Rafael Toral Make it Sharp: A Space Beyond Space

Space Quartet live in Barreiro, near Lisbon, November 2017 (Photo: Vera Marmelo)

When Rafael Toral was just a kid, he dreamed of flying airplanes. Growing up in Lisbon, Portugal, in a seafaring country facing the Atlantic Ocean, Toral wanted to fly — any airplane, anywhere. Somehow, at 50 years of age, without a runway or space suit, he finds himself sharing a sonic canvas with the stars, wandering an “odd intersection of Zen, electronic music and free jazz,” airborne without ever leaving the ground.

Despite the otherworldly music he makes, Toral is not affiliated with a sci-fi franchise — nor is he a stakeholder. Any resemblance that his electronics have with one’s favorite rebel droid is merely superficial. Over the last 30 years, Toral has returned music to the physicality of humankind’s earliest systems of communication. The half dozen electronic instruments he built for his Space Program (including, among others, electrode oscillator, glove-controlled computer sine waves, filtered feedback circuit) don’t function according to the conventions of Western music. Toral’s performance-oriented compositions arrive in motion, and remain in motion, by instinct: nimble hands and fearless ears.

Toral previously lived in Lisbon, working as a sound engineer at RTP, Portugal’s public broadcast TV station. For the last three years, however, he’s gone through “a process of spiritual renewal, which included moving to the countryside, learning about spirituality, and practicing meditation.” He now lives in a pre-designed model, at the bottom of a secluded valley, in the mountains of Serra do Açor. The valley is filled with a moving stillness. By day, Toral is surrounded by countless birds; by night, wild boars, owls, and foxes call out beneath a pitch-black sky “lit with so many stars that you can even see the Milky Way.”

Living off the grid, he gets electricity from the sun, water from a spring, and heat from firewood. He even fertilizes the soil in his vegetable garden using food waste: “And all of that becomes us, walking and talking humans. The same molecules in discarded orange rinds may end up being a part of me thinking about oranges.”

The magic of fermentation, a food preparation process that Toral enjoys, lies in how ingredients are broken down through the action of bacteria and fungi without the application of heat: “Especially with miso, the way the mixed ingredients become miso is a mystery.” Similarly, in Toral’s world, music is corralled through microbial creativity. Sound is transformed not through power or force, but through gradual, silent commotion from within.

The view from Toral’s house.

Beginning and ending with something far greater than himself, making and performing music honors “the feeling of delivering something, of giving, manifesting, and participating in the evolution of culture.” Toral’s creative practices inspire a deep awareness of human’s sustaining culture. If music is a gift vital as food, it’s a gift worth sharing, “I love Japanese food as an experience that goes beyond eating; it seems to promote a connection with the food at a deeper level. ‘Itadakimasu,’ the thanking expression before a meal, expresses gratitude for it, for the life process that brought the food to the table.”

Before music was domesticated into devices for measurement and employment, it was raw and pure in purpose: mysterious as miso. For Toral, creating new instruments involves creating new systems of communication that transcend the status quo. Exploring a sustainable ecology of sound gestures, Toral wanders Zen gardens free of authority, including his own. The Space Program — a project Toral launched in 2004, comprising live performances, workshops, and recordings — examines real-time decision-making within a “matrix of decision-making possibilities.” To call it composition could question its vigor; to call it improvisation could question its structure. Whether flaying flesh with squelching feedback in the Space Program or oozing cradle-kissed atmospheres during his Ambient period, Toral’s music embodies pre-lapsarian womb grooves, a dream calligraphy linking body and spirit.

