New York Press

The absolute sound


“I wanted to make an ambient piece that sounded like a thousand rock gigs reverberating from a distant hall,” Portuguese compositional/ improv guitarist Rafael Toral explains. From his home/ recording studio in Lisbon, located on the same street he grew up, Toral spells out what he was aiming for with his hypnotic “Wave Field” CD (Dexter’s Cigar/ Drag City, 1998). Originally released in ’95 in a tiny edition on a local label, the thirty-year old artist’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece” has just been issued in the U.S. in an improved edition. 
”It’s a distillation of rock music, as if one could squeeze the juice… and make it liquid, a flowing essence,” Toral enthuses. “Wave Field” utilizes “materials and textures from rock, based on its dearest icon, the electric guitar. I aimed at an ambient record charged with the resonance and the dirt and noise of rock music.” He adds that rock music, per se, isn’t the goal, but rather rock’s essential “energy, electricity, intensity. Everything I developed in ten years of work with the guitar is here.”
Resounding frequencies overlap and gyrate, wiggling their way inside your body. The notes, tones, and clusters of guitar-induced and effects-generated notes reverberate amongst each other. It almost sounds underwater: if whales used guitars and electronics to sing to one another, it might sound like this. “Wave Field” is an astonishing, left-field work, a drone fan’s dream. It’s everything you wanted from Fripp & Eno’s “No Pussyfooting” and Spacemen 3’s “Dreamweapon” & very nearly got: full, dynamic layers of blissful, amp-moaning pleasure-noise that ebbs and flows like the sea. 
”I made it in a way that it’s ‘as ignorable as it is interesting,’ a very nice principle we got from Eno,” Toral explains in his descriptive, mildly-broken ESL. “”Wave Field” can be left in the background as any ambient record.” What makes the album special to Toral are its “two faces”: printed on the insert are the words “play very soft or very loud.” “When it’s played loud it becomes something completely different: a very physical, hypnotizing wave of electric drone that you feel around your body. Like a river.”
Bill Meyer, the first national writer to draw attention to Toral’s torrential talents (though Toral was initially “discovered” in the U.S. by composer Phill Niblock and Sonic Youth) explains the guitarist’s various processes and playing styles: “he liberally uses an e-bow and delays to get sustained sounds, and he uses a guitar synth on “Wave Field”. I’ve seen him balance a toy Marshall amp on the guitar’s neck to get a Buck Rogers lazer gun. He’s really into air and space travel; most of his album covers feature airplanes, and he performs “Wave Field” accompanied by home-made films of planes taking off and landing.”
Toral makes all his studio recordings in his own Noise Precision studio. I was curious how he made all the sounds on “Wave Field with just one Fender jaguar: “It’s basically tapping the guitar without touching the strings and working with resonant frequencies, using filters and equalizers, then some reverb,” he explains. “I recorded two sets of resonant drones in a weekend and that became the base for the piece. I later added loops, tones and percussion sounds –all with the guitar– and gradually composed the piece from there. I’d lay sounds in the digital tracks and remove the ones that were redundant or unnecessary.” 
Toral composes by removing sounds. He uses digital audio tape and his computer to store, layer, and edit the work. It took an entire year to complete “Wave Field”; everything was done in-studio, right up to the mastering. The reissue has seen to the eradication of a few mistakes “that nobody else could hear” ironed out to Toral’s obsessive satisfaction. “The result is a more perfect wholeness,” he exclaims. 
Once you get hooked by “Wave Field”, you’ll have to seek out his others, starting with 1994’s more subdued, but nevertheless transporting “Sound Mind Sound Body” (AnAnAnA, 1994). Listening to these five pieces recorded between ’87 and ’92, it’s impossible not to feel like a lab rat trapped in some nefarious experiment into the sonic pleasure principle: it’s as if you’ve been turned upside down with your head inside a tank of pure, molten, radiant sound. The guitar can be heard more clearly on several of the tracks: it’s not just waves and drones, but actual, precisely plucked notes. There’s a really cool piece, the live track “AE 2,” made with three other Portuguese players. It’s a stunning guitar work, thirteen minutes of minimal sound, slowly unfurling itself into a kind of rapture.

