Those who got into Rafael Toral's music through his guitar work, and its unashamedly tonal post-Eno Ambient drone (he isn't too fond of those last two words either, but they do tend to stick) might find the bleeps and squiggles of the Portuguese sound artist's latest offering rather strange, especially if they're unfamiliar with last year's Space (Staubgold), which inaugurated the ambitious Space Program, a series of albums that will occupy Toral for the best part of a decade to come, and of which Space Solo 1 is the second chapter. He finally unplugged the drone and hung up his guitar after 2001's Violence Of Discovery And Calm Of Acceptance ("there was a clear feeling of completion, and I knew if I continued along that path I'd just repeat myself and become formulaic," he told me in an interview that formed the basis of a Wire feature last September – shortly to appear in extended and updated form here, fans please note), since when he's been busy designing, building and playing a whole studio full of customised electronic instruments for the Space Program. Each of these will be showcased in its own Space Study, but several of them feature in the Space Solos, a parallel solo project (there's also a projected set of six ensemble albums entitled Space Elements).
Toral's "fascination with hacking" isn't new. His investigations of "randomness and the resolution of the uncontrollable in real time" with Paulo Feliciano in the duo No Noise Reduction began back in 1990 (the pair's 1997 AnAnAnA album On Air, though hard to find now, is worth checking out as an important precursor of the Space Program), and in 1995 he found himself in the hackers' paradise of Amsterdam's STEIM improvising with "a modified toy with a messed-up pitch control". But there's a maturity to Space and Space Solo 1 that's lacking in the earlier work, a sense that Toral has finally assimilated the influence of Cage, Lucier and most importantly Sei Miguel. Toral has been involved with Miguel's music since 1996's Showtime, and appears on the trumpeter's outstanding Creative Sources release last year The Tone Gardens (Miguel and trombonist Fala Mariam repaid the compliment by guesting on Space). The key to what the Space Program is all about is probably Toral's description of the project as "what electronic music might have sounded like if the studios that sprang up shortly after World War Two had been frequented by jazz musicians instead of composers." That link with jazz is tenuous, but it's there: there's a kind of odd swing to Space Solo 1 that recalls Michel Waisvisz's pioneering work with the legendary crackle box (isn't it about time somebody somewhere reissued Steve Lacy's Lumps?). But there's also enough silence – space, if you will – surrounding Toral's electrode-controlled cross-modulating twin square-wave portable oscillators, delayed feedback empty circuits with joystick-controlled filters and amplified coil springs to remind us of his enduring allegiance to Cage. This adds a certain austerity to the music, which is matched by the pale grey green colour scheme and the black and white architect's drawing doing on the cover, a reminder (perhaps) that space isn't just some sci-fi final frontier, but our everyday awareness of the objects that surround us and their relationship to each other.
Dan Warburton April 2007