Few contemporary artists are as honest and progressive with their work as Rafael Toral - his music is always pushed forward into new territory without returning to previously treaded ground, and this is especially true of the point of departure that occurred a decade ago, after the release of his album Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance saw him eventually move from exploratory, droning guitar-based work, to a period he called the Space Program, with its hallmark releases such as three three recent volumes of the Space Elements series. Since creating the Space Program, Toral has turned to a much more abstract approach to composition, with electronic tones and unconventional instrumentation making up the framework of his releases and live work. Rafael kindly spoke via email about his thoughts on how he became a musician; on writing music for posterity; and on the act of releasing his recordings.
How, and at what age, did you first become interested in music? Do you come from a musical family?
I started playing acoustic guitar at 12, but it was only at age 16 that I realized I wanted to be a musician. I used to passionately listen to a radio show that played music I was very involved with. I was soon very interested in the possibilities for sound processing with guitars and electronics. At the time, I wanted to make music that I wanted to hear, or heard in my head but wasn’t available. I did not come from a musical family, my parents did everything to discourage me from making music, especially because they didn’t find any value in it.
Was there a particular age when you realized that your music was releasable – that is, do you feel you had to have a certain amount of experience of life before you began expressing higher subjects through music?
When I was 19, I was recording music that would later become “Sound Mind Sound Body,” my debut album. I was not really sure it was releasable – in fact releasing a record was beyond my wildest dreams then. Anyway, I started sending cassettes to labels but it would still take another six years before my first record saw the daylight. I didn’t think about my life experience, my concern was whether the music would stand on its own. Interestingly, 14 years later, with the release of Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance, I could look back and see all the evolution of my work (up to 2001) originating in those early recordings.
Were people supportive early on with your musical endeavors, or was the process of starting to put out records and establish yourself difficult? How necessary for this process was encouragement from others, and who provided initial encouragement — e.g. friends, family, mentors, etc.?
My girlfriend encouraged me immensely at that time, she gave me confidence (I am still grateful for her support). Otherwise I was quite isolated. I didn’t know anyone with similar interests, and at that time there was no easy access to Internet or email. My first attempt to get more connected was a fax machine. At some point I started travelling to New York and met Phill Niblock. The first person I met that I felt was really close to me and working in the same field was Jim O’Rourke (this was 1996, about 10 years after I started doing stuff). We became good friends and it was only when he reissued “Wave Field” in 1998 that things started to take off. By then I had started work with Sei Miguel, now one of my best friends, and his guidance was critical after I decided that I would quit making guitar drone music and start something radically different, electronic phrasing based on silence. But yes, basically I spent my first 10 years in near isolation and had practically no encouragement.
Is posterity an idea that you think about with your music, or in another sense, do you think of the long-term effect of your compositions?
Always. I always try to release music that will still stand 20 or 50 years later on. It must have a high degree of consistency and perfection before it leaves my hands. I really don’t want to be embarassed for having released something that was not prepared for aging well, or that wasn’t properly matured. I believe that releasing music is worth if it’s going to be around for a long while, it should resist the passing of time.
Although you later moved on from composing for the guitar after the Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance album, what initially attracted you to the instrument?
I became fascinated with the sound transforming possibilities of electronics early on, long before i could afford any gear. The electric guitar was a natural gateway into live electronics and it still remains one of the most versatile instruments today. I became interested in hacking and modifying stuff when I first visited STEIM in Amsterdam back in 1995. It was really inspiring to see engineering expertise put to service at cracking things up and putting them to different uses than what they were designed for.
How did the idea for the Space Program period come about?
The main reason was that I found my previous line of work completed, when I was finishing “Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance” by late 1999. I clearly felt I had achieved what I could ever have hoped to, and would become formulaic from there on. I can’t tolerate repeating myself. So my decision was to just stop doing it and enter something new, as radically different from the previous work as possible. The first things I decided for the new “era”, were: first, that the music would be based on direct action over silence; second, that it should be made of real-time decisions; and, third, it would be electronic. Another key factor that propelled me was that the world is changing in alarming ways and we need to take action and be aware. My previous line of works was mostly designed to be an immersive experience, an alternative environment. Taking a hard look at it, it seemed to me an escapist approach to music. So I decided to make music that would be the opposite: sharply produced sounds over silence, made by direct physical action and resulting exclusively from individual decisions. Music of action, music of awareness. A more fitting approach to the idea that we must be much more active as individuals in changing our world.
