they be found in their natural habitat? These performances took place at Audiotheque, a studio in the ArtCenter South Florida building at 924 Lincoln Rd. Gustavo Matamoros, the sound artist and director of Subtropics, has turned it into a performance space that seats around 40 people, surrounded by speakers. The intimate atmosphere complements the music, allowing the electronics to stay at a comfortable volume while still conveying subtle nuances. And the audience feels at home, enough to ask a lot of questions after the performance. The festival included several performances at other locations, including Matamoros’s trio Frozen Music at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, also featuring David Dunn and Rene Barge. On a beautiful sunny day, children climbed around the many nooks of the garden, and speakers surrounding the open grassy lawn produced an urban collage of sounds. Chief among the mix was a six-hour recording of Dunn’s electronic automaton, which produces a never-repeating, chaos-driven stream of beeps and hums and bloops, sort of like Finnegan’s Wake performed by an Atari. The sounds were reminiscent of mockingbirds, and much like Natali’s water drips, they produced a curious effect that sounded both natural and synthetic at the same time. The same can be said of the Botanical Gardens, a beautiful space that achieves much of its beauty through human manipulation of nature, and that can’t entirely escape the rumble of busses and traffic on the surrounding streets. In a different context, these same sounds can kill. In a lecture the day before, Dunn had described his fascinating work recording the communicative sounds of bark beetles — a parasite that is devastating hardwood forests across North America. Before Dunn, no one realized how chatty the beetles were, as the sounds are very quiet and can only be picked up by special microphones embedded in the tree. Working with biologists, Dunn developed his electronic automaton in part to kill the beetles. By piping the sound into a tree, the beetles become disoriented, uncommunicative, and unable to reproduce. The Subtropics festival will return in two years, and while at times it may be challenging and provocative, it will absolutely not affect your reproductive abilities. Meanwhile, if you’d like to catch more music and sound art along these lines, check out Phill Niblock’s piece Aomoni Water playing at the 24/7 outdoor Listening Gallery (underneath the awning) at 800 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. On Sat., April 20, you can check out The Treble Girls at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Ctr. Dr., Miami Beach ,at 5:00 p.m. — a mother-daughter duo featuring flute, violin, voice, and electronics. Part of the 12 Nights of Electronic Music and Art, a production of The Feta Foundation;; $7. Image: Dafna Naphtali

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