The Wire

This article first appeared in The Wire issue 272 October 2006. Reproduced by permission.

Copyright: The Wire/Dan Warburton


In his control centre in Lisbon, composer, producer and electronic engineer Rafael Toral is deeply immersed in his own Space Program, a new long term project that seeks the philosopher’s stone for restructuring music. Tracking his close encounters with Jim O’Rourke, Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock, Dan Warburton charts Toral’s development from avant rock guitarist into full blown cosmic explorer.


Space is not, as the saying goes, “the final frontier”. Rafael Toral’s new album on Staubgold is just the first recorded materialisation of what the Lisbon based guitarist, electronics innovator and improvisor calls the Space Program, a huge, multi-faceted project comprising performances and albums that will keep him busy until at least 2012. It’s a fundamental re-evaluation of the nature of composition, improvisation, instrument design and construction, and the performance practice of live electronic music.
Space is Toral’s first major release since 2001’s Violence Of Discovery And Calm Of Acceptance (Touch), his resumé of and farewell to 15 years of pioneering work on the electric guitar. “I felt I’d taken it as high as it could go. There was a clear feeling of completion, and I knew if I continued along that path I’d just repeat myself and become formulaic, a perspective too horrifying to contemplate. So I decided that I had to end this line of work. I realised it would be an enormous task to build up a whole new approach to music. It would be extremely complex and demanding, and above all risky. My artistic life was at stake. Performance would become the key. Instead of continuous modulation, there would be single sound events. Instead of drones, silence.”
And yet silence – as one of Toral’s heroes John Cage informed us more than half a century ago – doesn’t exist. Certainly not in the hilltop neighbourhood near Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia station, where Rafael Toral has lived since he was born in 1967. The view of the river Tagus from his apartment has certainly changed since the Portuguese capital hosted Expo 98, and the huge injection of investment in urban infrastructure that went with it. Lisbon used to be chaotic and congested until the Linha Vermelha of the underground system opened to whisk tourists from downtown to Santiago Calatrava’s Oriente station and Expo’s dockside pavillions in barely a quarter of an hour. Nowadays, the traffic flows easier, but there’s more of it. And more noise. A problem, perhaps, for a musician who’s dedicated the next six years of his life to a project in which silence is as important as sound.
But Toral remains strongly attached to the city, not that he believes there’s anything peculiarly Portuguese about his music. “Perhaps the atmosphere of where you live, especially the weather, finds its way into your music, though I’m not aware of how the river and the mild Lisbon climate have affected mine. Music also depends on what is channelled through it and how strong its connections are to music from other countries.”
Toral’s early years were “like any other kid’s, a normal childhood in a calm neighbourhood, with friends in bands that sounded like Bauhaus and Echo And The Bunnymen.” Taking up the guitar when he was 12, his early heroes on the instrument included Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, later joined by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. By the end of his teens he was involved in several rock groups, notably Pop Dell’Arte (“repetitive rhythms, noise, dada and poetry”), with whom he stayed until 1992, and a short-lived Eno-inspired Ambient project SPQR. Several pieces created with a guitar and a four-track cassette recorder between 1987 and 1990 surfaced in 2002 on Early Works (Tomlab). Toral first came across a copy of Eno’s Discreet Music in a record store when he was 16. “I immediately decided this was a path to explore: the idea that music could generate itself and accommodate any level of attention was enlightening.” Eno has remained a figure of central importance throughout Toral’s career, for his ideas as much as his albums. SPQR started out as a group, but by 1987 Toral was left alone with his guitar and four-track cassette recorder. Several pieces produced during this period surfaced in 2002 on the Tomlab album Early Works.
As well as honing his compositional skills, Toral became interested in production. He was closely involved with the Ama Romanta label, which released four Pop Dell’Arte albums and important early work by Telectu, Sei Miguel and Nuno Canavarro. Canavarro’s Plux Quba (1988) quickly became a sought after collector’s item of late 80s electronica, especially in Germany, and it was Toral who painstakingly transferred and mastered its intimate, delicate wisps of synthesizer for its 1998 reissue on Moikai. Canavarro himself is as elusive as his music, but Toral is happy to confirm that, contrary to some rumours circulating on the Web, he does exist. “Nuno still lives in Cascais, 30 km west of Lisbon. After Plux Quba was reissued I spent hours trying to convince him to produce more music, but I think he’s stopped now and concentrates on video. I did what I could,” he sighs.
Another friend, composer and improvisor Nuno Rebelo, introduced Toral to other music. “Back in 1986 there was very little information, no Internet. I was fascinated by how knowledgeable Nuno was about systems music, improvisation, and live electronics. He opened a lot of windows for me. He introduced me to Cage’s work.” The first Cage piece Toral heard was the Sonatas And Interludes for prepared piano, “but it didn’t give me a clue about the real dimension and importance of Cage’s thought. That came five years later when I read his book Silence and it totally blew my mind. I was not the same person when I finished reading it. The way he dealt with the artistic consequences of silence – its impossibility – was utterly revolutionary. Cage is comparable to Galileo or Einstein in terms of the impact they had on our perception of the universe.”
Toral readily acknowledges Cage’s influence, but he’s adamant that the Space Program has “nothing to do with Cage, other than the fact that I’m dealing with concepts of silence, noise and environment. Silence in Cage’s works is achieved by compositional devices – still somewhat mechanical and pre-established as rules – whereas in the Space Program it’s ‘written’ by individual decision in real time. A completely different practice, derived from jazz. Silence is integrated into musical discourse. Sounds emerge from and return to it, and their meaning is changed by the shape of silence around it. Silence is played, as carefully as sound.”
In his review of Space (The Wire 272), Sam Davies describes the opening sound as “a laser blast”. In fact it’s an amplified spring, one of a whole arsenal of instruments Toral has invented or adapted for the Space Program. Others include a portable amplifier emitting feedback with a light-controlled filter, a modular filter system controlled by two theremins, and several joystick-operated oscillators and pulse generators, one providing the “frenetic but cool” bass Davies refers to. In addition there are computer-generated sinewaves, controlled either by theremin modules or Toral’s self-designed glove controllers, fitted with switches and sensors, and delayed feedback empty circuits with joystick-controlled filter modulation similar to those used on 1998’s Aeriola Frequency.
Toral is at pains to stress that the Space Program is still very much a work in progress, but happily provides a general overview. It consists of three series (although the first album, Space itself, belongs to none): Space Studies, Space Elements and Space Solos. The Space Studies are live pieces, each concentrating on one of Toral’s specially conceived instruments. The programme was launched in April 2004 with the premiere of Space Study 1, on which the glove-controlled sinewaves were accompanied by Rute Praça, “a classically trained cellist who’s managed the amazing task of getting rid of all the conservatory teaching,” Toral enthuses. To date four Space Studies have been performed. Space Elements is a projected set of six albums, each focusing on specific sonic element of the Program, and the family of instruments associated with it. Volume I is based on sinewaves, both analogue and digitally generated, and Toral’s guest musicians will include Praça (cello), César Burago (percussion), David Toop (flute) and Margarida Garcia (electric double bass). The Space Solos series is another projected set of Toral solo recordings, “naturally based on excerpts from the Space Studies performances, but not limited to that.”