Toral’s ambient music often resonates with an elusive stasis. Warm as celluloid film, Early Works demonstrates Toral’s precision during even the beginning of his solo career: an album concluding with a guitar track that skips and plunks in pointillist patterns. While Toral’s official debut, Sound Mind Sound Body, pursues prudence and purity, tight in line and light in timbre, Wave Field’s radiant guitars float in shoegazing swirls. Spun from “an empty loop constantly nourishing and digesting itself,” Aeriola Frequency models regenerative cycles through the drift of electric current. Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance quivers with guitar slivers so serene they tremble angels’ wings. And polished to a sheen, Harmonic Series 2 vibrates with bone-tingling sine waves pure as Constantin Brâncuși’s Bird in Space.

Pursuing freedom through spontaneous fusion, the Space Program zig-zags within generative parameters. While 2006’s Space, the Space Program’s first release, functions like an electronic orchestra without pit or conductor, Toral’s Space Elements series resemble Zen koans, audio anecdotes meant to puzzle and provoke. Inducing what Zen calls the “great doubt” — expressing deep insight into the nature of reality — its collaborative compositions evoke a sphinxlike quality, as if Karlheinz Stockhausen were arranging folk music for the future. In contrast, Toral’s Space Solo series deploys his customized devices unhindered by collaborators or overdubs. The searing Space Solo 2 approaches rogue signals piped from satellites patrolling an asteroid belt. When not dueling with the work of others by way of Space Elements or confronting his own Space Solo vulnerabilities, Toral occasionally leads live ensembles in the form of Space Collective (try the spleen-rupturing Live at Outfest) and interstellar Space Quartet.

Moon Field is the first installment in Toral’s Post Space Program series. With sage-like depth, it evokes an electronic atonalism on a monastic retreat. “The Stars” begins with silence, slowly split by depth charges. Electronics gurgle beside a piano’s staccato chord changes; Toral’s pocket amp wails like a soprano on a cloudless summit. Leaden keys swell mid-melody on “The Horizon,” stirring with feedback beneath a Harvest Moon. Static returns on “The Field.” The chatty pocket amp careens with stabbing keys, echoing percussively. Squelching sine waves burst into the fray as zip-lined photons slam through humid silence. Although a thorny thesis, one could reason Moon Field’s track titles address the scope of human agency: The Stars (a vertical dimension describing fate: what is given); The Horizon (a horizontal dimension portraying freedom: what is realized); and The Field (a non-dimension expressing eternity: what merely is).

Toral’s invigorating collaboration with drummer João Pais Filipe, on his new release Saturn, rides pliable groves through three long tracks. Light as helium, yet flammable as hydrogen, Saturn specializes in epic blowouts and benders. “Saturn I” kicks up stardust, flinging particles into far corners of the galaxy. In contrast, “Saturn II” floats through clouds of gas, glowing, rolling with the tides of unborn stars. And “Saturn III” froths with plasma, leaping in flares above sunspots.

Among Toral’s collaborations, Saturn sounds notably disciplined by the physical body. Toral began practicing Wing Chun, a Chinese martial art, about a year ago. “It really changes my awareness of the body in space and how it moves.” Specializing in close-range combat, the ideal Wing Chun stance resembles a piece of bamboo: firm but flexible, rooted but yielding. Guided by fluidity rather than force, Grandmaster Wing Chun teacher Yip Man summarized the system’s teaching: “Greet what arrives, escort what leaves, and rush upon loss of contact.” Transmitted by cosmic telepathy, the contact is continuous throughout Saturn, ebbing and flowing with unbroken dialogue. Blow by blow, Pais Filipe’s custom drum kit — assembled from gongs, cymbals, and bells of his own creation — spars with Toral’s custom electronics in a sonic martial art cast among the stars.

The spacecraft Cassini was launched to study Saturn in 1997. It finally reached the planet in 2004, entering orbit the same year that Toral’s Space Program first cleared Earth’s atmosphere. Thirteen years later, both Cassini’s research mission and Toral’s music navigate new thresholds. During Cassini’s final mission, it made 22 precarious orbits around Saturn, then turned to view the Earth one last time — a prick of light more than 700 million miles away — before hurling itself into the glimmering gas giant. Unlike Cassini’s fiery finale, the Space Program has not been incinerated as much as renewed by its latest dawning.

