by Mike McGonigal, Sep 1998 (Philadelphia, USA)

This is an unedited set of questions and answers for an interview on the Halana magazine. The article was based on this material together with unused material from the New York Press interview. There are questions here which weren’t used in the end. As usual in Halana, Chris Rice edited the interview so that all the questions would be deleted.


“a liquid distillation”

This year it’s gotten a lot easier to become a rabid fan of Portuguese compositional/ improv guitarist Rafael Toral’s singular music. He has his own section in better Yankee record stores now, thanks to the domestic issue of his adept improv disc Chasing Sonic Booms (Ecstatic Peace, 1998) and the reissue of hypnotic masterpiece Wave Field (Dexter’s Cigar, 1998). Enterprising shops have even gotten their hands on his Portuguese releases, including those addled, playful No Noise Reduction records made with friend Paulo Feliciano.

If you don’t own Wave Field or Aeriola Frequency (Perdition Plastics, just released) yet, you should. These are astonishing, left-field works, hyper-controlled washes of bliss-sound. Rafael Toral is in love with pure sound, and it shows.

What was it like for you to digitally transfer the Canavarro record? Did you learn more about the music by working with it? did doing this work for Moikai change your perception of that record? finally, what is your perception of this record?

It all was a bit of an adventure, at first no one really knew where the tape reels were, and when i finally recovered them i discovered to my horror that they were losing the magnetic layer. While dubbing to digital, in some sections i’d have to stop playback every two minutes to clean the tape heads and guides. Then, later, i had to reconstruct some tracks from all these chunks in the computer… I was a fan of Nuno when “Plux Quba” came out, so i knew the record like the palm of my hand. It was cool to get back in touch with Nuno and i eventually learned a few more things about the record. I realized that after ten years, “Plux Quba” is as fresh as it was then. I think it remains a very unique record in this realm of music and the thing i find most remarkable about it is how incredibly human it is.

When will you next come to the states? do you have tour/ recording ideas planned?

I plan to be back in the US next year. No ideas yet, there are several possibilities. I’d like to visit some states i’ve never been to, like Texas or New Mexico. And perhaps another Arizona-Colorado road trip, who knows…

What are some upcoming releases? is aeriola frequency slated for late fall release on perdition plastics?

Well, Aeriola Frequency is “the” upcoming release. It’s scheduled to come out in October on Chicago’s Perdition Plastics. It’s the natural successor to “Wave Field”, based on a piece called “Cyclorama Lift”. The continuity link is the focus on resonance. In “Wave Field”, resonance comes from the guitar world. “Cyclorama Lift” deals with pure electronic resonance.

i like this piece a lot, myself, what do you play on it? what is it like? what’s the general idea behind it?

The general idea is somewhat inspired by Alvin Lucier’s “I’m Sitting in a room”, which in a way tells us that resonance is essential to define the acoustic character of architectural spaces and that this can have impressive musical applications. The hidden music of space. Some time ago i realized that there is an equivalent to this idea in the electronic world. Given that our experience of the world is now, to a substantial extent, through electronic means and that resonance is also an attribute of electronic circuits (oscillators, equalizers, radio tuners, etc.), then i would bring up the idea that resonance is everywhere around us as well in the electronic sound world. Sort of a “ghost in the machine”, the hidden music of electronic circuits.

Going in this direction i had, then, to think of a device that allowed me to play resonance, instead of playing sounds. To work with pure resonance in the electronic domain, I needed an empty circuit, something that would have no input and would process nothing but itself. This turned out to be a delayed feedback loop. The output of a digital delay going back into its own input, routed through a parametric equalizer, here used to probe the audio spectrum, scanning frequencies, boosting them and shaping bandwidths. The circulating sound was constantly feeding on and digesting itself, building up layers of changing tones at each delay cycle. The image I had was of a garden with many different plants that I could water at different times, watching them grow and slowly expand into a gliding outer-space frequency forest. It resembled travelling through a sound field, always entering new unfolding landscapes. David Toop wrote something beautiful about it: “Like qualities of air, sounds meet and become each other”.

How and when was it done?

The first track was recorded in December 1997, the second, April this year. The original circuit drawing was done back in 1993.

Will you continue to do work with no noise reduction? what’s the latest on that front?

We’ve been having very little output, especially these last months Paulo was really busy with the Expo98 but now we have more time and we’re thinking of doing something with modular systems. He has a modular computer software and i have a totally analog modular set-up, so we might clash them up (none of that old digital vs. analog shit, though…)

What are you listening to lately?

I’m always embarrassed by that question. See, i don’t really have much time to listen to music. When i’m off my job i have a chance to work and when i stop working i spend a lot of time making sure things are right. I can’t make judgements on a mix i do before i listen to it many, many times. Then eventually i have dinner with my girlfriend and chill out and probably play some Chet Baker. Now i’m listening to a demo of Jim O’Rourke’s forthcoming “Eureka”.

