Solo performance is one of the most exacting challenges any musician may face. Sure, any mope with an instrument can get up and play; but can he hold your attention, let alone move your heart or boggle your mind? For every Evan Parker, there’s a legion of guys who get change in their sax cases because people feel sorry for them and hope they’ll go away; for every Jack Rose, there’s a battalion of strummers that bleed anonymously into the background. The second volume in Rafael Toral’s Space Program is the antidote to the electronic version of this phenomenon — the dude sitting at a table clicking a mouse, tapping a key, or wiggling a knob, matching dreary sights to uncompelling sounds that can easily be traced to the known workings of a piece of software or gear. The Portuguese experimentalist made his own instruments, and made them so that he must visibly interact with them in real time; there’s no falling back on a digital loop when you’re activating a filter with a light, or dipping and weaving a hand-held, hotwired toy amplifier. But such novelties are means, not ends; Toral uses them to create a setting for genuinely performance-based, improvisational electronic music. His tools aren’t entirely new; over a decade ago I first saw him balance a little toy Marshall amp like the one that appears on three of this CD’s five tracks on his guitar neck, using it like an alarm-clock-sized e-bow. But he’s modified its workings and familiarized himself with it to the point where it’s not a toy, but an instrument capable of remarkable nuance. He obtains trills, decays, and tonal variations on the opening track “Portable amplifier” that one might expect from a wind instrument blown by a master. The oscillators and filters he wields on “Echo-Feed” and “Electrode oscillator” yield more familiar sonorities — by going back to the earliest elements of electronic music, Toral echoes its sounds — but he doesn’t put them to kitschy or nostalgic ends. “Echo-Feed” unfolds mysteriously against a silent backdrop, while “Bender” tears at the surrounding space as savagely as a feeding shark. Plenty of people say that they make creative music — Rafael Toral delivers it.

By Bill Meyer