After 13 years wandering the shores of time and space, Toral explores an even more sweeping medium: “Consciousness is not a place; there’s no space in it, and no time either. It is fascinating that we are able to have immediate access to infinity and eternity. It’s the deepest realization of freedom and as there are no problems in that non-place; it favors an easing of control habits and a posture of no-problem, a certain lightness.” If space is a vast frontier — cold, dark, star-studded — it remains only a feeble frontier within consciousness: a black backdrop no-thing without size or dimension, neither containing nor occupying anything other than itself. As a practitioner of Zen meditation, Toral appreciates the challenge: “Being in touch with an absolute nothingness is maybe the freest thing one can do. Sitting meditation about nothing with focus on nothing, wanting nothing.”

Since there’s no macrocosm that can’t be found within the microcosm itself, a telescope and microscope point in the same direction. Death isn’t a failure of life any more than silence is an absence of sound. Just as there is no food without soil and no sound without silence, there is no spirit without eternity. Whether consciousness contains the distances between everything — areola and aureole; solar plexus and solar system; anti-body and anti-matter — or the square root of it all — ideas and ideals; habits and habitats; acoustics and zymology — it remains an unknowable wonder for humans to realize.

For Dennis Diderot, an Enlightenment philosopher immersed in the cultural revolutions of 18th-century France, good music mirrors primitive languages. Channeling Diderot’s revolutionary fire, Toral’s music over the last 30 years remains bold, bare, and wild. In devotion to freedom, a concept Diderot defines as “the possibility of an action’s beginning quite of itself, independent of everything past,” Toral, who recently reached a half century in age, continues to make music that sounds as fresh and young as he is — which is to say: as deep as the Milky Way, and ever-expanding.

Itadakimasu, Rafael.

The outside of Toral’s studio. His wooden house is on the left.

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
– T.S. Eliot

The following interview took place during Toral’s United States fall tour. The interview was delayed due to a breakout of wildfires in Portugal, one of the deadliest in recent history, which killed 63 people and injured 135 others. The massive wildfire scorched 469,500 acres of surrounding landscape, destroyed most of his outdoor infrastructure, and charred the outer walls of his wooden house — even warped an outdoor thermometer. In a miraculous piece of good fortune, Toral’s studio and house were spared from the fire. Somehow, through it all, only the sweet potatoes were unharmed in the garden — spotless and ready to harvest.


What is your first musical memory?

There’s a sound like that of a slowly gliding propeller airplane somewhere on Led Zeppelin III. That may not be my first memory, but it’s the earliest musical sound that left a lasting impression on me. I must have been 3 or 4 years old.

What initially inspired you to take music seriously?

I was intensely touched by the emotional qualities and the boldness of some of the early 1980s music I heard on a radio program called “Som da Frente.” Bands like Bauhaus and Cocteau Twins. So at 16, I decided I wanted to be a musician. At first I was embedded in post-punk-rock culture, but I soon became interested in ambient and contemporary music, especially John Cage and Alvin Lucier. I experimented with the guitar towards finding my way forward.

Motivation runs deep and I’m not sure I want to fully understand it. But I feel an urge to practice something that cultivates integrity and, hopefully, inspire others. The feeling of delivering something, of giving, manifesting, and participating in the evolution of culture. Making something surface that wasn’t there before. To listen to music I hear in my head. There’s also a sense of transgression, of making a positive statement that is at the same time against something. I think those were there since the beginning, along with the notion that I got early on that anything I release will be out there to live its own life, so I should aim as high as possible and make it worthy of any audience in the world.

And what background do you have in working with other art media? Are you interested in working with other media anymore?

In the 1990s I did a series of video pieces, and I also did a series of sound installations up to the early 2000s. The covers for Sound Mind Sound Body and Aeriola Frequency are from two of those videos. As I see myself entering a more open and free period, I may resume an interest in installations. I have a notebook with lots of projects. But truth is I have too much going on, and musical projects are more important to me at this point.

