All the Things We Learnt at Our On the Couch Session with Rafael Toral
We recap all the wisdom from electronic music producer, composer and performer Rafael Toral's fascinating Guest Session. Learn about his unique approach to sound design, electronic instruments, performance and electronic music philosophy.
Rafael Toral clutches a compact electronic box beside a wire-festooned table of similarly peculiar devices. The guests of our latest On the Couch session have little idea what to expect from his imminent, intimate demo. Well, other than to have their heavy Monday-evening eyes pried open by something extraordinary.
Dramatic movement follows, including the rapid gesticulation of fingers and thumbs atop the unassuming little box. Unassuming because the sound it creates, through Rafael’s emotive manipulation, is nothing short of otherworldly. The same goes for the two other instruments he chooses to demonstrate. In the space of 15 minutes, the audience is met with mechanical jungle animal calls, melodic microphone feedback, from-the-grave Jimi Hendrix, chaotic alien rhythms and, disconcertingly, warped bleeps not dissimilar to the theme of CBBC’s late-’90s game show 50/50.
Rafael’s familiar-but-strange, meticulous-but-free sound is a challenge to describe – even for himself. That’s because it’s less about the brain and more about the body; feeling over thinking. Shifting the emphasis of electronic music from technology to the musician, the innovative composer and performer’s projects explore silence and space through decision-making and physical gesture. As well as an impressive history of solo and collaborative performances, the Lisboan has also had many years’ experience working in public broadcasting as a recording engineer and TV sound designer.
Hosted by Electronic Music Production & Performance lead Eliad Wagner, the session discussed in detail Rafael Toral’s very unique approach to sound design and performance, including instrument design and electronic music philosophy. Here are all the things we learnt from the unforgettable evening.
Conventions limit creativity
“It’s the exact opposite of being in a bubble. It’s about being out in space and having nothing; there is no safety net and no filters.”
Listening to Rafael perform, one of the first questions you find yourself asking is, ‘Where on Earth – or the universe – does this music come from? Where did he even begin?’ Perhaps surprising to some, the musician has a classical background and formally played guitar and ambient drone music for 15 years. So what changed?
“I realised I had started to become too comfortable with it,” he said. “If I were to continue, I would just end up repeating myself. I also thought that this music was too comfortable to listen to.” Driven to rethink his approach, he decided that he should instead deliver an energy to the world that is “more about sharpness and action and being direct and vulnerable.” “It’s the exact opposite of being in a bubble,” he continued. “It’s about being out in space and having nothing; there is no safety net and no filters.”
Rafael realised that established musical conventions and traditions limit creativity. “I wanted to start from scratch and not carry the culture that comes with guitar,” he revealed. “All the history and technical and cultural baggage that comes with an instrument; I wanted to play instruments that didn’t have that.” Baggage is the last thing you’d associate with his compact touring collection of microphones, oscillators, modulators, amplifiers, circuits and wires.
Rafael is the first to admit, however, that his change of career direction, although exciting on a personal level, wasn’t necessarily the best professional decision. “It was natural – not easy, of course – to stop and come up with something entirely different,” he said. “I was very motivated by that. It was like, this is the time and that is over and I’m going to start over and do something else. But I knew it would come at a price. The networking, the labels, the concert promoters, the audience, everything changed. It took me a long time to even start getting in touch with another type of circuit. So, in that sense, it was kind of artistic suicide.”
Rafael’s words were a welcome reminder, however, that an artist’s passion to create is everything. In the long run, the easiest or most lucrative route is not always the best one. After all, the creative path is never linear.
Paradox is the point
“My main line of work and development is how to make music with an instrument that is not entirely controllable. At the same time, I want to be intentional and conscious.”
Rafael shared a brilliant quip he once made in an interview: “it’s all jazz, except for the music.” In jazz, he explained, “the musicians play in a way that they know where they are going, but in the same way, they are making decisions; it’s open.” In comparison, he described his own music as “a kind of free jazz, except without scales, chords or notes.” Not only are there no pre-established forms, sounds, notions or rules, but “you couldn’t even think of these instruments in terms of the same technical culture that jazz operates on.”
