Margarida Azevedo

Interview with Rafael Toral 

It’s a challenge to interview Rafael Toral. Getting to know his career in depth involves many hours of attentive listening, getting to know his instruments and the musicians with whom he has shared records and stages.

Toral is synonymous of meticulousness, research, and creation. This interview is an overview of his 35 years of creation and research into sound, and we’ll talk about his new album Spectral Evolution, which is a clear reflection of Toral’s entire career.


Thank you, Rafael, for accepting this interview.

Thank you, Margarida, for your work and interest.

Congratulations on the new record! Tell me a bit about it and how it reflects your career.

The record first came to me with the image of a garden as a musical metaphor. Just as harmony welcomes the “right” notes into the melody, in a garden there are only the right plants in the right place. So, what I wanted to do was make music equivalent to the weeds that grow wild in the soil, abundant and disordered, using electronic instruments as a source of “chaotic” melodies that spring from a harmonic ground. That first idea was the hardest. It took me a long time to get the electronics to stop “hovering” over the harmony separately, but I eventually managed to “teach” harmony to those little beasts so that the two layers came together. Another root of the record is the fascination with 1930s jazz harmony, almost all the parts are standard forms of old jazz, starting with Changes, whose chords Gershwin wrote in 1930. Other parts are elements made abstract, like the “ii-V-I” cadence, and others.

As I had already observed myself gravitating towards more static music, I “remembered” that I have a whole past with this approach and imagined that I could orchestrate the chords with the guitar sound I discovered in Sound Mind Sound Body in 1987. A lot of my guitar work up until 2003 is evoked on the record, and naturally the electronic “soloists” came straight from Space Program (everything I did between 2004 and 2017). There you go – Space Program was launched in a break with the previous phase, I even had to change the way I thought about music, so this record is about reconciling opposing worlds.

How do you feel about returning to the guitar and using it together with the instruments you made? Can you elaborate a little more on how you thought about composing Spectral Evolution?

Formerly, I always understood the guitar as an object that emits sound, harmonics, resonances, and feedback. I had basic skills as a guitar player, enough to play rock, but I never had the slightest interest in guitar technique or harmonic mechanisms. In fact, I was bored with guitar discourse because you had to interrupt one sound to make another, and playing quickly you couldn’t appreciate any of them. This “return” to the guitar is much more than that, I’m actually starting again. I’ve internalized, from the music I love, that chords are also a sound in themselves. Especially in jazz, which uses complex chords with particular “colors” that end up making sense when inserted into a sequence of their own, they don’t exist separately. So, I surrendered, because I want to use this material. As Miles said to Bill Evans while listening to him play, “there – I want that sound“. That means taking an interest in things I’ve hated all my life: scales, modes, rules. I’m acquiring what I’ve spent my whole life rejecting. I’m just starting out, observing space. I know that it closes easily and only opens with a lot of effort.

The composition of the album took shape when I began to observe certain symmetries in the pieces. I decided to have more static pieces that I called “spaces”, two short and two long. One piece descending and one ascending, etc. This is how I ended up making the composition symmetrical, which progresses in reverse order from the center and ends with a “reprise”, back to the opening theme.

Do you think your experience with alternative rock is audible on this record?

I think so, those formative experiences of youth always end up in the blood, in the DNA.


It’s revealed in details, or in the attitude towards certain things, or sometimes in a direct reference, for example in the sound of Ascending, where I use a fifth, a typical rock interval with a distorted sound that’s also classic rock. More subtle is the use of some voicings in the orchestration. In jazz, it’s common to omit the fifth from a chord, as it only adds body and doesn’t add anything characteristic to the chord. But in rock the fifth is essential, it’s what makes a “power chord”. That’s why I’ve often chosen ways of orchestrating chords with the fifth above the bass, which gives a delicious, sensory vibe that’s closer to rock. It’s not a deliberate choice, it just sounds better to me, it’s in my blood…

It’s a very strong record emotionally. How did you think about and create the soundscapes?

Well, I actually thought about relations, balances and contrasts. In most cases I tried to respond to the demands of the material itself, to the directions that the music dictated. I’m not very good at creating things from scratch. Whenever I really try to draw a landscape, the material shows discomfort and makes demands. Resisting is pointless, the music is always right. You have to listen to it, it talks to me, always complaining…, but when it finally says “Ah, yes!”, that’s worth everything.

