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Album Of The Week

To Hear Hearing: Spectral Evolution By Rafael Toral Is Our Album Of The Week
Daryl Worthington , February 22nd, 2024 08:39

Drawing together the threads of three decades’ patient exploration, the Portuguese experimental composer invites you into a teeming world of sound

The first time I heard Spectral Evolution, I was walking through a park as dusk was starting to settle. As the album’s last sighing drone faded out, I started to hear evening bird song and planes flying overhead as the music subsided in my headphones. It was seamless. The music Rafael Toral had composed simply carried on outside the acoustic space of my headphones. When the final coda of animalistic synthesis that closes the record seeped in, it was perfectly at one with my surroundings.

Spectral Evolution is the nature fixation of nineteenth-century Romanticism updated for a time when soundscapes can seem increasingly surreal: when rainforest sounds can come from phone speakers and birdsong can be heard over traffic. Toral’s music is wide, it’s huge, it’s environmental. But it’s not about the sublime – at least not as it’s typically thought. Spectral Evolution doesn’t reflect the awe in canyons, mountains and wide-open spaces. It doesn’t evoke huge things, but the inundation of little things. A world that can seem clearly demarcated visually, getting blurry when you only hear it.

“You can look at seeing, but you can’t hear hearing,” wrote Marcel Duchamp on one of the notes in his Box of 1914. The aphorism gets at the peculiarity of sound. You can see someone hearing something, perhaps startled, headbanging, blocking their ears. You can even listen to the same sound. But can you ever hear what someone else heard, how they heard it? On Spectral Evolution, Toral bridges that gap through a beautifully harmonious cacophony.

Toral’s work across the last four decades could be broadly classified in the zones between minimalism, ambient and jazz. But more than anything, Toral’s music gives us insights into him as a listener. 1995’s Wave Field, was inspired by seeing the Buzzcocks supporting Nirvana in 1993 in his home city of Lisbon. It wasn’t the music itself that moved Toral to make a record. He was inspired by the venue’s unsympathetic acoustics, the “amorphous roar” he heard. On Wave Field, guitar tones are separated from their instrument and allowed to shimmer unbound by attacks and decay. As if you’re hearing a flicker of feedback stretched out and filtered through a miniscule aperture.

For 1998’s Aeriola Frequency, Toral fixated on how electric resonance affects electronically transmitted audio. The album is made from a feedback loop with no input, allowing us to hear the music that electricity makes when it’s not burdened with conveying something. This interest in fields of sound and energy continued into the new millennium. In the 2000’s, Toral started hearing with his hands, moving from guitar to an array of haptic tools: glove and theremin-controlled synthesizers, joystick-controlled modulators. Sound became matter to move through, agitate and disturb.

On 2006’s Space, he invites us into a cosmic haunted house. Through chasms of silence, emerge spooky creaks, alien chitters and luminous keys. It’s as though he’s bringing to audition sounds that are always there – we just need to be in the right relation with them in space and time to hear. Later, a series of records with the Space Quartet saw him playing with an ensemble of bass, drums and saxophone. Across four albums, electronic and feedback tones deliver everything from bird-like calls to extraterrestrial interference in a precarious commune with the acoustic instruments.

In some ways, Spectral Evolution is an aggregation of Toral’s practice so far. It’s a harmonically and texturally lush record, one which is as evocative as it is elusive. Guitar sounds glide in organ-like tones or descend into ghostly feedback. Electronics teeter from the synthetic to a sound like wildlife. Other times they evoke an ensemble of wind and brass instruments. Sometimes Toral riffs on standards by George Gershwin or Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Drastically slowed down and rendered barely recongnisable, they melt into Toral’s electro-avian accompaniment. The result is something like if Olivier Messiaen had made a slow-swinging ballad from his ornithological transcriptions.

What can we hear Toral hearing on Spectral Evolution? The interest in mapping sound as fields still shapes his compositions, but now those electro-magnetic fields blend into the biosphere. Opening with languidly picked chords on electric guitar, things rapidly swarm sideways as raspy synths and weird chirps enter. Smooth brushstrokes of tone drift and rise. On top, a polyphonic babble initially seems chaotic, until your ears adjust and start to hear a gorgeous equilibrium between the voluble and the ornate. Voicings that sound organic get mutated into chirping robots. Sliding glissandos start to sound like howls and whines. Deluges of wah-wah soaked guitar carry the volatility of a weather system. It’s a symphonic composition with the verdancy and overlapped temporalities of a soundscape; a soundscape with the pace and grace of a symphony. It evokes a dilapidated cathedral whose dome has collapsed to let flora, fauna and cosmic rays in.

Unusually for a Toral release, there’s little explanation of what he heard to inspire this music. But, to me, it’s a record which synthesizes the effect of sitting in an inner-city park, with your eyes closed and your ears open. The spectrality of the sounds he uses, how their origins start to blur, and the way haphazard timbres blend into elegant crescendos, mimics a tableau of wildlife, background traffic and passing Bluetooth speakers. It doesn’t sound like any of those things specifically. But it’s music that sounds composed from the perspective of hearing those crossovers.

We live in a time when biodiversity is plummeting, the planet is warming, and human impacts on the environment are undeniable. It makes it hard not to hear added meanings in a record which toys with the borders between the organic, the electronic and the instrumental. To be clear, as far as I know Toral hasn’t mentioned a connection between Spectral Evolution and notions of the anthropocene. But it seems to me it’s impossible to not read music like this as reflecting something about how we relate to the environment.

There’s a school of thought in sound ecology that divides the audio world. Biophony is the sounds made by organic life outside humanity. Geophony is the geological. Anthrophony is the human intervention: our devices, voices and vehicles. As a composition, Spectral Evolution reflects a mode of listening that bypasses these divisions. Where previous Toral records mapped fields of energy and sound, Spectral Evolution is what happens when they mingle. The results are gorgeous. The fact that Toral makes this potential cacophony sound so harmonious is remarkable.  And it perhaps points to a way of hearing and understanding a world where everything folds into everything else.