One Portuguese musician Toral’s recorded and worked with is Paulo Feliciano. Under the name No Noise Reduction, they’ve made two records. The one I have, “On Air” (AnAnAnA, 1997), was recorded live on various Portuguese radio stations in ’95 and it shows a much more playful, spontaneous, lively side to Toral’s work. The cover shows NASA images of prototype Mars Explorers, which look like fancy remote-control Lego toys, especially in their stripped-down state. The improvised music of “On Air” was made with cheap electronic toy instruments that’ve been stripped to their wires, then “played” and tweaked by hand to produce alien sounds. They were then put through analog delay, distortion pedals, and the like. Finally, guitars were hooked to the set-up, whipping up a mini-maelstrom of modulated feedback noise. 
That playfulness is evident on “Chasing Sonic Booms”, (Ecstatic Peace, 1998). “He’s a flexible improviser equally adept at responding sensitively to a partner or holding his own in a noisy duel,” Meyer notes. Toral’s repeatedly visited the States since ’92, in part to do compositional stuff with Phill Niblock, but mostly on the improv circuit. He’s jammed with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, John Zorn, and Rhys Chatham. “Chasing” falls under the you-had-to-be-there category of live improvisation documents. It “is” diverse– accordion, violin, and keyboards accompany Toral, who reaches surprisingly assaultive tonalities throughout. Each of the seven pieces are named after supersonic jets: “Skyrocket,” “Firebee Drone,” “Blackbird,” etc. 
”Chasing Sonic Booms” points to the breadth of Toral’s ability, but his bliss-out stuff is much more convincing, more deep. Still, he’s clearly not a student onstage with these musicians, he’s a peer. “I realized early on, especially after beginning to travel to the U.S., that if I do something, it must be good anywhere on the planet. So I take advantage of cultural isolation and its ability to sharply focusing one in a single direction. Most musicians in New York, for example, seem to be so lost, going in all directions, doing everything, and playing with everyone.” 
In Portugal, Toral is no star. Large crowds only show up when he plays with a visiting famous guy like Zorn. He works as a sound engineer for a television station, and points out that “so far, making music has been a way to spend money, rather than getting any. For him, “music MUST absolutely NOT have to do with money concerns.” He bemoans that “people think the Spice Girls are enough and are happy with that. Even in spite of the valuable efforts of the AnAnAnA label, devoted to the heroic task of releasing exclusively Portuguese experimental music… there still is no ‘scene.'” Nevertheless, he likes his little country. It’s “beautiful, not very developed –meaning you can find some genuine stuff, like ancient cultures.” Plus, on his street it’s “good, since airplanes fly overhead.” 
Toral has an oh-thank-you-but-so-and-so-did-it-first-and-all-the-credit-should-go-to-them manner. He very liberally and excitedly points to his own influences, at times giving them more credit than they might deserve. Such modesty is refreshing. And more than humility, Toral demonstrates actual insight into these artists’ work. Toral is as intrigued by the heady (conceptual, compositional music) as the visceral (loud detuned rock). He explains that he enjoys “to be inspired or influenced by someone on a conceptual level, rather than on a formal one. That’s why you can be highly inspired by someone but then you won’t sound like an imitation of it, you can go in any direction when it comes to formal thinking… In other words, the same thoughts can be expressed in a variety of ways.”