You have mentioned that your music methodology is physical, involving the body in the decision-making process. In addition to yoga and Zen meditation, you practice the martial art of Wing Chun. How do these various disciplines, both mental and physical, influence your work? Can you explain how this holistic feedback loop between spirit and body connect lifestyle with art style?

I’m not acutely aware of such influence, but it’s expectable that an alignment of body, mind, and spirit would enable one to reach further in whatever one sets out to do, which obviously includes art. Wing Chun (a kind of Kung-fu) has had a big impact in the way my body moves in space, bringing a strong sense of balance, efficiency, and grace. It’s like each part of the body knows where to go in a kind of dance. That may actually have its impact on the gestures producing phrasing and melody in performance. Yoga brings an inner awareness of the body, helps me keep it in good shape, ready to carry loads on tour. And meditation is a way to slow down and look at things from a greater distance. It provides a grounded capability to deal with unforeseen events in a very cool way.

I’m actually arriving at a point where I’m reevaluating the activist stance I have been having with music. One of the reasons I stopped doing ambient music was that I felt the world needed more agency and sharp awareness; that’s what the Space Program is all about. Today, though, the world is even crazier than it was 15 years ago, and there’s a lot of activism everywhere; too much contradictory information, media manipulation, and especially too many primary emotions out there, namely in political discourse. So, in spite of all the urgent battles we still do have to fight, I’m feeling we all need to slow down and step back a bit and look at the big picture. I’m currently exploring new ways to integrate these two opposing poles, going forward/staying still. We need both, and in these times I think we need to be more interested in stillness. And meditation is an important practice to really embrace a deeper sense of freedom.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher who helped popularize Eastern philosophy for Western audiences, speaks of how any of us can occupy “that particular focal point through which the entire universe is singing at this moment.” What connection, if any, is there between the outer space of the cosmos (a vast void filled with fiery furnaces) and the inner space of the mind (an even greater mystery)? Whether through music or other means, how can one access that focal point through which the universe is guided, realized, or appreciated with greater depth?

When one looks at the stars, what else is happening but the universe looking at itself? I would say that a sense of awe and gratitude for such a staggering miracle may be part of a possible answer. There are moments in performance when stuff is coming from the gut in a raw and visceral expression, all the formal and technical thinking are in the right place, the surrounding circumstance (audience, space, light, amplification, acoustics) are perfect, and it all becomes a heightened manifestation of something bigger than me, like a creative force of life. In such star-touching moments, it’s like the whole cosmos is on that spot and I’m all over the cosmos. There you go, consciousness is not a place.

What is the difference between mind and consciousness?

Consciousness is awareness beyond the mind. Just being aware, without thinking or judging. The mind is a thinking machine and just can’t wrap itself around consciousness; it can’t understand it. I’ve read an interesting distinction describing the movement of the mind as horizontal, always moving from A to B, and that of consciousness as vertical, moving from the same place to depths or heights.

Over the years, your cohorts have included various luminaries within the Portuguese improvisation scene — such as trumpet guru Sei Miguel and guitar maverick Manuel Mota — and many abroad — including Jim O’Rourke, indie’s musical polymath, and Keith Rowe, electroacoustic improvisation’s godfather. What significance does collaboration have for you? And what have you learned from your various collaborators?

Sei Miguel is not a mere collaborator, he is a master of his craft and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s a humanity virtuoso and had a staggeringly deep understanding of music, sound, and jazz. My composition system is adapted from his. Manuel Mota, he’s amazing, one of the guitarists that most fascinates me in the world. His articulation is a continuous mystery. Jim is one of my dearest and best friends, his knowledge of music is really inspiring and in my opinion he’s one of the greatest living musicians. I’ve worked with Keith Rowe for many years in MIMEO and just watching him play is a lesson. Once he made a remark on economy that I never forgot: He asked, “Imagine you have to justify every sound you play.” Once I saw AMM in Lisbon and at some point there was this slow crescendo of sound, growing steadily into a big wave with the rumble of an ascending avalanche, and when I looked at him he was doing nothing! I found it so brave, to resist like that going along with such a massive tide.