Could he summarise it all in a couple of sentences, I wonder? “It’s a sort of philosopher’s stone. An electronic music performance research programme, a search for a universal discipline for structuring musical discourse.”
What makes the Space Program different, and perhaps Toral’s strongest artistic achievement, is that while being almost entirely made with electronic means, it remains thoroughly human. It’s about gesture, bodily action, and acknowledges the value of human craftsmanship in an age of industrial entertainment. Toral might be looking at the stars, but the issues his music addresses are very much of this world. “My former work was often an immersive experience, and therefore escapist. But today we live in times that call for action, not escapism. The Space Program is music of action, music of awareness.”
There’s nothing dreamy or Ambient about Space. It’s as intense and focused as a game of chess. Each sound is necessary. Painstakingly crafted and positioned in time with meticulous precision. Toral spent nearly two years preparing over 60 different mixes from ten gigabytes of audio soundfiles, and his attention to detail is evident throughout. His taut, wiry music makes a welcome change from leftfield electronica’s standardised grainy drizzle of glitched field recordings and watery beats. In its odd way it really swings, and the cameo appearances by trumpeter Sei Miguel and trombonist Fala Mariam are perfect – imagine Don Cherry let loose in the studios of WDR Köln circa 1956. As Toral likes to speculate, Space is what electronic music might have sounded like if the studios that sprang up shortly after World War Two had been frequented by jazz musicians instead of composers.
He dates his own “fascination with hacking” back to a visit to Amsterdam’s STEIM facility in 1995, where he met electronic composer Nicolas Collins and played an improvised set “on a modified toy with a messed-up pitch control”, but his investigations into customised electronics began several years earlier. In 1990 he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Paulo Feliciano in No Noise Reduction, investigating “randomness and the resolution of the uncontrollable in real time.” On Air (AnAnAnA 1997) is a representative selection of their “cutting-edge experimentation” with guitars and modified toys, precursors of the instruments Toral now uses in the Space Program. Feliciano used to be artistic director for the pioneering Lisbon based design unit Experimenta, and was closely involved, with Toral and David Toop, in staging the multimedia extravaganza Acqua Matrix at Expo 98 (see The Wire 175).
Parallel to his gleeful détournement of technology in NNR, Toral’s investigations into the more tranquil worlds of Eno and Cage eventually resulted in a solo album, Sound Mind Sound Body (AnAnAnA 1994), a cunning blend of Ambient, improvisation, systems composition and chance. AER 7 E presents repeating overlapping cycles of pitches drawn from a chord spread over four octaves, with timbre and fingering notated and determined by chance operations. It’s one of Toral’s most accomplished pieces, and one of his personal favourites.
Another epiphany for Toral was his discovery of Alvin Lucier’s seminal 1970 minimalist masterpiece I Am Sitting In A Room. “I could hardly believe my ears. The instrument is an empty room and the music material is resonance. He literally makes the walls sing, with very simple means.” Lucier’s piece consists of a recording of his speaking voice played into a room where it is rerecorded, played back and rerecorded until the resonant frequencies of the room emerge, transforming speech into pure sound. “To distill music from space is utterly remarkable and immensely beautiful. I consider that piece among the great artistic achievements of mankind. To me it’s the second most important piece of music ever made.” What’s the first, I wonder? Toral smiles. “4’33”.”
Another key influence on Toral’s musical development is trumpeter Sei Miguel. Born in Paris in 1961, Miguel settled in Portugal in the 1980s and has spent over two decades in comparative obscurity, devoting himself to the creation of his own utterly idiosyncratic music, a discreet yet compelling reworking of jazz according to Cageian principles as seen from the far end of Europe. “Sun Ra once told his musicians they were ‘tone scientists’,” says Toral, “Sei Miguel is a sort of super-tone scientist, a spectrum architect. He observes meticulously how timbres complement each other. That’s how he achieves total transparency and clarity. He creates a situation in which you do your own work in a way that is seamlessly, perfectly integrated. The mix is just perfect. How he does it is magic to me.”