What are some of the realizations you’ve had about music as a form in the course of your work? Do you feel you are learning aspects of composition that you originally set out to learn? What aspects of music most interest you in exploring in the future?
One curious thing when you shift so radically between fields of work is noting that different fields require different thought. For instance, if you play classical string quartets, you will need certain notions on music, noise and silence, and if you make “reductionist” improvisation you need a completely different set of those basic notions. So I learn there are no absolute truths about what is music. I used to think it was an activity of the brain (i can hear an airplane musically), but these days I’m closer to the notion that music is an engagement of the body with sound (this is useful for my music of today).
What I want to learn, and have been learning in the last seven years, is how to compose a musical shape based entirely on real-time decisions. To be able to compose a perfect piece of music that is exclusively a result of decisions you made in the course of playing it. The challenge is to slowly train yourself to make only good decisions, which is like a holy grail, extremely difficult. Because you make many decisions per second during a performance. Not to mention that often a “good” decision is subverting your own line of thinking. Then there’s all the collaborative aspect – playing with other people is always a different challenge, because you have to make good decisions too but the outcome is shared, everything has to be taken into account…
In the future i will be investing more efforts in direction, developing the Space Collective. I also intend to make a thorough revision of my instruments. I want to be able to play only one instrument, and I still have to design it in a way that it’s as versatile as possible. And while doing that, carry on with completing the Space Program recordings, which has 10 releases planned. It’s exactly halfway now – five have been released. Space Solo 2 will probably be released still in 2011, while work on Space Elements Vol. IV will start soon.
Do you have advice for people who aim to release music?
1. Make sure it’s good, that you worked on it as far as you could. Be extremely demanding on yourself. Always try to achieve something much better than the best you believe you can do.
2. Make sure it’s intellectually honest, and that it comes from you. Try to find your voice.
3. Ask yourself if the world needs it. What are you actually giving to people, will it matter to them? Does it improve, or destroy, something?
What are some of the unexpected challenges that you have experienced in this pursuit?
The challenge is that there’s way too much stuff out there…
With the Space Program, it has been difficult to place this music with respect to its cultural values. Each genre of music has its own set of values. You can only appreciate Dixieland music according to its own values -you can’t grasp such music if you use, say, Death Metal music values. So what happened is that I made a value shift, by making electronic music that is hard to understand if not under jazz values. Everything in the Space Program is jazz… except the music. That is a big challenge I’ve been struggling with for years and it continues.
What is the process of making an album like for you from start to finish? Is it a long process, and is it difficult or enjoyable, or both?
I’ve been busy recording Space Elements series records. The process is very meticulous and complex, involving several layers of recorded performance, including guests, that must have matching qualities of listening. That is, I can record myself playing three different instruments on layered tracks, but they have to sound like they’re listening to each other. Space, the first record in the Space Program, was the most difficult since it features an “orchestra” of twenty-one instances of myself performing many different types of phrasing, and it sounds like “they” are all playing together.
The Solo series records are much simpler to produce, since they only contain pure solo performance. The challenge here is to choose only the best material, which has to be edited to the highest standards.
It’s usually a long, slow process, and some parts of it are enjoyable and exciting, but most of it is quite difficult, sometimes even painful.
In that you do not seem to be an artist who compromises their work, have you dealt with much rejection as an artist, and if so, how is this something you have dealt with?
I’m aware my work is not very easy, so it’s natural not to be widely accepted, but I’ve actually received many signs of recognition and acceptance all over the world.
Are there other fields of study you are interested in, in science, or in other areas of art, for example?
I’m interested in art in general, and curious to learn how the world works…