Space Quartet live at ZDB, Lisbon, 2017 (Photo: Vera Marmelo)

Collaboration, to me, means opening a space where through the creative agency of individuals something complex and potentially beautiful emerges from the collective. In such interaction individuals are responsible for what they play and the situation becomes a metaphor for mutual respect and openness. I’m often lucky to collaborate with musicians I admire, and there’s always something to learn from it, although I can’t really specify here, sometimes it’s so subtle that it stays in a subconscious level.

The Space Program, a recording and performing project that you launched in 2004, explored electronic music using a “matrix of decision-making possibilities.” Could you clarify what you mean by this “matrix” and describe how you applied it within the Space Program?

I could describe it as a range of formal parameters and modes or types of behavior that are simple in essence but get combined in infinite permutations through decisions made in every second in performance. They can become quite complex, though. Drawing from these permutations will create form in a conscious, intentional way. Every decision both creates and reveals structure. Like writing in time. That’s my understanding of composition as and in performance.

It’s basically a tool, or rather a system, to structure discourse in performance, and it’s underlying everything I play. But the real goal is phrasing. How to create meaningful, expressive, and consistent segments of articulated sound. Phrasing is a common concept in jazz, and it’s what a sax player does naturally, but it’s not obvious for electronics, because of their abstract nature and because of the background culture of electronic music. So I needed to come up with this tool to get moving towards a way of writing in time, drawing these shapes and gestures, this song, this voice. Ideally, I will know this without thinking. Playing beyond the mind with a combination of intuition and a knowledge already embedded in the body, not so much in the mind anymore. But a key to that is swing. A kind of inner motion, a sort of pendular movement similar to the weight transfers in your body when you walk; that determines what you do with time. All the rhythmic information comes from that movement that’s rolling inside.

What are some examples of other compositional methods or structures you’ve used throughout your broad body of work?

I have used written scores for the AE pieces on Sound Mind Sound Body, notating chords that evolved in out-of-sync layers, which was basically a generative process. I also did some graphic score experiments in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was fascinated with Cage and Stockhausen and had a strong interest in chance and modularity, pieces like Variable Function Modules or Score for Two Points in Space (for orchestra, never performed). Then it dawned on me, as I began working on Wave Field, that what I really wanted to do was use sound as organic composition material, recording layers of guitar sound and then slowly removing bits, like sculpture. That’s how Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance was done, too. And I had been using that approach since the beginning (Early Works), so I dropped the classes on Analysis and Composition Techniques I was taking. Later I used circuit systems or configurations — the “score” as a signal diagram — on Liveloop, that evolved into a refined, stripped-down form as Cyclorama Lift — an empty, delayed feedback loop going through resonance gear that I would change as tones would build up, a bit like watering plants and watching them grow. Engine also falls in that category, here a twin feedback loop with guitars and modular systems. Harmonic Series was a kind of generative drone, with fading harmonics and guitar, now with the computer. And then the Space Program, in which performance is the composition practice. When it comes to putting together works like the Space Elements series, though, the composition material becomes recorded bits of performance. The composing work is carried on through editing and placement, not in a way that is direct action in an environment, but a construct of both action and environment. Some tracks were recorded as an initial collaboration, but most were recorded in isolation and, trying to edit as little as possible, I would make adjustments to the music’s structure. More recently I have done directing work using these performance principles in the Space Collective, and right now I’m developing a more advanced approach with the Space Quartet.

How can systematic creative disciplines empower people creatively?