We can be certain in labelling Rafael’s music as electronic though, right? Wrong! “On the one hand, technically, if we describe electronic music as music made with electronic instruments, then yes,” he asserted. “But, in terms of what the music is, in terms of where it comes from, its cultural background, what informs it historically, what is the spiritual code, then the term electronic music is basically meaningless.” He stressed that music from every genre is made with electronic instruments. “It could be techno, it could be noise, it could be near silence, it could be academic-style electronic music, it could be historic academic music, or vintage. Electronic music can be so many things – even pop.”
And don’t call Rafael’s music experimental either – or the opposite, composed. “My main line of work and development is how to make music with an instrument that is not entirely controllable,” he said. “At the same time, I want to be intentional and conscious. Which means that it’s not experimental and it is as least improvised as possible – which doesn’t mean it’s composed.” We learnt that his technique is more about developing a vocabulary for each instrument, which is deliberate, but by no means fixed.
“It’s the thinking behind the decisions of making and not making sounds, and how those decisions articulate,” Rafael expanded. “And what kind of sounds? Short sounds, long sounds, high pitched, low pitched, easy periods or bad periods, levels of density – whatever parameters you can look at music from. It’s the mental tools to make those decisions and also the way the body is called to make its own decisions. There’s an element of irrationality and surrealism. When you perform, you can make a decision, but the muscles have the final word. There’s intelligence all over the body and there’s some stuff that comes from the knees or from the stomach; it’s really not mental.”
Sound depends on circumstance
“Sometimes it just flows beautifully; it just plays itself. I just do something and it sings. Other days, it’s like I have to really pull the music from the instrument, as if it didn’t want to be played.”
Talking of the stomach, Rafael revealed that even what he just had for dinner can influence the sound he creates. “Sometimes it brings me up, sometimes it really brings me down.” From time spent over Japanese food to a cheap pizza or sandwich, food affects how he feels, in turn affecting the music.
It goes back to Rafael’s emphasis on the body over the brain, and its reaction to the environment and setting. “What happens depends on what is happening within the room. How the PA sounds, how the audience is reacting. It’s very sensitive, there are a lot of different parameters,” he explained.
“The circumstance of each performance is different; it changes. The resonance, the monitors, the stage, the temperature, the humidity, everything changes a lot. Sometimes it just flows beautifully; it just plays itself. I just do something and it sings. Other days, it’s like I have to really pull the music from the instrument, as if it didn’t want to be played.”
Ultimately, Rafael welcomes imperfection. “Formally I could be more of a perfectionist,” he said, “because as I composed with sound, I was able to control very small details of how it sounded.” Laughing, he admitted, “sometimes it’s almost a disaster and other times it’s amazing. But when it’s almost a disaster, fortunately, people still like it. They say, ‘oh, that was great!’”
You can connect with electronics
“I tried hard to see if someone else was also having this kind of approach to electronics. I think it was totally worthwhile because I was able to deliver something.”
Eliad pointed out that electronic musicians often struggle to find a relationship or connection to their instruments, for the simple reason that electronic music can ‘play itself.’ “Some people spend their whole lives trying to bridge a certain distance with an audience just because it’s always a bunch of gears,” he remarked.
The living nature of Rafael’s performances and the tangibility of his instruments deconstruct that barrier. For one, his sounds certainly can’t play themselves; it is his body’s interaction with the technology that creates the music.
This was an important takeaway. Whether or not the session’s attendees were inspired to go out and create their own instruments, they could certainly feel closer to the technology by approaching it in interesting new ways. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but you can reinvent the jog wheel.
“It was rewarding because I was able to develop something which, as far as I know, wasn’t there before,” Rafael added. “I tried hard to see if someone else was also having this kind of approach to electronics. I think it was totally worthwhile because I was able to deliver something.”
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