The Wire (Space Quartet)

Rafael Toral is renowned for treating electronic instruments as solo or lead instruments, liberating them from the textural roles they often play in improvised music. Having completed his decade-long Space Program in 2017, the Portuguese musician is now working on applying the ideas and practices developed in that project to more expansive musical contexts.

Space Quartet teams Toral with regular collaborators João Pais Filipe (drums and percussion) and Ricardo Webbens (modular and network synthesizers), with double bassist Hugo Antunes completing the line-up. One way of viewing the Space Quartet is as a free jazz band in which the electronics take on the frontline role of the horns. There are moments where the staccato spurts and arcing tones recall a trumpet or saxophone, but perhaps that’s just my brain trying to make sense of these alien sounds.

As a performer, Toral explodes the cliché of the electronic musician as stony-faced knob twiddler by dramatically wielding his axe of choice — a modified Marshall pocket amplifier which he manipulates with a photo cell torch to produce an array of feedback tones. That instrument plays a major role on Space Quartet, alongside a circuit-bending Fender pocket amp and a modular feedback circuit. “Lisboa I” opens with inquisitive electronic skirls that sound not unlike the bamboo flute improvisations of Don Cherry, keening but rounded and airy. But for the faint metallic gleam and occasional glitch, the listener could easily mistake this for an acoustic instrument. Antunes’s strummed bass chords provide a harmonic centre, from which he stretches out with probing runs and glisses. Filipe Enters with a tight canter, before turning up the heat upon the brash arrival of Webbens’ belching robot synth. “Porto” is less indebted to free jazz, with the long electronic tones and bowed bass of its first half giving way to ragged bleeps and clattering junglist polyrhythms.

Toral works with a relatively limited range of tones, but the magic is in his phrasing, as he integrates his twisting lines and glimmering blips into Space Quartet‘s 21st century free jazz.
Stewart Smith