What if anything have you had the chance to do with bridge music? what is the general plan for this work?

I finished one piece, the Arrigoni Bridge (Middletown, CT). It’s an introductory approach. I’ll soon get more work done; i’m dying to lay my hands on the Golden Gate tape… I have now over eight hours of recordings done on many bridges. The idea is to make music out of vibrations of large bridges with metallic structure, recorded with contact microphones. Each piece will be made of sounds from a single bridge. Other than the above, i recorded Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Queensboro and Triborough bridges in NYC and the 25 de Abril bridge here in Lisbon, among others.

Have you ever worked with film/video, or do you plan to?

I’ve been working with video in the last four years. To date i did three, all of them are “ambient video” – images that are always slowly changing but are at the same time permanent, like a river is. I’ve used all of them both as installations and as visuals for live performance. They have no beginning or ending. The most recent is “Air Pass”, that i shot near Tehachapi in Southern California last year. As i was driving and alone and the images had to be recorded in motion, i drove with one hand and shot video with the other…

What other projects are you working on? please describe.

Right now i’m preparing the reissue version of Sound Mind Sound Body (my first record), hopefully i’ll find a way to release it in the US. Then i’ll focus a lot on live improvisation (i’ll tour Germany in December, playing with Pita, Fennesz and the Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra), and as well i’ll be back to Bridge Music. There’s also a very slowly developing project, a record called “Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance”. It’s made of short, 3-minute, guitar ambient tracks. I rarely do these, but each one is like a pearl to me. Each of them usually takes three months to complete.

You have said in another interview that– “On the other hand, i don’t see the guitar as an instrument i play”. Please elaborate on this. what ARE you playing?

I see the pressing of a switch or the turning of a knob as gestures absolutely as musical as playing a chord. I always used electronic devices with the guitar(1) to achieve sounds, but i “play” all of these. It’s not like “here’s the guitar and there’s the effects”. All the gear makes the “instrument”. The guitar is just a part of it and i use it as a wave generator, while the other parts can be used as controllers or modifiers; all of this becomes a sort of modular electronic device for creating new sounds. What i’m describing here gets very close to the concept of a synthesizer, that’s what i think my instrument is becoming. In recent years i’ve been advancing in electronics to the point of producing results that didn’t need the guitar. I found ways to have the electronic equipment generating its own sounds and my new CD “Aeriola Frequency” is also a result of that.

You also say that the guitar plus synthesizer instrument is a device for playing “new” sounds– are there any really new sounds left?

Most certainly, there are new sounds everyday. Sound is a very complex vibration and interacts with many kinds of variables – in a nutshell, nature doesn’t repeat itself. But what is a sound? It’s a brain looking at a vibration, and to have this happening we are going to need ears. Different ears hear differently, so new ears = new sounds. Anyway, the entire population of musicians on the planet is too small to have us running out of new sounds, there’s a universe to explore. And then, the vast majority of musicians are devoted to playing the same sounds over, very few people are actually committed to sound exploration. And also, the soundscape keeps changing. People do new things with new tools and this brings new sounds.

What is it about newness exactly that is interesting to you?

Discovery. Improvising is dealing with new situations every fraction of a second. I’m interested in more extreme situations like improvising in a process that allows discovering new sounds (* on air) at the same time. So i search for newness in a process, it’s not so important for me to pursue newness at the outcome of that process, although it’s reachable. In what i do, some things may be new, some others aren’t. We can do old things in new ways and vice-versa. Everytime i engage myself on a new project i know that i’m not likely to arrive exactly where i’m heading to, but the process will in turn get me somewhere else and reveal something new.

What is it specifically about the drone that interests you?

Since to me sound is the source of music, i make a sound and the changes this sound goes through become the music. I don’t like traditional playing because people always have to stop a sound to make the next one, and the faster they do it the more annoying it is. I like to make only one sound and keep it going, then it’s like travelling, many things can happen with it.

Do you refer to your own music as drone sound?

Some of my music has the shape of a drone, but the latter is just a carrier to whatever I may be doing within that shape. The drone itself is not the point, i’m interested in what happens inside the drone. Anyway, I refer to my main body of work (3) as ambient, but the kind of ambient I’m looking for is one that sets a mood of tranquility while having embedded in itself elements that disturb it. The challenge is to blend these antagonic elements not as different sounds that clash against each other, but as an organic single entity, one sound. I’ve done that best in Wave Field. It can be blissful or aggressive, but it’s one.

Are you interested in reaching some sort of altered states of consciousness through sound?

No. But I don’t mind if you do.

When did you first really experience the full power of sound? what was that like? how important is volume in recreating a totality of sound?

