Rafael Toral Wave Field, Moneyland Records (MR$ 0595), Portugal, 1995
Wave Field 5 25:22
Wave Field 6 21:35
WF Radio Edit 3:01
“What kind of things do you collect?
Teaspoons from airline companies.”1
The Portuguese musician Rafael Toral is well known in the experimental scene for having made excellent works based on drone music played with his electric guitar, embracing elements of ambient, minimalism and finding common ground with post-rock and shoegaze. Over time he has drastically changed his approach by starting to work with electronic instruments only, including modular synthesizers, modified amplifiers and oscillators. Toral’s electronic work is characterized by a scarified and almost alien sound, but always spontaneous and sometimes surprising. Toral has worked with numerous avant-garde luminaries such as Phill Niblock, Jim O’Rourke and Rhys Chatham. He’s also a member of MIMEO, an electronic orchestra whose members include Keith Rowe, Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler.
His first solo release was the 1994 Sound Mind Sound Body, a drone album and almost relaxing loops generated by a guitar. Wave Field2 followed in 1995. Both albums caught the attention of the American experimental rock scene, and his third album, Chasing Sonic Booms, appeared on the independent label Ecstatic Peace! run by Thurston Moore. Aeriola Frequency was released in 1998 (one of the first recordings made without the use of guitar) and appeared on the Chicago label Perdition Plastics, and O’Rourke reprinted the first two Toral’s albums, respectively with his labels Moikai and Dexter’s Cigar.
“The wave field is located somewhere in a far away region of the ambient territory, close to the frontier with a swampy area where abstract vibrations from liquid rock are solved under noise-charged clouds echoing some electrical irradiation.”3
Sound Mind Sound Body is the result of the use of some methods of composition, such as repeated patterns of different lengths, over-dubbed to achieve unpredictable harmonic changes. A method somehow inspired by those used by Brian Eno, whose work had been a great inspiration for Toral4. The basic idea was to create a process that, once started, would produce unexpected results compared to those theorized by the composer.5
With Wave Field, however, we are closer to an idea of sound as a composite material. If necessity is the mother of invention, Wave Field was born because Toral had a concert in Copenhagen but had nothing to play. To overcome this problem Toral recorded a tape filling it with a drone and guitar loops to be played on four speakers, to improvise over with his guitar. This tape has been gradually improved during the following concerts, until it reached a level of quality and “sound consistency” that makes it possible to create a cd. The result is a complex work that involves the dirty plots of the rock guitar, which resonates in the ears as a synthesis of disparate elements, a link in which Alvin Lucier, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Brian Eno come together. Here, the potential clang of the guitar has been emphasized, giving a metallic advantage to the two extended tracks and the “radio edit” coda. Also the record’s cover made a subtle tribute to My Bloody Valentine, which, together with the radio editing, suggested a harmony between so wildly disparate musical directions as experimental minimalism and rock.
The listening to this record can be played on different levels. In the notes of the record there is indicated “play very soft or very loud” and, believe me, this can radically change the sensations you feel while listening to it. On a “soft” level it sounds like some kind of ambient music that also includes a bit of dirt and grit: a sort of “ambient with distortion”.
“I started doing some small pieces but I’d only fulfill this interest in a more complete way with “Wave Field”. By this time I had become very inerested in Alvin Lucier’s masterpiece “I’m sitting in a room”, in which he used the resonance of a space as a musical instrument. “Wave Field” is a lot about resonance. On the other hand, this noisier approach to sound brought me closer to the universe i originated from, rock music. This piece became a sort of distillation, a search for an abstract vibration of rock, as if it could be liquid.”6
But played at high volume it generates a flow of dense and powerful electricity. It’s definitely not ambient, but something intensely and hypnotizing at the same time. I feel the same sensation when I listen to Phil Niblock’s music at an exaggerated volume: a wave all around the body.
The challenge in this record was to be able to mix different antagonistic stylistic elements not as different sounds that collide with each others, but as a single organic entity, a unique sound. Listening can be blissful or aggressive, but it’s one. Toral defined it with surgical precision “a soundtrack for a restless mind at rest”. And he adds: There are many things going on, lots of information, but there is a sense of stillness at the same time. A stream of water has incredibly complex turbulence patterns, but if we sit down next to it, we have a feeling that it is not happening much. I try to use it as a model for music.”
Guitar ceases to be a normal instrument, it becomes a generator of sounds.
“’Wave Field 5′ and ‘6’ were recorded to hard disk from the vibrating body of a Fender Jaguar wired through a Morley wah, Korg guitar synth (no synth, filters only), Dod graphic EQ, Alesis reverb and compressor, Ashly Parametric EQ and Sansamp.”7
There are guitarists who play guitar and the effects connected to it, Toral is an experimenter who plays them as a whole, all the equipment is the “instrument”. The guitar is only part of it and Toral uses it as a wave generator, while the other parts can be used as controllers or modifiers; all this becomes a sort of modular electronic device for the creation of new sounds, a kind of synthesizer.8 Basically the guitar is played without touching the strings, working only with the frequencies, using filters, reverbs and equalizers. Toral uses materials and textures that belong to rock, but here rock is not a goal but is energy, electricity, intensity.
Today, after more than twenty years, a similar aesthetic is widely considered as a part of the skills of the contemporary sonic artist. This allows the sounds of Wave Field (and also Sound Mind Sound Body) to fit perfectly between today’s music forward, while it continues to evolve in our ears, always moving towards the next conception of the listening space.
2Gli inizi di Wave Field non furono esattamente promettenti: sei copie furono tutto ciò che la sua compagnia di distribuzione vendette durante i primi tre mesi della versione originale. Interview on Spiggot magazine Interview by Michael Bundy, Aug. 1998, 12/22/1998 http://rafaeltoral.net/press/interviews/spiggot-magazine
3Dalle note contenute nel libretto che accompagna Wave Field
4“Dopo tutto è stato Brian Eno a coniare il termine ambient. Una delle sue intuizioni più importanti è stata associare le possibilità delle registrazioni e manipolazioni di nastri con l’approccio di Steve Reich, dentro una musica che tende a mescolarsi nell’ambiente, qualcosa che prima aveva suggerito Satie. Trovo affascinante l’idea di una musica che si genera da sola dopo averle dato qualche piccola coordinata, lasciando che il musicista diventi addirittura come una parte del pubblico. La musica si trasforma in una presenza, una vibrazione che sta nello spazio e che tu puoi abbandonare e riprendere in ogni momento senza notare che nel frattempo hai perso qualcosa… E’ solo una parte dell’ambiente in cui ti trovi.” Intervista di Stefano Isidoro Bianchi, 1998 (Italy) for BlowUP Maggio 1999 http://rafaeltoral.net/press/interviews/blowup-italiano
5Interview on Transmission 002 by Chuck Johnson for Transmissions Festival, Apr 1999 (Chapel Hill, NC, USA), 04/22/1999 http://rafaeltoral.net/press/interviews/transmissions-002
6Interview on Transmission 002 by Chuck Johnson for Transmissions Festival, Apr 1999 (Chapel Hill, NC, USA), 04/22/1999 http://rafaeltoral.net/press/interviews/transmissions-002
7Dalle note contenute nel libretto che accompagna Wave Field