Toral’s involvement with the trumpeter dates back to the early 90s. His gaunt, spiky guitar first appears on Miguel’s Showtime (1996), then on 1999’s Token (AnAnAnA) and the recent Creative Sources album The Tone Gardens, on which he provides computer sinewaves, amplifier feedback and modulated white noise. “Those works were my launchpad for the Space Program,” comments Toral. “I was actively starting the search for a language-structuring discipline. For Sei Miguel it was also a new concept, where each musician could be at once an actor in a landscape and part of the landscape itself. There’s also a sense of structural openness, as if the pieces have no beginning or end. Playing that music was extremely demanding. It was quite a hypnotic experience, entering those ‘gardens’. I think you only make records like these two or three times in a lifetime.”
In 1994, Rafael Toral went to see Nirvana in concert in a sports stadium in Cascais. For reasons perhaps best known to Kurt Cobain, the support group was The Buzzcocks. “The acoustics were so bad that all I could hear was an amorphous roar,” Toral recalls with amusement, “but as my attention drifted from this otherwise boring set, I began to listen to the unarticulated stream of electric sound and found it extremely interesting. When I walked out of the concert I was dreaming of Wave Field.”
Toral had already discovered Alvin Lucier, and was “mesmerised by the droning section at the end of Sonic Youth’s “Expressway To Yr Skull‘,” but there’s another more explicit resonance to Wave Field: the pink blur cover photography is a clear homage to My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless. Toral remains unswerving in his admiration for MBV’s Kevin Shields: “That liquid quality he had in his guitar playing, but also the wash of electricity and that unique blend of intense sensuality, ethereal ambience and harshness. “To Here Knows When” stands as an advanced point in music history. No one has gone beyond.”

