Amanda Keeley, founder of the pop-up artists’ bookstore EXILE Books, explores Miami’s sonic subculture centered around the Audiotheque Listening Club, which will conclude its third season with performances from current Club resident, composer Sam Ashley, on Aug. 10 and 17. Keeley talks with the founder of Listening Club and of the Subtropics Festival, Gustavo Matamoros, about how we can expand our listening palate, and much more.
Keeley: What is the Audiotheque Listening Club?
Matamoros: The Listening Club is like a book club but for listening. It explores everything from early and ancient music, to the music of Frank Zappa; from the sound of musical instruments to the soundscapes of nature; from auditory illusions and sound poetry… to film, video, sound installations and public art.
Now approaching the end of the third season, I’m beginning to understand its importance in two ways: Firstly, it provides a directed-listening context for audiences to experience sound in intimate ways that help them exercise their ears, expand their listening palates and bring them closer to an appreciation of all things “sound.” Secondly, it has established an important dialogue between the artists and curators in the series to examine aspects of listening and sound in ways they hadn’t had a chance to explore before. It is exchange that is building community around sound.
So the Audiotheque experience is one that heightens our sensory perception of sound. How is working with sound different than working with music?
I think artists and scientists have a lot in common. We all want to learn about the nature of everything—including ourselves—and create tools to help us determine how everything works.
If “working with sound” is about the making of something—like when a composer writes a composition and presents it as art—then, when we listen to it, we experience it as music. This has to do with self-expression, creativity and imagination.
But sound is capable of communicating a great deal more than cultural information, especially if we can learn to listen to sound for its soundness. Each sound we hear tells us everything about what caused it as well as about the acoustical signature of its source, and about the space and the environment in which that sound occurred.
Listening becomes the art—an art form rooted in discovery.
Time and change seem to be essential components of sonic works. As our city is increasingly aware of climate change and its potential impact, how do you see soundscape and field recordings as having an impact upon this conversation?
Your question brings to mind [a] statement often repeated by John Cage, the notion that “the function of music (art) is to imitate nature in its manner of operation.” This may not answer your question directly, but I’ll tell you a story. I’m not a student of Buddhism. But I went to see the Dalai Lama when he came to Miami in the mid 2000s. Then he talked about the Four Axioms of Buddhism. What I heard in his description was the four stages in the life of a sound: Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. From it I deducted that in Buddhism, ego (sustain) is an awareness anomaly that arises from our resistance to change (attack) and decay and that suppressing the ego is what prepares us for a Buddhist way of life (release).
This gives the notion of “silence” a great deal of weight. “Sustain” relates to “ego” in that it is the part of a musical sound where musicians can express themselves the most. Otherwise, sound is an occurrence.
In my opinion, connecting with sound is connecting with nature. Soundscapes and field recordings are just tools for connecting with sound.
What kind of sound does Miami transmit? How would you identify this? What makes this recordings and material unique?
When you throw a hydrophone in Biscayne Bay, the first sound you hear is the snapping sounds of shrimp hunting for food—which reminds me of the sound they make while frying in the pan. If you are lucky you will also hear the sound of parrot fish.
If you go to Hialeah Park you may hear the sound of flamingoes.
And in Everglades National Park you can find, among many others, the sounds of Cuban tree frogs, pig frogs. Sounds we can’t hear but can be recorded here are those of a few bat and insect species. My Everglades recordings are rich with mosquito sounds. One of my very favorites are the sounds of rolling thunder.
Otherwise, you have great diversity in people’s accents, words, and music, the sounds of cruise-ships and tugboat horns, drawbridges, propeller and other planes … irritably loud sound from ill-tuned sound systems in restaurants and public events… These are just a few of the sounds that define Miami for me.
How do you select the artists you work with?
Since 1989 I have been curating the Subtropics Festival of experimental music and sound arts here in Miami. I continue to invite artists to Miami from knowing and understanding their work personally, or by advisement of our National Advisory Committee. The curators of the Listening Club are a combination of artists and thinkers who live in our community. This third season I have decided to include some of our visiting artists in the series.
Tell us what the Audiotheque Listening Club has coming up.
This month, the composer Sam Ashley will be in residence at the Audiotheque, and we will feature “Natural Oracles of the Miami Region” as the last episode of the Listening Club’s season. We will collaborate on material that we can use to perform in Miami and abroad.
What is an oracle?
Ashley describes an oracle “as anything that can serve as an interface between the soul and the mind, let’s say. Modern people have lost the ability to do nothing ... and I mean that literally…
“When we do nothing there’s a tendency for a creative process to fill in the gaps, so to speak. And it turns out that what arises in those moments can be amazingly informative. The stuff that arises to fill in the gaps, whether it be coincidental experiences or imaginings, can help us to understand things that are happening in our lives. Many ancient cultures well understood the value of these oracular events. But modern people tend to scoff at the notion --without having even having tried the process for themselves. I’m trying through this project to promote an understanding of the value oracles can have in our lives. ... Maybe they are more needed today than at any other time…”
How did you encounter Sam Ashley’s work?
In 1996-97, SFCA [isaw+subtropics] took part in the commissioning of the opera Balseros by Robert Ashley [Sam’s father, who passed away two years ago]—a two year project in collaboration with Miami-Dade College and Florida Grand Opera. I met Sam when he came down to workshop and premiere the piece in Miami as a member of Robert’s ensemble.
I didn’t learn much about Sam’s work when I first met him. But he and I kept in touch and began to share and exchange ideas about sound soon after he left. I invited him and German sound artist Jen Brand to perform in the 2001 Subtropics Festival and I got a chance to experience live Sam’s possessed performance on a drum set in Miami Beach Botanical Garden.
Then he came back with Jackie Humbert for a residency with us to organize the staging of his new version of "Foreign Experiences" (also by Robert Ashley).
When I was invited to Stuttgart in 2005 for the CAMP Festival, Sam and I organized a tour of Germany that took us to Dortmund, Munich, Munster and Schwäbisch Hall. We created and performed a piece called "Ghost Detector," which used 8-channels of sound to interface with Sam’s chaotic transistor radios connected to each other and spread across the performance space. The sounds we heard would change in response to the “auras” for the people present in the room as Sam walked around and approached them.
Last question: give me three words that describe what is present in your mind. What are they?
Sound is change.