Rafael Toral takes off

Portugal's sound design stalwart discusses new LP on Room 40

Rafael Toral 1 900.59ca22876c443
Photo credit: Vera Marmelo
Rafael Toral

Rafael Toral is a sound designer and experimental composer based in Lisbon, Portugal, but the musician's sonic footprint reaches well beyond the EU. Blending a heady mix of drone, ambient, jazz, improvisation, and just about everything in between, Toral culls expansive sets of aural minimalism highlighted on solo and collaborative endeavors, collaborating with some of the most renowned names in experimental music, namely Jim O'Rourke, Fennesz, David Toop, C Spencer Yeh and more.

Recently, Toral announced Moon Field, his first work on Australian experimental powerhouse Room 40. The work is a drifting, open-ended exploration of skewed avant-jazz, electronic squawks and squiggles, and sublime subtlety, all executed with the magic of chance. The overall effect is dizzying and hypnotic, with the sensation of floating over the moon's vacant and serene surface. Toral checked in amidst his expansive tour of the U.S. to discuss his earliest musical obsessions, Portugal's varied music scene, his new album and the end of his aptly named Space Program, an open-ended series of improvised, collaborative works that explore sound in a specific space.

When did you first notice music, and what song/album/piece of music did you first obsess over?

My earliest memory is the sound like that of a propeller airplane somewhere on Led Zeppelin III. I really loved that, more than the songs. My first obsession was AC/DC, when I was 10.

When did you start making music?

I learned to play Beatles songs when I was 12, but I only realized I wanted to be a musician when I was 16.

Lawrence English mentioned you'd spoken with him a decade ago about releasing your work on Room 40. How did this decade-long idea finally come to fruition?

I played a few gigs in Australia and New Zealand back in 2008, and his support was crucial. I promised to offer material for a Room 40 release, but I had already started the Space Program and didn't find the space nor the suitable materials until now.

When I was working on Moon Field, it seemed like it would fit the label very well. And I like to keep my promises. I find integrity one of the most important values one can hold.

RM480Rafael Toral Moon FieldRAFAEL TORAL: Moon Field | Courtesy Room 40

Moon Field is your first work to move beyond the Space Program series. Are you finished with the Space Program?

I am done with the recording series. The Space Program includes direction, workshops, live performances and those will continue, such as specific formations like the upcoming Space Quartet. That said, I see myself entering a broader space, in which I can bring more information in, or move in different directions. And in some instances I may want to integrate them, holding them as one.

Many of your recordings involve collaborations. Do you prefer working with partners, or solo? Or can you compare them?

It's naturally different. The SP is completely geared towards collaboration. The concern with space and silence have a lot of focus on relationship. On how, by being silent, one opens up a space where others can act freely and without pre-conditions.

But then, on one hand, playing solo is ultimately challenging because I have full responsibility and become utterly vulnerable. We usually associate vulnerability with weakness but it's actually the opposite. Only cultivating inner strength can one be vulnerable without fear.

Where do you fit within Portugal's music scene? How does it compare to other cities with experimental scenes?

I think I tend to be more at home in avant-jazz environments and also where music yet-to-be-named flourishes. Happily there is quite a bit of that going on in Lisbon. It's been growing in the last 10 years into a very rich music scene. Amazing music is being made there, in several genres, including stuff that falls out of any category. There is also great stuff in Porto, it's a powerful city.

What is different when performing live versus performing in a studio or in seclusion?

The difference is the relationship. The fact that the audience is there people who come over to donate money, time and attention. That instantly puts me in the position of giving something back, to deliver at the highest level I can, to give the best of me. But then there's the energy from the audience that somehow gets through. If people are bored or thrilled has an effect on how I play. An audience can put me at plain work or can magically draw the best of me.

In studio there's none of that but you have a controlled environment. On a good day the music just flows. There is stuff on record that's done with low expectations and magic occurred.

You're touring a few U.S. dates with Ryan Jewell. How did you two meet?

I was playing in Columbus, OH with C Spencer Yeh and Trevor Tremaine and Ryan sat in with us. I really liked what he was doing and in a later tour we were doing shows together. But it turned out to be way better than we could imagine!

What can Atlanta expect from your live set?

Commitment, vulnerability, passion, body mind and spirit, presence and giving. Oh, and the freest music I can conceive.

Rafael Toral, Garland and Majid Araim play Mammal Gallery Tues., Sept. 26. 91 Broad St. S.W. www.mammalgallery.com.

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