I don’t know about “totality of sound”, but i remain faithful to the belief that silence is the infinity of sound. I think that’s what John Cage meant when he wrote what is to me the most important piece of music of all times (4’33”). But then, as he often said, silence can be very loud… I suppose i must have had an idea of such “full power of sound” before i experienced performing Phill Niblock’s “Guitar Too, for Four” (4), which is an incredibly immersive sound experience. I could feel the waves physically swirling around. Volume brings a physicality to sound, it becomes tactile. We hear sounds because the air is set into vibration, and at a high volume this vibration becomes very deep, so your body becomes a beach for the breaking airwaves. It’s indeed a wonderful feeling. One thing many people unfortunately don’t consider when they go for “loud” is the human ear’s response curve. We are most sensitive to a range of frequencies somewhere between 2 and 4 kHz (5), so sound can be really painful if those frequencies are above a certain threshold and this can happen quite before this physical experience of volume is felt. The lower frequencies are of key importance to feel “loud”, otherwise sound just gets quite irritating to the ear. Sometimes i have to give up good live music because of bad loudness.

What is your goal with music?

The first answer that comes to my mind is “none”, but i’d be lying. I like to discover things. I gave up studying music because i realized that what i wanted to learn no one could teach me, i’d have to discover it on my own. But in the end we can say that i’m happy if someone finds a good use for my music, whenever i can help improve any aspect of a person’s life with these sounds. I think what i do has the potential to be useful to people. What is extremely important to me is to keep away from pre-establishing the music’s modes of use. I leave things in an uncoded, open state, so that each person is free to find the best use for it, be it falling asleep, peeling potatoes, getting in trance, annoying neighbors or writing a letter. It’s a challenge to make music that is charged in an open way, what it means, what it communicates, what it does. If i specify this, the music becomes charged with “me” and i find this extremely uninteresting. But there has to be one use always available, the capability of feeding a vibration into a space. A soundscape bubble that interfaces with your environment. Another key aspect is my interest in ambient, mainly the possibility to explore different levels of listening attention. To make a music that allows the listener to sharply focus on the listening or to leave it as background music, having different experiences each way.

Do you find music to be at least potentially a spiritual type of thing?

Good music can resonate with the inner self and is likely to help achieve infinite qualities of balance and imbalance. Music has a power to expand one’s feelings or contradict them. It can change our perception of things around us. It is of course a spiritual type of thing, among many others. I don’t really understand how, nor does anyone, i guess, which is good. It would be terrifying if someone came up to a key to that question, half the world could start manipulating the other half…

Would you say that music has the ability to engage the listener with God or their own spirituality? > have you had any personal experiences like this?

I don’t have a mystic approach to music myself, although i admit others might. But i do believe that music as i see it can be a merging area between the self and the environment. When you play a record, you have your loudspeakers emitting a vibration into the air around you and that vibration could be a sort of vehicle to every other sound that arrives from the outside, as if showing their way in.

What have you not done with music that you really want to do?

Oh… my next projects, of course! When and if i finish them, a time will come to figure out what i want to do next…

Why do you make music?

Sometimes i ask myself that question… but never came up with a good answer.

Is the dream state a sort of reference point for some of your works? I find aeriola to be particularly dream/ swoon/ blurry– i’m fascinated by the way you sort of blur sounds together, it’s very luxurious > and trance-like. Is it intended to be lulling, peaceful, dreamlike? if somebody falls asleep to this record, > is it a compliment?

If someone plays it it’s a compliment; falling asleep is one of the possibilities of use, as good as any other. I can tell you the mastering process took a longer time than it should because i’d have to listen to the whole record with great care and often i’d fall asleep halfway through… I could perform “Cyclorama Lift” in a very harsh way; the way it sounds in the end actually has to do with the production work. I didn’t mean to do a “dreamlike” piece, i meant to fulfill its set of ideas. The result ends up having a certain character, a certain aesthetic potential. Then i can choose to emphasize certain aspects of that. A piece i do has to be conceptually and technically accomplished first. Then, if it sounds good i’ll make it sound better and only then we have music. I can make it sound in different ways and that’ll be a compromise between my taste and what the piece has to offer aesthetically. So, i didn’t mean this piece to be lulling or peaceful, but i wouldn’t dream of releasing it if it didn’t have some potential of that kind. Accomplishing something technically isn’t enough!

(1) Seen electronically, a guitar is just like a microphone.
(2) An example of this is No Noise Reduction’s “On Air”, all played with circuit bending producing unpredictable results.
(3) The CDs “Sound Mind Sound Body”, “Wave Field” and “Aeriola Frequency”.
(4) Soon to be released on the moikai label.
(5) Also called the “hi-mid range”. Cymbals and shrill guitars are strong in these frequencies.