Wave Field may be a tribute to My Bloody Valentine, but it’s certainly not a pastiche. Toral’s album is suffused with a warm Ambient glow, a reminder that Eno was just as much a hero as Shields. “[Eno’s] Thursday Afternoon is “one of the best records ever made,” he enthuses.

Wave Field was released on Lisbon based Moneyland Records in 1995, and attracted considerable critical acclaim despite poor sales. Its subsequent reissue on Dexter’s Cigar in 1998 along with the reappearance of Sound Mind Sound Body on Moikai a year later brought Toral’s work to a wider public. Both reissues came about thanks to Jim O’Rourke.

O’Rourke and Toral hooked up through the auspices of minimalist grandmaster Phill Niblock. In 1994 Toral was awarded the Bolsa Ernesto de Sousa fellowship, which sends a Portuguese artist to develop a project in New York. During his stay, he also worked with Niblock recording the guitar tones for Niblock’s Guitar Too, For Four, which he premiered in 1996 (two versions of the piece appeared on Moikai in 2002 as G2,44+/x). Topping one of the teetering piles of CDs in Niblock’s Centre Street loft was a copy of O’Rourke’s Remove The Need. Toral borrowed it and was enthralled. “I’d been working for about ten years in relative isolation, and I was delighted to find someone working in a field very close to mine, so I got in touch with Jim and sent him some recordings. We corresponded and he invited me to play in Chicago the following year.”

