City Newspaper

by Chad Oliveiri, June 2001 (Rochester, NY)

chasing sonic booms
an article/ interview with Rafael Toral

Rafael Toral’s music first surfaced in this country back in 1997, when Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs re-released his Wave Field on their Dexter’s Cigar imprint. It was Toral’s second record, originally released on the obscure Moneyland Records in his hometown of Lisbon, Portugal. Dedicated to composer Alvin Lucier and packaged in photos mimicking the artwork on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album, Wave Field promises sprawling electric guitar minimalism. Liner notes make references to ambient music and “noise-charged clouds echoing some electrical radiation.” In two long tracks and a short “radio edit,” Wave Field conjures the essence of raw, noisy electric guitar distilled into a sort of molten lava. Toral takes the guitar — rock music’s dearest icon — and unlocks it from its wood-and-wires structure, setting its resonant qualities free to form a giant swell of sound. Wave Field is ambient music that has actual teeth. It is rock music “made liquid, a flowing essence,” Toral told the New York Press shortly after the record’s re-release.

“I wanted to make an ambient piece that sounded like a thousand rock gigs reverberating from a distant hall.” The recording brought Toral instant cache from the experimental music scene, and even some mainstream recognition. (Wave Field, somewhat inexplicably, turned up on’s list of 100 best records released in the US that year.) It was followed by a flood of material: O’Rourke re-released Toral’s official debut, Sound Body Sound Mind, on his Moikai label; Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace issued Chasing Sonic Booms, a collection of Toral improvisations in solo and duet contexts; Toral completed two new recordings — Aeriola Frequency on Chicago’s Perdition Plastics and Cyclorama Lift 3 on the German Tomlab label — where he put his guitar aside to build luminous drones from pure electronic resonance. All of this activity eventually landed Toral a seat in the Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO) alongside experimentalists like musique concrète composer Jerome Noetinger and laptop musician Christian Fennesz. Toral compares performing in MIMEO to “being in the middle of a traveling tropical rainforest. It’s like wading in an ocean of sound,” he says. “There’s this dense energy in the air every time we get together.” We caught up with Toral via e-mail while he was in Lisbon, frantically preparing for a US tour that will bring him to the Visual Studies Workshop for a performance on Sunday, July 8. He’ll be touring in support of his latest solo release, and first for the revered Touch label, Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance.

The recording contains what Toral considers his strongest work — a collection of uncharacteristically short guitar-based drones that he likens to miniature pearls. Painstakingly assembled from 1993 to 2000, Discovery is, in Toral’s mind, the true successor to Wave Field. “It somehow embodies everything i’ve done in the past and at the same time expands into several new directions,” he says. “It’s the most meticulously crafted music i’ve ever made. Each track took months to complete. Actually, the method of composition I used was exactly the same used for Wave Field, layering and removing. I was like an archaeologist removing layers of sand from around a precious object, only I had to figure out what belonged and what had to go.” It wasn’t until after escaping the staid confines of traditional music education that Toral began to blossom as a sound artist. His CV cites his participation in composition seminars led by Emmanuel Nunes at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, and courses in “analysis and composition techniques” at the Academia de Amadores de Música. But his enrollment at the Academia is listed as “not concluded.” More drawn to sound as a physical presence than as an academic practice, Toral realized he wasn’t interested in learning anything, but instead practicing the making of music “as an act of discovery in itself,” he says. So he ventured off independently, landing a residency at Manhattan’s Experimental Intermedia Foundation that introduced him to an important mentor — musical minimalist and EIF founder Phill Niblock.


Then there was STEIM in Amsterdam, where Toral studied electric circuitry, and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he served an internship for the development of an intermedia performance. (Visuals are an important aspect of Toral’s work. He often performs accompanied by very minimal video footage he has compiled of airplanes landing, windmills spinning. The stills from this footage emboss a couple of his audio releases.) Toral’s research into sound as a physical property and sound-making as a process of discovery formed the basis for his recording career. All of his recent pieces “start with a drawing of circuitry and procedures to do something; details on what gear is used, how it’s used, and how it’s connected.” For his Rochester performance, Toral will premier Engine, a piece for modulated feedback that requires a raft of equipment. “In its original version, it takes a 13-foot-wide table full of stuff, including two guitars and a bass, a stereo amp and speakers (for feedback with the guitars), motors on the strings, most of the pedals I have, a mixer, and an analog modular system.”

