Rafael Toral – Finding that inner switch

July 5, 2008 § 1 Comment

Published: The Age, A2, July 5, 2008.

Rafael Toral

Via modified musical equipment, found objects and custom-built instruments, Rafael Toral has unearthed a raw and primitive approach to making electronic music, writes Dan Rule.

THE FIGURE ONSTAGE seems closer to that of an abstract performance artist than a musician. Silhouetted against a digitally projected backdrop of opaque blues and indigos, he stands all but still, before slowly raising a gloved right hand, pausing.

Sound emerges; gentle tones and frequencies ascend and swing subtly with each hint of movement. He shifts his left hand, also gloved, by his side; he wiggles an index and middle finger protractedly. The frequency wavers, flutters, as if on cue.

Every shift, every trace of a gesture, becomes crucial, enveloping. It is pure motion, pure cause and effect, pure semiotics – action and corresponding sound. It is as strangely raw and rudimentary as a hand beating a drum.

In an electronic music vernacular that has long discounted notions of physicality and performance for the complexity of programming and composition, the work of Portugese sound artist Rafael Toral plots an anomalous course.

“What is most important to me is that music results from real-time decisions and direct and physical action that you can see,” he says, speaking on the phone from Seoul, the first stop on his Australasian tour. “My music is really very simple music.

“Sometimes not all of the gestures are not completely clear – you can’t always relate a gesture and sound in a direct relationship – but you can see the action. That’s what gives sense to a performer being on stage.”

No matter how far you are to trace its lineage – from the laptop artists of the post-2000 era, through to early techno and dance music, ’70s synthesiser music and the immediate post-WWII era musique concrete of Pierre Schaeffer – electronic music has hardly found itself defined, nor beholden, to gesture and physical action. While both sonically and conceptually exploratory at its core, the field has, by and large, sought its raison d’etre in meticulous composition, fastidious preprogramming and largely computer-driven automation. Put simply, for anyone but the most tech-savvy, it has worked to disguise and mystify the means to its musical end.

Toral’s work, it seems, directly contests this archetype. Having garnered a reputation as one of the most important ambient and experimental guitarists of the ’90s, since the turn of the millennium the Lisbon-based artist has generated a vast body of material – dubbed the Space Program – that questions the very architecture of the electronic music patois.

Developing, modifying and building his own electronic musical instruments and controllers especially for live performance – such as his multi-switch, multi-sensor, infrared-equipped gloves – Toral has worked to re-imagine the contexts in which electronic music is conceived, seen and heard.
He will use three separate instruments for his Melbourne performance, each of which, as he puts it, “has its own lexicon”. The first is a modified portable amplifier that has a feedback circuit and is played by moving a separate filtered microphone at different proximities and angles to the unit, creating a cooing, birdlike sound. The second is a twin-electrode, square wave oscillator, or as Toral puts it, “a blue box with some copper wires sticking out”.

He explains: “When I touch the wires, I close the circuit with my body and it makes the oscillator make a sound. That then goes through a modular filter system and an analogue delay. It sounds like Sun-Ra performing on a different planet or something,” he laughs.

The third is a modified found object – an old amplifier that Toral plays by touching the circuit board, generating “a really visceral, amazing” sound.

“Each instrument is a case in itself,” he says. “There’s no standard. So some of them are built, some are discovered and some of them are in between. It’s a mix of experimenting and discovering and working towards something for a particular purpose.”

While it would be easy enough to cast Toral’s work into the realms of crazy science, it would also be reductive. If we are to look beyond the unusual instrumentation, Toral’s work inhabits a syntax – “a crossroads”, as he phrases it – that relates surprisingly closely to jazz. “The internal logic to structure the music as impulse is very typical of jazz,” he says. “It’s just that the instruments are using a totally free field of sound and are totally inadequate to Western systems of chords and scales.”

Toral doesn’t hail from a boffin’s background. Having grown up in Lisbon playing the guitar to Beatles songs, he began exploring the work of Brian Eno and John Cage in his youth, later turning to the static-riddled, textural guitar tropes of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth.

“I was just fascinated by the possibilities of sound transformation that guitar could offer,” he says. “So that evolved into this drone-like approach to music; this sound that had some ambient qualities, but at the same time had elements of the same rawness and dirt and texture from rock music.”

This philosophy informed Toral’s output throughout the ’90s and earlier this decade. He released several prominent drone-based guitar records – including 1995’s Wave Field and 2000’s Sound Mind Sound Body – but by the time he released his seminal 2001 opus Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance, he felt that his approach had run its course. Toral “terminated” his practice and embarked on the Space Program, putting to use knowledge on hacking and modifying equipment gained during a 1995 residency at STEIM (the Centre for Research and Development of instruments and tools for performers in the electronic performance arts) in Amsterdam.
Nonetheless, it took him years to find an idiom in which to articulate what he was discovering. “My first movements were strange to even myself,” he recounts. “I couldn’t place them in history and it’s very difficult when you can’t find a trace of history behind you. Usually, you can look back and you know who your references are and what the lineage is.”

But while Toral’s research and development points to a kind of intrinsic futurism, he prefers to frame his art in terms of a distant, primordial past. “My instruments may be electronic, but they’re far more simple than a guitar or a saxophone or something,” he says. “Once you listen to it without prejudice or expectations about what music is supposed to be, I think it’s very direct.

“I’m totally into this raw nature of playing an instrument,” he urges. “It’s something that’s very primitive, very stone age, like if you think of early hominids beating skulls with bones or stones against each other.”

Early hominids, of course, who enjoy the advantages of the computer age. “I think people are getting tired of this whole laptop music phase,” says Toral.

“I think it’s a really important statement to propose an approach to electronic music that is actually very physical and direct and raw, while keeping its complexity and its freedom of sound.”

Rafael Toral plays at The Toff in Town tomorrow night. Doors 8pm. www.thetoffintown.com

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