It was the first of many collaborations. When O’Rourke later joined Sonic Youth, Toral was pleasantly surprised. His own friendship with the group dates back to 1993, when Paulo Feliciano’s Tina And The Top Ten, produced by Toral, opened for Sonic Youth in Lisbon. Thurston Moore subsequently released Toral’s Chasing Sonic Booms on his Ecstatic Peace imprint, Toral edited and produced the title track of Ranaldo’s 1998 solo outing Amarillo Ramp, and even guested on SY’s NYC Ghosts And Flowers, providing intermittent drones on “Renegade Princess”.
‘Drone’ is a word you’ll come across often in reviews of Toral’s early music, but he doesn’t have much time for it. “It’s handy to refer quickly and informally to a certain kind of music, but it’s still reductionist. It describes only one aspect of sound, its duration, not its inner complexity and focus. Can you imagine someone coming up with the term ‘short note music’? Or, referring to piano music, ‘decay music’?” Another adjective that frequently appears is ‘Ambient’. Toral’s not so keen on that either (“Turn up the volume on Wave Field and you tell me if it’s Ambient,” he growls), but grudgingly accepts it. But “Aardvaark”, recorded in Chicago in November 1995 with Jim O’Rourke on keyboards and electronics, is as far from Ambient as you could hope to get. It’s one of seven improvisations on 1997’s Chasing Sonic Booms. It’s a diverse and challenging set of pieces, ranging from the hyperactive “Skyrocket”, in which Toral scribbles over Jane Henry’s raw violin to devastating effect, to the gentle glissandi he weaves around Waldo Riedl’s accordion on “Firebee Drone”, which sounds more like late Cage than most people’s idea of Improv.
Rejecting the dogma of the various churches of Improv, Toral, like O’Rourke, Alan Licht, Oren Ambarchi and Tetuzi Akiyama, moves freely across the musical landscape, appearing in combinations that seem diverse to the point of incompatibility, from the fizzing high energy of John Zorn and Yamatsuka Eye, whom he performed with in 1996 (“amazing, really exciting – I was delighted I was able to keep up with them!”) to the spacious tone gardens of Sei Miguel and the buzzing conceptual sprawl of the Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO).
Toral’s involvement in MIMEO dates back to a 1998 European tour when Grob Records’ Felix Klopotek invited him to take part in a three-day MIMEO festival in Cologne’s Stadtgarten. “Until then MIMEO had been a promoter-curated group,” Toral explains. “Now we tend to put one member in charge if s/he books a concert. Kaffe Matthews did a great job directing the concert at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2003.” That was subsequently released as the triple CD Lifting Concrete Lightly, with Toral handling the mix. “MIMEO is a challenge, both artistically and socially. It’s a group of people from different backgrounds, with different communication habits and even different assumptions of what MIMEO is about. But there have been times when we’ve achieved unforgettable full-swing moments, and they pay off all the difficulties we go through.”
Some of Toral’s MIMEO colleagues – among them Keith Rowe, Jérome Noetinger, and Phil Durrant – would be horrified to be described as “jazz musicians”, but Space’s liner note mission statement reveals that Toral considers himself to be one – “in a remote kind of way. What I’m doing is probably more of a jazz based approach to electronic music than the other way round. Performance practice in jazz often consists of a personal way of structuring musical elements, a way of accessing a whole range of personal techniques and solutions. In that sense I might describe myself as a jazz musician. That’s what I call ‘vocabulary’ – and ‘language’ is useful as a term to describe how that vocabulary is put together and used in musical discourse.”
Toral credits Sei Miguel for helping him develop his own musical grammar, but his interest in feedback dates back to his early love of rock. In the mid-90s he started experimenting with feedback loops in performance, plugging his guitar cable into the output of his effects boxes. “X-1 (Liveloop 3)” on Chasing Sonic Booms is a notable early example. “I felt it was worth exploring further, and it got simpler and stripped down to just EQ and filter. I would improvise boosting and cutting frequencies within its cycles, in a way that sound strands appeared to grow like plants in timelapse photography.” The two extended tracks on 1998’s Aeriola Frequency (Perdition Plastics) reveal how complex and beautiful music can be made from a couple of delays, some resonant filters and a parametric equaliser. The album is often thrown in the same ambient drone bag as Wave Field, but it represents a considerable conceptual leap forward. Wave Field, like Sound Mind Sound Body (though more amorphous and nebulous), is still concerned with inputting material: the world it inhabits is still recognisably related to the guitar and a tradition of instrumental music. But Aeriola Frequency deals with pure resonance, and marks a quantum leap out of the world of Eno into that of Lucier. It’s a fragile, evanescent environment in which resonant frequencies appear and disappear according to a harmonic logic seemingly all their own. It’s not about designing buildings as much as the open spaces and transit systems that lie between them; music as urbanism rather than architecture.
Violence Of Discovery And Calm of Acceptance, released as a CD by Touch and an LP by Staubgold in 2001, represents the culmination of the previous 15 years of work. It’s a collection of short pieces dating back as far as 1993 (“We Are Getting Closer” is an important precursor of Wave Field), each of which took several months’ patient work, more often than not during breaks in Toral’s busy schedule. It’s a ravishingly beautiful set, from the luminescent shimmer of “Desirée” to the final “Mixed States Uncoded”, the only track not sourced exclusively from the electric guitar. Appropriately enough for an explorer about to embark on his own Space Program, its background noise is the sound of silence recorded during a real-time Webcast of the space shuttle.
Four more transitional albums appeared between Violence… and Space – a live recording from the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Engine (Touch), Electric Babyland/Lullabies (Tomlab) and the two Harmonic Series releases on Table Of The Elements and Headz – but they’re more glances back at a landscape left behind rather than signposts indicating the way ahead.
Space may not be the final frontier, but it’s certainly a new frontier. Its sparse soundworld is strange, but far from cold. It’s curiously affecting and remarkably natural – hi-tech bleeps sound as natural as birdsong – but mysterious: Toral’s rhythmic and melodic shapes are strands of a genetic code whose meaning we still have to crack. A virus from outer space, as William Burroughs once described language. But Toral’s ambitious claims for the Space Program are starting to make more sense. But these are still weighty terms. Does he consider music to be a language? “In the past I adhered to Cage’s stance: sounds are sounds – if we have to communicate anything we use words. So I would have answered ‘no’ without hesitation. But recently I’ve become interested in the origins of music, which seem to have a common root in the origins of language. Early humans surely didn’t distinguish whether their vocalisations were ‘musical’ or not; it was all communication. It seems obvious that mere words are far from able to convey everything a human being may wish to express.”