I was still a teenager when I read Kandinsky’s Point, Line, Plane, and in it there was an observation that has always stayed with me: that a straight line is a point in movement, driven by a single force, and that a curved line is the same, but driven by two conflicting forces, and is therefore intrinsically dramatic. I noticed early on that this is also true on sound. You can see it a lot, for example, in Blues bendings. An instrument like the “MS-2” mini-amp in feedback (with which it’s difficult to draw a straight line) doesn’t seem to sound very dramatic in its natural element (free-form, like the Space Quartet), but placed in an assumed relationship with chords and harmonic structures, it easily takes on a very strong emotional expressiveness, sounding as much like a lament as a scream. Then there’s the whole atmosphere of classical harmony, some chords have a poignant expressiveness. To begin with, just look at a basic cadence in jazz and one that is used a lot on the record, the “ii-V-I”. The roman numerals refer to the degrees of a major scale, in which the “ii” is a minor chord, usually associated with a feeling of melancholy or sadness, the “V” is a dominant chord, full of tension, and inclined to reach the “I” which is a major chord, of fullness and rest. The history of music is full of these movements, and on the album the emotions in the chords are felt more intensely because the rhythm is soooo slow.

Is your departure from the city for a life in the countryside reflected in these landscapes? How?

It makes me think… all the music I’ve made has always been very little permeable to information outside the universe of music. It has always been, and I wanted it to be, about nothing, without describing or imitating anything and with no subject other than itself. Curiously, this has been a constant since the beginning. Everything on the album already existed before I left Lisbon, and the “landscapes” have little in the way of landscape in my mind, everything is saturated with formal concerns. It’s that effect that James Turrell used to talk about, that he was interested in the movement of a swan gliding over water, but without seeing its legs paddling underneath… It’s true that some of the denser parts are inspired by the idea of the rainforest, that mass of sound that isn’t governed by an orchestral logic, but by a logic intrinsic to Nature, but that has nothing to do with where I live, in fact, that idea first occurred to me while I was still in Lisbon… Even so, it’s a good moment to remind ourselves that we’re all Nature, we’re not separate from it or anything else. I think being interested in this is at least healthy and at most necessary. It’s true that living in the city doesn’t make this any easier.

Silence – and the investigation of this space – is clear in your discography in the phase you call Space Program. How do you see this silence and space in the new album?

Spectral Evolution already belongs to another paradigm of thought. Silence and space are equivalent in Space Program and are the floor of the time grid in which decisions are made – especially rhythmic ones, about when to make sound. On this record there are segments of phrasing in which these principles are followed (for example, right at the Intro), but in most cases the discursive logic in electronics has become more of Nature, and through multiplicity, many voices simultaneously (this tends towards landscape, then towards rest, then towards silence, but in a radically different way and with a radically different end point). The Space Program focused on human discourse and silence as the white of the paper that allows us to read whatever is written on it. It’s a different kind of space. Spectral Evolution doesn’t conceive of emptiness, it’s full of earth and living matter.

In your 35-year career, you’ve crossed paths and developed work with various musicians. Jim O’Rourke’s label, Moikai, has been without releasing for around 20 years. Tell us a bit about your work with Jim O’Rourke.

Jim has been a dear friend for many years. We’ve only played together a few times. He has a very sharp critical sense and intuition, as well as a degree of knowledge and mastery in almost everything to do with music. I was having serious difficulties with the process of making the record “ignite”, of making it take on an identity and a life of its own, when I decided to send the version I had at the time to Jim, asking him to listen to it and point out criticisms, in the hope that he would help me to unblock and understand things that weren’t working. He replied saying that he really liked it, and that he was thinking of relaunching his label to publish it. I understood that he liked it, after all I was trying to make a masterpiece, but as for the label, I couldn’t take him seriously, I thought it was too far-fetched, I thought there was a side to him that I wouldn’t understand. But as it turns out, he really meant it.

I really like the Noise Precision Library. Can you go into a bit more detail about these digital editions?

Thank you. I started publishing recordings that I thought were interesting, that I could share with anyone who followed me, but that I didn’t think justified the investment in a physical medium or in press coverage. Some old stuff from 4-track tapes, etc. And I also had recordings of collaborations, mostly live and some notable, that I didn’t want to be left in the drawer. It ended up working as a public record of a lot of things I did that never made it onto a record. I ended up making a few editions on CD too, but very few, like Harmonic Series 3 or Under the Sun. At this stage I’ve published very little because I’m still in transition…

Thanks, Rafael.

You can read the record review in this link.