City Newspaper

by Chad Oliveiri, Apr 2001 (Rochester, NY, USA)


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 French 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.”