For his own sake, Toral has prepared a portable version of “Engines” based on electronic feedback as opposed to the electro-acoustic arrangement with the guitars. He’ll need only the modular system and the mixer, with the “motor sounds” prepared on MiniDisc. “So most of the sounds will be made by empty circuits oscillating on their own and modulated by the modular’s devices,” he says. “It’s played on two independent circuits, so it’s like playing two versions of the piece simultaneously, one in the left channel and the other in the right.” In interviews, Toral has always been very quick to cite his musical influences: Eno for his self-generating ambient music, John Cage for his theory that there is no such thing as silence, Lucier for his approach to resonance, Niblock for his music’s sheer physicality, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields for his melding of ethereal ambience with harsh textures… The list goes on, but it includes only musicians whose work Toral encountered in his youth. “Perhaps what strikes us most deeply does so at a time when we’re young and discovering what is interesting,” he says. “I’ve been fascinated by some friends of mine, like Kevin Drumm, Fennesz, Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews, or Jerome Noetinger. (It’s great for us to see each other working within MIMEO.) And there’s Jim O’Rourke, of course. But their music doesn’t get reflected in my work. When you’re young, ideas come to you as a sort of revelation and open a lot of doors. In that process you become who you are. Then you just go on.”


the unedited set of original questions and answers:

This is the original interview from which the printed article was produced.

1. You generally define your music as “ambient” but some of it also seems generative. Much like Eno’s “Discreet Music,” some of your work seems to be based on an idea — a small seed — that grows in unpredictable ways once executed. I hear this in “Wave Field” and also in “Aeriola Frequency.” In this respect, the formation of an idea takes precedence over anything like skill, virtuosity, performance, etc. I’m interested in how you go about formulating these ideas — trial/error, serendipitous discovery, etc — and if you actually do see some of your work as the flowering of a small “musical seed” or whatever.

The generative music idea is fascinating, and some of my music has some of that quality. The works that could be most suitably described as such are the long pieces in “Sound Mind Sound Body”, which were written in a way to never repeat themselves. “Wave Field” doesn’t have that much on it, it was meticulously composed using as a ground layer a drone recording session which was basically improvised. I had the concept for this piece in my mind when I started working on it, and I just went towards achieving something close to that concept and slowly perfecting it on a formal level.

It’s true that you can create something based on an idea and regardless of skill. Usually, when I start thinking about making music, I can imagine a sound environment, or come up with a concept of some kind, but it always comes with all the technical thinking of how to get there. All my recent pieces start with a drawing of circuitry and procedures to do something, what gear is connected in which ways and how it’s used. Of course, the more skilled you are at knowing how to put your ideas into practice, the better they come through.

Quite often I start working towards an idea and it sounds horrible, or end up discovering something by accident in the course of going in a certain direction. In the new “Violence of Discovery…” it happened a few times that I was trying to make a sound to add to a piece, and it didn’t work but it was in turn so good on its own that it would become a basic element for a new piece… so there’s always an element of error and/or surprise. I’m unable to guarantee myself that, once I have an idea, I’ll be able to fulfill it, but I’m mostly sure that the process of working on it will take me somewhere. Sometimes it takes months and it’s not fun at all, being stuck with something that could be interesting but isn’t really going anywhere.

About Aeriola Frequency, it was a different process than Wave Field. I had this feedback loop idea for a long time and I began using it with all the guitar setup on a piece called “Liveloop”. It’s on Chasing Sonic Booms (sounds really different!). When I developed this simpler version of it, with an ambient feel, it was just a nice piece. Only much after I finished the first recordings it dawned on me that, conceptually, it was a leap forward from Wave Field, so I decided to release it (being resonance a keyword for Wave Field, I had just done a piece with pure resonance on an empty circuit, no instruments).

2. You’ve said that you had given up studying music b/c no one could teach you what you wanted to learn. What were you wanting to learn?

I realised I did not want to learn at all, but instead to practice the making of music as an act of discovery in itself. I also decided that I would make music which was based on sound, so I studied audio, acoustics and electronics as much as I could, on my own. At times I get asked if I want to teach something, and it doesn’t make any sense to me either. This is un-learnable and un-teachable stuff, it seems. I think if I were to teach anything, it would be “how to make Rafael Toral music”, which of course is not the most interesing idea I can think of… I think music schools should teach acoustics and physics first, way before talking about “notes”.

3. You’ve also said that you’re drawn to the idea of newness and discovery. Do you view music in general as progressing in a linear fashion? Also, you’ve said it can be annoying when musicians have to stop playing one sound to play another. Still, you’re drawn to improvisation, where you must constantly react to new contexts, new sounds. How does this jibe with your interest in sustained sound “journeys.”

I see music progressing in an atomic way, since there’s more and more information and active individuals. There’s a tendency for an infinite spread of styles and forms and approaches, crossings between music and sound art, mixes between music genres in all possible combinations – the multiplicity of individuals.

