Rafael Toral Moon Field

[Room40; 2017]

Styles: retro-electro-space-jazz
Others: Beaver and Krause, John Cage’s star atlas compositions, audio from the moon landing

“You start something, and then you listen to it and ask it to tell you what it wants to be next, and you just keep working that way until I don’t know what, because no one had actually done that before.”
– Morton Subotnick, on Silver Apples of the Moon

“The music wanted to be something very peculiar and I changed it a lot in response to that.”
– Rafael Toral, on Moon Field

In 2003, the Portuguese experimental musician Rafael Toral shifted his attention from ambient guitar works to spacey electronic music. “Spacey” in several senses, in that it was far-out, unaccountable music, about outer space, and conceptualized on spatial terms. His Space Program explored the intersections of these ideas through solo and collaborative concerts, workshops, and records. The project resulted in six albums, including Space, Space Solo 1 and 2, and Space Elements Vol. I, II, and III. Moon Field is purportedly Toral’s first album in 14 years outside of the Space Program series, but the distinction is merely nominal. His concern with space in all its overlapping connotations is manifested here as much as ever.

Moon Field is thematically and conceptually similar to Morton Subotnick’s astronomically-minded experimental work Silver Apples of the Moon. In conceiving of early electronic music, Subotnick composed largely by responding to his newly invented Buchla 100 synthesizer, shaping the output according to the apparent dictates of the machine. He collapsed the processes of composition, performance, and recording into a recursive loop, improvising with the Buchla until the piece achieved an intrinsic logic. Perhaps the result couldn’t help but sound cosmic in 1967, when technological progress went hand in hand with the space race. Fifty years later, Toral has arrived at the same destination via a different path. He began writing Moon Field for live performance by the Space Collective 3, until he realized that the piece stayed stubbornly and resolutely inert, floating without forward momentum but with an evocative sense of extraterrestrial movement. He listened to the piece, and to what the piece wanted to be, and recorded it instead as a three-part suite of explorations into uncharted auditory space.

A hum undergirds Moon Field’s tracks, atop which modular synths wail and keen. In previous works, Toral created compositional space by using extended silences, but here an incessant static fills the same role. Electronic flourishes drop as if vertically, in slow motion, into this space. The effect is of tuning an interstellar radio, intercepting satellite transmissions from alien sources. Functionally, this is neither ambient music — it refuses to recede into the background — nor purely academic conceptual music. It has a thesis statement, similar to that of the proper Space Program releases, concerning the range of possible decisions a musician can make within a given instrumental context. For this reason, Toral calls it “post-free jazz.” But for the listener, the effect is closer to “pre-computer music,” reminiscent of a time when analog electronic music was so unfathomable as to be intimately linked with the stars.

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