This empowerment, at least in music, comes from commitment to consistency. I don’t mean to suggest that there is less empowerment in creative efforts outside of systems (such as the practice known as free-improvisation), I am only more interested in being creative in an open way, yet being sure that I am able to deliver something consistent, something that has defined parameters. This allows me to take full responsibility for what I play, thus I will know I can give, I can deliver. I prefer this way because I am not comfortable with the idea that a true exchange with the audience might not take place. People come, I must have something to give.

What does experimentation in music mean for you? And what’s the difference between improvisation and composition — if there is any?

I experiment in order to observe what the possibilities are, then establish some kind of modular lexicon based on such observations. But I do that at home. I regard playing as a composition process, not an experimental one. Sometimes something unexpected happens on stage and I use it, and the instruments do have a degree of unpredictability, so one can say there is an experimental component, but not in order to call it “experimental.” Improvisation is nothing but the activity of making decisions according to a given set of criteria. That is universal: Everybody does that no matter what the genre or style is. Improvisation is problem solving. Where do I go from here, what do I do next? Often these decisions are made in response to what is happening with a sense of flux with the course of events. Sometimes they occur in a reactive or responsive way, and that’s one of the improvisation clichés I can’t deal with, because someone is drawing on someone else’s decisions, following someone else’s path, playing someone else’s music. I like the notion of taking full responsibility for one’s own individual decisions. Composition (understood as performance) is about making decisions as well, but according to a different use of criteria. Decisions are made with respect to an inner logic of discourse. Not in a reactive way, and bearing in mind that each decision has a defining impact on the overall form of the performance the composition. The best improvising musicians tend to have a high level of compositional awareness. Fala Mariam (extraordinaire trombonist and longtime collaborator of Sei Miguel) has put it brilliantly when describing our common approach to music: “It’s not composed, not improvised, and not a compromise between the two.”

Toral’s set-up in Detroit for a duo with Ryan Jewell.

You are known for creating music using your own ensemble of custom-designed and -built instruments. Your modified MS-2 pocket amplifier feedback device, a hand-held amplifier controlled by a photo cell flashlight, which you use to conjure wisps and howls of feedback, is especially iconic. When and where did building instruments first enter your life?

In the early 1990s I was experimenting with that little Marshall amp and noticed it made an interesting stuttering effect when the battery was weak. Later on, when i started working with Sei Miguel, he challenged me into making it more playable and controllable, so I made the modifications it has today. By that time I was touring Europe and ended up visiting STEIM in Amsterdam, and the advanced level of hacking and instrument controller design was hugely inspirational. Nicolas Collins was there at the time and man, he’s an inspiration himself. But it was only when I realized that to develop a lexicon of electronics for the Space Program I needed simple instruments, and the guitar seemed suddenly too complex. Then I became more conscious of the physical aspects of performing and how these instruments would allow for being approached as instruments, not machines. I mean that they are inert, like a saxophone on a table; they don’t run on their own as most electronics do. In order to make a sound, they require an engagement of the body with them.

How has your relationship with technology informed your creative processes?

I’ve made these instruments in a way that they’re not 100% controllable. They all have a degree of error, of unpredictability (error is the difference between an intention and its outcome). So I may have a very clear and sharp way to articulate sound in musical discourse, but it will ultimately always escape my control. That means it can’t be codified, descriptive, referential, or manipulative. It’s always escaping me, and I’m always chasing it. The music is free from myself, and I’m really at home with that extreme notion…

Which instrument was the most difficult to create; and which one has been the most difficult to play?

None were difficult to build, their modifications just responded to performance needs. Maybe the modified MT10 Fender amp (aka “Bender”) is the hardest to play because it’s very temperamental. I play by touching the circuit board with my fingers, and some sounds I do are attainable only under specific conditions of moisture, pressure, and battery voltage. Anyway, I would shift that difficulty away from the instrument, because that is not an issue for a musician. If the instrument is difficult, you practice; difficulty is just part of the process. The real issue is what to play and how. That’s what is really difficult — making the best decisions!

