A multitude of Roger Doyles but only one composer
The 62-year-old pioneered Irish electronic music, and it returned the favour by saving his life
Quiet-spoken with spurts of enthusiasm and slightly tentative answers, Doyle initially comes across as a bubble-wrap bag of nerves waiting to pop. Some questions wait for an answer, and others are interrupted. (His longtime friend and occasional collaborator Olwen Fouéré emails this about him: “When someone suggests something that he’s not sure about, and he gets a shifty look in his eye and his fingers do a drum riff on his head – it usually means he is checking in with the ‘mother ship’.”) All told, there’s a detached air, but get him talking about music and he bolts out of the traps.
At the end of his second year at the RIAM, Doyle was awarded the Vandeleur scholarship in composition, and during his third year he began to experiment with taped compositions, furthering an enduring love of electronic music. In 1974, he was awarded a Dutch government scholarship to study electronic music at the University of Utrecht’s Institute of Sonology.
Pre-punk, Doyle’s tastes veered from The Beatles – “I feel privileged to have been a teenager when they were around. I’d be a different person without them, in the sense that they’d do singalong stuff and then it’d go a bit weird. And then 10 minutes later you’re humming it.” – to what he terms “complicated pop music – Yes, Genesis, as well as Karl Stockhausen, John Cage, Steve Reich”. The cherry on the cake as far as Doyle was concerned, however, was the personal use of a (then) state-of-the-art recording studio for 12 hours each week.
In the mid-1970s, Doyle’s electronic equipment was little more, he recalls, than “an old-fashioned telephone exchange with lots of inputs and leads”, but as there were no studios in Ireland at that time with such hardware, he continued to travel to Holland to make music. Hooked on how technology could further advance his compositional skills, Doyle found himself gravitating towards avant-garde artists such as Stockhausen and musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henri.
“Genesis and Yes were fading away rather rapidly at this point,” smiles Doyle. “I was getting into a more refined area of music – long, complex pieces lasting up to 30 minutes. I wanted to have what I once termed a masterpiece before I reached the age of 30. I was serious about that and I really thought I could do it. I achieved that, I think, with Rapid Eye Movement, one of my three best pieces of music I’ve ever done.”
And so started for Doyle a valued lifetime in electronic-music composition in areas that included film soundtrack (Buddawanny), documentary (Atlanean), art-pop (Operating Theatre), numerous theatre works (including Salomé) and long-form studio projects (notably the six-hour-plus Babel). In European terms, he may have been one of many; in Irish terms, he was unique. “Somebody described it to me afterwards as the fruit of a seed that had never been planted in this country.”