About improvisation, there’s a different behavior implied in playing solo or with other people. The most important thing while improvising, I think, is what NOT to play. Playing drones is more of a solo thing, in which I can flow with the sound and make music within it. With other people, there’s an absolute need for space, so I have to be ready to use silence at anytime. I don’t have a problem with intermittent sounds, as lond as the thought behind the music is sound-based instead of note-based.

4. It’s fairly widely known that “Wave Field” is partly a homage to My Bloody Valentine. You’ve said you admire Kevin Shields’ ability to distill the essence of electric guitar to an almost liquid form. Christian Fennesz has kind of picked up where he left off. What are your opinions of Fennesz’s work, and what was it like performing with him?

Well, I wouldn’t say so, only the cover… I mean, I did a “cover” of their cover and that gesture in itsef was a sort of a tribute, while on the other hand it seemed to me that the Loveless cover was perfect for Wave Field.

I don’t see the Fennesz – Shields connection, really. But I do love Christian’s stuff, he’s an outstanding genius among all this hard-edged digital computer music. We never played duo, I’d love to, and in the middle of the MIMEO roar it’s hard to have an oppinion on a single individual. He’s a very sweet person.

5. You edited the second CD on the MIMEO release “Electric Chair and Table.” What was that process like, and what is it like for you to perform in MIMEO?

“Electric” was recorded on a 3-day festival in Cologne in which MIMEO was the only participant. It was great to have this situation. In the first 2 days we did programs with small groups and “tutti” parts, and in the 3rd day we decided to play all the evening non-stop, with both musicians and audience being able to leave and return. This resulted in a less dense music which almost had an ambient feel, which I loved. I always said it would be a beautiful CD and I proposed this edit, which ended up being used in the 2CD release.
The MIMEO experience is amazing, there’s this dense energy in the air every time we get together. The stage setup looks like a vast laboratory, from analog synths to homemade radio transmitters and receivers, from powerbooks to amplified metal objects, from cheap cassette recorders and mics to prepared electric guitars, it’s a world of things… It’s like being in the middle of a tropical rainforest which is travelling and you’re part of the motion, like an ocean of sound…

6. What are you planning on performing here in Rochester?

I’ll play, for the first time in the US, a recent piece called “Engine”. It’s basically a modulated feedback piece. In its original version, it takes a 13 feet wide table full of stuff, including two guitars and a bass, a stereo amp and speakers (for feedback with the guitars), motors on the strings, most of the pedals I have, a mixer and an analog modular system. I prepared a “portable” version of it, with electronic feedback instead of electro-acoustic (no guitars, then), using only the modular system and the mixer, with the motor sounds on MiniDisc. So most of the sounds will be made by empty circuits oscillating on their own and modulated by the modular’s devices. It’s played on two independent circuits, so it’s like playing two versions of the piece simultaneously, one in the left channel and the other on the right.

7. What’s the status of your “Bridges” project and your Cage tribute?

Both became projects that are sitting on a shelf until I feel available to work on them.
Recently I listened to the Cage stuff, some of it is quite radical. I still have to produce a version of Fontana Mix. It could take years, maybe not.

The bridge project didn’t start yet, I only did a demo, but I realised I need to work with tools I don’t have, like special filters. I might work on building them with software in the future…

8. The pieces on your latest CD, “Violence of Discovery…” seem different from “Wave Field” or “Aeriola” in that they’re not so much generative as they are intricately layered. They sound like the product of many years’ work. Is this the case?

Yes, it is… This the most meticulously crafted music I ever did, each of these small tracks took months to complete. Actually, the method of composition I used was exactly the same used for Wave Field, layering and removing… like archaeologists, who deal with layers of sand and have to remove it around a precious object – with the difference that I have to figure out what belongs to the object and what has to go. I delete huge amounts of the original tracks…

Anyway, this is the true successor to Wave Field, while Aeriola can be seen as a sort of detour, into the land of pure resonance. And it’s definitely and by far my best work, it somehow embodies everything I did in the past and at the same time expands into several new directions.

9. You’ve always been very clear about who has influenced you and how: Lucier, Eno, Niblock, etc. Are there any new musicians who have had a strong impact on you? Why?

I don’t think so… perhaps what strikes us most deeply does it in a time of our lives when we’re young and discovering what is interesting. Some things come to you as a sort of revelation, making a really deep impression and opening a lot of doors, and in that process you become who you are. Then you just go on, I think… I’ve been fascinated by some friends of mine, like Drumm, Fennesz, or Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews or Jerome Noetinger (it’s great for us to see each other working within MIMEO) and Jim, of course, but that isn’t reflected in my work, it’s a source of enthusiasm and stimulation and just makes me want to work with them.