What are some of the greatest challenges that you’ve faced so far during 30 years of work?

Violence of Discovery, Calm of Acceptance was intense. These pieces were crafted over a period of seven years. Each of them took a long time to complete. I decided to record in that way, slowly building up a collection of tracks. These were probably the most challenging because I wanted them to be accomplished beyond my highest potential. So when the stakes are so high, it’s a steep climb to get up there, especially in the initial recording stages where the material is far from cutting anything and hardly qualifies as music. I never planned how each piece would sound like in the end, but I remember having described it as a bit like sculpture, because I worked by removing materials in a way that revealed forms. Another was the Space Elements series, in which the basic approach was using segments of recorded performance as composition materials. A lot of that material was recorded in isolation by the participants, not knowing what the context would be. So the challenge was editing and mixing in a way that would make it sound like the musicians were listening to each other. It was very meticulous work.

Actually the whole Space Program may have been the greatest challenge I’ve ever had, to get myself to a state where I can play abstract electronics with the mind of a jazz player. It seems pretty straightforward to me now, but looking back I see I’ve had to invent a way of making music from scratch. And to understand it from a historical perspective wasn’t easy either, as I wanted to jump out of the electronic music tradition and immerse myself in the culture of jazz but with utterly inadequate tools, these strange instruments. So this place is like a crossroad in a no-man’s land, where I can’t look back and draw much from either culture.

I was surprised when I started recording Moon Field, because it was showing qualities that were not going quite in the same direction I was intending. It was a long process of listening deeply to where it wanted to go and discard more and more of the material I had recorded into it. It was as if it were rejecting materials from its own body. Sometimes that happens, the music just wants to go somewhere else.

Often I have an idea, and when I put it into practice it sounds horrible. The process of bringing that idea to life from there is often just painful.

And what structures and methods do you intend to explore in the future?

I have a number of ideas in my head, and I see that, since Moon Field, I am entering a space where I feel I can open up my work to other territories, other directions, other cultures. I am past the period I obliged myself to follow a disciplined path of “research” and development, which I called the Space Program. Now I can put the findings in different contexts. One which seems to be already happening on Moon Field is some kind of integration with my former work with ambient. More explorations on that direction are likely to surface in the near future. Another example is the first piece on Saturn; it’s my first recording with a jazz-rock groove. I wonder what developments could arise from there.

The latest development of the Space Program is the Space Quartet, where these ideas are explored in the context of a “band.” Its music unfolds constantly into new places, as a result of each musician making their own asynchronous decisions on their own materials. It’s the most advanced embodiment of what I’ve been developing in the last 15 years, in a post-free-jazz context. I’ll definitely keep working on it. Otherwise I’m currently inspired to lean into exploring some new cross-pollination between cultural territories. Methods and structures may then arise from what I find.

What does the notion of inspiration mean? And how do you deal with it?

Sometimes I hear something and it sparks an idea, sometimes a whole record concept. I am curious about how some ideas would sound, and I’m drawn into exploring them. Otherwise, my steps are informed by the previous ones. I go somewhere, I try to figure out what it is, what kind of place it is and where can I go from there, what makes sense to do, what would move forward in the sharpest and most assertive way? Yes, most “inspiration” ends up being a confrontation with what is in front of me at each moment. Sometimes I am also negatively inspired by watching musicians play. It often shows me where I’m not going, and sharpens my compass in a different direction. I draw very little inspiration for music from anything other than music itself. I don’t know, it’s a bit of a mystery, but it seems that “inspiration” to me is contemplating new possibilities, looking at what’s ahead of the curve and being drawn in that direction.

Much of your music references outer space with an obvious sense of wonder — both the Space Program and the album Saturn being two recent cases. Your music, however, always begins and ends on this planet, in your body. What interest do you have in the cosmos?

