The Wire

The first thing you hear is a laser blast: a fat, toothsome laser blast, which could have been fired into Space from any number of sci-fi B movies from the last 40 years.The next thing you hear is silence, and the rest of Rafael ToraI’s latest sound essay unfolds almost entirely from these two elements. Beyond the title, space has a double significance within the work. It’s selfconsciously futurist and extraterrestrial, greedily absorbing acoustic vocabularies from the sci-fi section of library music sound design. Toral himseif namechecks the Forbidden Planet soundtrack and Star Wars. But this new music is also spacious. It may be rich and various in texture, but that’s not to say it’s cluttered. Long pauses litter the tracks. Toral constructs each of the sound events not only through their tone, duration and attack, but through the silences that frame them. Each acquires its own poise and balance. Space is a major departure from his previous work. Instead of long parallel lines of infinitely sustained guitar, it snaps, pops, crackles and disappears. Instead of investigating singularity and the detail of how ft can be micro managed and modulated, it’s gloriously, thrillingly multiple, with a thriving population of sounds. For Space, Toral has started with what is – on the surface – a technical tabula rasa. Previous records, from 1995’s Wave Field to 2001’s private anthology Violence Of Discovery and Calm Of Acceptance saw Toral develop a form of tabletop guitar technique in which the guitar was simply the sound source, one played through a battery of pedals and FX, eliciting super-saturated neon drones. But there are no guitars here, only a set of homemade electronic instruments, circuits and feedback systems adapted and reworked to produce some kind of sound, however limited its palette might be. Toral’s playing makes a virtue of these limitations though, and focuses hard on the dialogue between different sounds. Themes and lines are established then discarded, subside into silence or are inverted by counterpoint: an outbreak of jittering crackle disappearing into looming swells of low-end gloom. In a sense, Space retires the established Rafael Toral as an artist and puts in his place an all-new electro-Improv retro-futurist. After 20 years of guitar work, Toral is looking for nothing less than a totally fresh language to work in. Language is an apposite term for what happens in Space. The sounds are distinctly vocal at times: beyond the laser-like squelches and zaps is a field of clipped gurgles that could be R2D2 quotes, as though the record eavesdrops on a sound designer commissioned to devise an alien language. The melodic logic that drives certain instruments within Space also recalls birdsong, with dense, convoluted runs of twittering melody ending in single piping notes, as spontaneous as Messiaen’s birdsong transcriptions were painstaking and meticulous. In fact, Toral sees Space as a kind of hypothetical Jazz projected from the late 60’s into a world where electronic instruments had been accepted and integrated within its modes. There is a history of cross-pollination between jazz and electrics – you only have to hear Sun Ra’s supercharged keyboard solos to see how the one can liberate the other. Toral may even be familiar with an earlier Space, David Durrah’s synthesizer excursions. But electricity also split jazz, like folk, down the middle, setting post-bop fusion against luddites happy to retread Charlie Parker forever. For Dylan at Newport, read Miles Davis. Jazz is a faux-ami in relation to Space. Toral is aiming for a live engagement with electronic instruments (as opposed to laptops or sequencers and the spectrum of readymade sound they make available) and a real-time exchange of ideas and actions. It’s jazz insofar as its in a steady state of flux: attentive listening and responsive playing. But essentially Toral’s project begins and ends in improv. The kind of improvisatory practices that came out of the tail end of post-bop are no longer sufficiently described by the term jazz, so much of its results bear only a passing resemblance to the genre the word denotes.The same applies here. But why argue about semantics? There are some frenetic but cool bass tones that evoke Out To Lunch. There’s even a brass section, which slips seamlessly into the mix and sounds comfortably at home among the electrical ping-pong which surrounds it. Besides, there’s a playfulness to Space that’s more important than any pedantic musical taxonomy. Toral’s projected parallel universe and imaginary genealogies have a Borgesian quality. They’re less literal statements than points of departure. The sheer volume of releases planned for the Space programme emphasises Toral’s farewell to the guitar. Ten are already planned, including one series to focus on individual instruments in turn and another to document further spontaneous explorations with the full toolbox. As fresh as this new work sounds, it’ll be a while before the whole programme reveals itself, as Toral continues to wrestle with the different characters and potentialities of his homemades, in all their irascible, user-unfriendly quirks.
Sam Davies