Rafael Toral did several things in his first decade as a creative musician, but he did one especially well. No one has topped the mastery of guitar drones he revealed on Wave Field and Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance. In an act of admirable artistic integrity, he quit at the top of his game, forsaking both the guitar and continuous tones. The Space Program is what came next – a painstakingly thought-out approach to performance-based, improvised electronic music that sets sounds loose upon a field of silence. He built improvisation into the music’s very circuits by inventing some of his instruments, which you can see him play on the YouTube channel linked to his website, and creating others by hacking and repurposing items like this pocket amplifier. Despite working in a sound world that is cosmetically closer to R2D2’s vocabulary than Louis Armstrong’s or John Coltrane’s, Toral has claimed a kinship to jazz because it models instant music-making within a disciplined framework. Space Elements Vol. I is Toral’s third Space recording, but it is the first to make that claim convincing because it’s the first on which other musicians improvise with him. He begins and ends the record playing duets with string players. On “I.I,” he drizzles plush, rounded tones around Rute Praça’s cello, which creaks like a door hinge that’s gone far too long without an oiling. His playing seems to enfold hers, as though he’s capturing acoustic elements and turning them to his own ends. Using similar sounds, he engages Margarida Garcia’s coarse, mechanical-sounding electric double bass more equally on “I.VII.” Here both musicians play sparingly, as though they’re highly aware that they’re skating on a thin cover of silence and are loath to break its ice. Strategy, not equality, is the game that brass players Sei Miguel and Fala Mariam play on “I.V.” Their contributions are so spare that they’re barely there, yet by adding small daubs of bright blue tonality to Toral’s fat, neon squiggles, they totally transform the piece. But it’s percussionist César Burago who came up with the most singular reaction to Toral’s idiosyncratic syntax. He manages to leave plenty of space around every hand drum or clave, the better to appreciate the dimensions of each impact, and yet he creates a sense of constant motion as fleet and fluid as Toral’s. The fact that these players can generate a range of response from circumspect commentary to complete immersion suggests that the Space Program is not just one man’s notion, but a new and evolving language.

Bill Meyer