The cosmos, just like Nature, is something we tend to feel separated from (especially in city life), but that’s simply what we are. We are the cosmos, made of particles that originated in exploding stars long before our planet was even here. And so is all of Nature, which is nothing different from or exterior to ourselves. That reminds me of how it’s impossible to “throw things out.” Because there’s no “out.” Or “away.” Anyway. It’s quite a struggle to avoid being taken from some kind of sci-fi geekiness angle, with all the “outer space” and R2D2-like description of sounds. That’s missing the point. I’ve always meant to use the word “space” with respect to its various instances in our life: physical, mental, visual, aural space, which are so saturated with information, of which most is junk. It’s always been a statement on how we need to create space. A blank sheet is what renders what’s written on it readable. Some quietness is needed to see things clearly in our mind. And especially in music, silence is the mother of all sounds, and it takes a willingness to be quiet in order to let sounds occur unhindered. To let the music breathe, silence is the air. To let it be transparent so you can appreciate the depth of its layers, rather than being solid and opaque (well, some genres just work that way). Most often when music displays a poor understanding of silence, it gets boring.

You can see all the Space Program record covers are not spaceships nor planets but instead art concerned with space. Actually, Saturn is my first record ever with a planet or any “outer space” thing on the cover. As I was looking for image ideas, I arrived at the Cassini spacecraft and the gorgeous photos it took of Saturn, its rings and all its moons. I’m in awe of its staggering achievements, having been 20 years in space and beaming all these amazing photos to Earth plus lots of insights about that planetary system. But the music was made before I started looking for cover images and has nothing to do with Saturn, heh. It’s just music.

Victor E. Frankl — an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor — believed all humans are motivated by a striving to find meaning in life. Frankl traced the ontology of human agency to a concept of space: “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” What role does creative agency have within your work? How is that agency related to clarity and control?

Exactly, I couldn’t agree more! He surely knew what he was talking about. That applies to what I said above about improvisation and composition. Sometimes it takes a second to realize that the best response to something is silence. Or evenly continuing what we were doing without a change. That kind of agency is essential for me, it brings freshness to music and I appreciate the clarity of individual decisions that push it forward. There is a lot of freedom in that. But more importantly is how that sentence applies to life in general. We may have stuff happening to us, but we can choose how to respond to it. And if there’s suffering involved, we have the power to respond in a way that perpetuates the suffering by creating more of it and passing it onto others, or we may choose to take the responsibility to overcome it in ourselves and respond towards healing and creativity. Growth and freedom, indeed. Most circumstances in our lives are the result of choices we made. And it takes a lot of clarity to look deep into that and avoid being victimized. Like, getting a parking ticket or putting up with neighbors is a result of having chosen to live in a city. Most people don’t realize that’s a choice.

Throughout a 30-year career, you’ve espoused such values as integrity, responsibility, and acceptance within your music-making. In a world troubled by systemic oppression — not to mention indifferent forces of nature — can music still matter? Whether in the name of science, activism, amusement, philosophy, etc., what purpose, if any, should that little word serve: art?

Art is a way to manifest our humanity in a way that potentially reflects the world back to us. It can enhance our humanity and change our perception and thinking and feeling. It may connect us more deeply with our body, mind, and spirit. It may provide a poetic frame to our perception of the world. Music creates bonds between people. There is no record of any single civilization without music. It always mattered, and it matters a lot. There’s a drive to manifest humanity through sound that is very, very old, and runs very, very deep.

If you could translate the essence of your music language into the language of life, converting 30-years’ worth of feelings about aesthetics into one deep life lesson, what counsel would you offer a complete stranger — who knew nothing of you, or of your art — in need of loving wisdom?

Do better than your best and ask yourself where it fits in the world. Engage your body with the sound you’re making. Follow your passion and make it sharp.

Space Quartet in Barreiro, near Lisbon, November 2017 (Photo: Vera Marmelo)

Most Read