by Susanna Bolle, August 2001 (Boston, USA)


“I think what first fascinated me in music was its ability to carry emotions of strange kinds, not found elsewhere in life,” recalls Portuguese guitarist/composer/sound artist Rafael Toral.  “At some point I decided I wanted to make music, because I wanted to listen to a kind of music that didn’t exist  [anywhere] but in my head.”  Drawing on a disparate array of influences and concepts including Brian Eno, John Cage and My Bloody Valentine, the kind of music Toral would eventually compose follows various (occasionally intersecting) trajectories.  While he is best known for the mesmerizing drones and quavering ambient compositions of his solo records like Wave Form and Aeriola Frequency, he also works within a more angular, noisy, free improvisational context, working with artists like John Zorn, Rhys Chatham and Sonic Youth and on projects such as No Noise Reduction (with Paulo Feliciano) and MIMEO (with Kaffe Matthews, Keith Rowe, Fennesz, Pita, Marcus Schmickler et al).

Although he released his first CD in 1994, Toral only became widely known in the U.S. with the re-release of his second solo record, Wave Form, on Jim O’Rourke’s label Dexter’s Cigar in 1997.  On Wave Form, Toral coaxed delicate, exquisitely textured ambient soundscapes from a basic set-up of guitar, filters and effects.  “I see the guitar as part of a larger and more complex ‘instrument’, which is made of the guitar and all the gear that may surround it,” he says of his approach to the instrument.  “While playing, knobs and switches are parts of that instrument on which musical gestures are performed. And at times, this gear can make music by itself, to which the guitar may be irrelevant.”  In fact, Toral has done some of his most notable work sans guitar, most importantly perhaps on 1998’s Aeriola Frequency, where he worked with pure electronic resonance, creating two extended, hauntingly beautiful compositions using an empty circuit.

Toral continues to explore other sound sources; however, he does not see himself abandoning the guitar for electronics.  The relationship is more complex:  “[T]he bottom line is that sometimes I just need to transcend the guitar, to go beyond it,” he admits.  “I could have done Aeriola Frequency with a guitar, but that would be an obstacle instead of a means to get there, so it was natural to leave it behind. This is definitely not a linear progression away from the guitar, but a very dynamic proximity-and-distance relationship. It’s interesting to observe that this kind of relationship can also be found in other guitarists like Fennesz [and] Kevin Drumm — I think the main thing we have in common is that we are sound-oriented, more than instrument-oriented.”

Despite its title, his latest record, Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance, contains little sonic violence.  This collection of recordings made between 1993 and 2000 finds Toral in a contemplative mode, again focusing on the guitar as sound source. In general Toral’s approach is deliberate and cerebral, as he devises intricate systems of electronic gear and elegant musical structures with an almost scientific rigor.  With each composition taking up to three months of work, these ten pieces are quintessential examples of Toral’s exacting and precise working methods.  “The tracks on Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance are all different from each other but pertain to the same vision. Being made with an obsessive attention to every detail and aiming at perfection, they embody the best of all my work and integrate all the directions I’ve explored in the past, taking them to new heights. [This record] synthesizes all my previous work and closes a fifteen-year cycle of guitar recordings.”

Recently, Toral toured North America, performing a new piece called “Engine,” which, in the live context, produced moments of extreme sonic violence. “’Engine’ is a piece based on modulated feedback, in a process that undergoes several changes and is performed on twin circuits,” Toral explains; “that is, I play two simultaneous versions, one on the left channel and one on the right, resulting in a complex and dynamic long drone.  In its original version it takes a car load of gear, including two guitars, a bass, a stereo amp and speakers (for feedback with guitars), an analog modular system, electric motors (to drive the guitar strings), a collection of pedals and a mixer.” In performance, however, the character of the piece changed in unexpected ways, as Toral employed a smaller, portable set-up using electronic feedback. “Electronic feedback is a much harder and harsher sound than acoustic feedback,” Toral explains, “there’s a lot of violence in it. I was convinced I could make it sound smoother, but when I started the tour I realized the piece had taken its own direction. It had become less interesting as a drone and was [much] more violent.”

Such violence is an implicit, if often hidden, part of the composition process, something that is not so much explored as harnessed.  “Violence in sounds is something that just happens and when it does you just deal with it, play it,” Toral explains.  “As in life, you don’t really look for violent situations, but they can happen…. [W]e can think about the quality of violence in sound: I see it as a non-aggressive kind, with some kind of positive charge, if you like. It’s a bit, perhaps, like sex. If you think about it in terms of violence, there’s quite a bit of it in sex, in spite of its being an expression of love. Violence in sound seems to work in a similar way, for me. There’s quite often a sense of love related to the musical emission of sounds, but sometimes it gets so intense that it becomes violent.”

While there is a sense of finality about his recent release, as of now Toral is unsure what direction his work will take.  In the meantime, has a pair of large, long-term projects: “Bridge Music,” based on the sounds of large metal bridges, and “Love,” a series of compositions by John Cage that he began in 1992.  In the near future, he will also be releasing some older work, as well as a recent recording of a live set in Chicago.

Susanna Bolle