Brian Eno’s not so much an influence anymore, but Toral’s grateful Eno laid the conceptual foundations for ambient music: “He coined the term, after all. One of his most striking intuitions was to associate the possibilities of tape loop recording and the process-based approach inspired by Steve Reich together with his vision of a music that blended itself with the environment, something Satie had suggested before. I found the idea of a music that generates itself after setting a few simple rules and lets the musician become an audience to the unpredictable results fascinating. I was sixteen when I read the liner notes to “Discreet Music” in a record shop. I thought, ‘This is the way to go!’ Self-generating ambient systems, a brilliant invention!” 
The cover to “Wave Field” is an explicit homage to My Bloody Valentine’s shattering “Loveless”, so it’s no surprise Toral adores guitarist Kevin Shields’ work entirely. “I think his greatest breakthrough was the production techniques he used, especially for “Loveless”. The immersive sound he created has no precedent… Another thing very unique about My Bloody Valentine is the blend of ethereal ambience with a very intense sensuality, together with this kind of raw harshness, a certain violence. I think the entire ‘shoegazing’ generation that followed totally missed the point.” 
Toral views Sonic Youth as great liberators. They “unlocked the guitar sound.” He credits them with “seeing the guitar not as a musical instrument with rules about how it’s played, but as a source, a sound generator that can do anything. Jimi Hendrix did that too. But what’s great about Sonic Youth is that they did it in a democratic way, in effect saying: ‘Get your guitar and do your own noise.’ Unlike Hendrix, who was seen as the unreachable genius, and no one could think of following him. A lot of bands tried to imitate SY, but ended up learning to go their own way and in many cases got somewhere interesting on their own. It’s very healthy how Sonic Youth inspired so many people to go in so many different directions doing so many different things. My perception of rock music as an abstract electric vibration was inspired by them. I have a huge admiration for how they keep going; they seem to get younger with time.” 
For Toral, John Cage “did this great thing, telling us that there is no such thing as silence. He discovered that even in a sound-proof room he’d still have to hear his own blood circulating, and his nervous system working. That implies that what we’re used to call ‘noise,’ or sound we don’t want, can’t really be eliminated. Only death is silent. There’s no end to the windows that can be opened with this idea… His influence is so universal that we forget where these ideas came from. His thoughts are present in everything I do, permanently.”
In the Sixties, composer Alvin Lucier was part of the Sonic Arts Union (with Gordon Mumma and others) and he’s best known for a piece called “I Am Sitting In A Room,” in which the spoken phrase is repeated and re-taped until it becomes this wash of sound. “That piece is a touchstone to me,” Toral exclaims. “Lucier turned an empty space into a musical instrument. The tape was just used to record the acoustics of the room and throw them back into it several times, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves. This had never been done before. Wherever we go, there are resonant frequencies– it’s a part of the acoustic character of space around us. Alvin Lucier gave us a way to think about this in musical terms.”
How does this relate to his own stuff? “A lot of the sound treatment in “Wave Field” is resonance, but electronic instead of acoustic. This fascination with resonance, I must have gotten it from Lucier. In my most recent work, “Aeriola Frequency”, I use pure electronic resonance, without guitar. It’s a leap forward from “Wave Field”.” He describes “Aeriola” as “lighter, more transparent.” There’s no guitar at all on the record, “just pure electronic resonance.”
Of the multiple projects Toral is working on –including remastering Portuguese guitarist Nuno Canavarro’s legendary, beautiful, way-ahead-of-its-time “Plux Quba” disc for O’Rourke’s new label imprint Moikai– something called “Bridge Music” seems exceptionally promising. He’s recorded multiple hours of bridge sounds to DAT already, most of them gathered while visiting the States. “Looking at a bridge, can you imagine the symphony of vibrations that’s going all over it?,” he asks. “Bridges with a metallic structure,” he clarifies, admitting he still doesn’t “have a clue about how to handle the recordings from a compositional standpoint. The thing is to listen and tune in to the bridges’ resonant frequencies. There are many sounds, picked up with contact microphones: rattles, drones, metallic harmonies, impacts… it’s heavy traffic that activates them.” 
”Bridges look like huge instruments to me,” he states. “The Golden Gate was special because I had direct access to the suspension cables and recorded samples of all of their lengths, from the center to one oh the towers. The sounds of friction resulting from the movements of the bridge resonating through the cables is beautiful.” For Toral, the worst thing about making music is “not being able to listen to music because you’re doing it.” And the greatest thing? “The pleasure of being involved in the physicality of sound.”


by Mike McGonigal, Feb 1998 (New York, NY, USA)