Scoring the story in cinema for the ear
An epic tale told by a live orchestra and pre-recorded dialogue will be a 'unique first', its composer, Roger Doyle, tells Arminta Wallace
'When I met Carlo, the first thing he said to me was 'Let's write an opera together'," says composer Roger Doyle. The Carlo in question is the novelist, Carlo Gébler, and as it turns out, the pair have collaborated on a new work which combines music and text in a rather different way. Adolf Gébler, Clarinettist, which will be premiered in a free lunchtime concert at the National Concert Hall on February 5th, is scored for live orchestra with piano, pre- recorded dialogue and realistic sound effects.
"Cinema for the ear," is how Doyle describes the piece. It tells the story of Gébler's grandfather, who arrives in this country as a young, penniless musician from eastern Europe. He marries an Irish girl and they have a baby. So far, so cosily domestic - except that Adolf, who begins his life in Ireland by being interned in the Curragh Camp during the war years, ends up being suspected of murder.
"We're dimming the lights in the concert hall and the orchestra will have little lights on their music stands, so it'll be very atmospheric," says Doyle. "I think it'll take a few minutes for the audience to 'get' it. Once they do, my hope is that they'll relax into it and experience the 35 minutes as a unique first. I think it's probably the first time it has been tried in Ireland, a cinema-like experience with no screen."
Will it be like listening to a radio play? Not really, Doyle feels. There will, after all, be a full-sized symphony orchestra in the room.
"I think it will be quite different," he says. "Much more epic. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I? But there's nothing to beat a live orchestral experience. And I don't want to give too much away, but at one point there's a concert within a concert. Or rather, there's a movie within the concert."
We won't give it away either, except to say that it involves a live singer in the shape of Susannah de Wrixon, and that it blurs the boundaries between performance and "real" life in a playful manner.
The piece was inspired partly by the work of the French composer and cinema theory specialist, Michel Chion, whose 2005 book, Audio Vision: Sound on Screen, is an influential text in film studies.
"He talks about 'audio viewing'," Doyle explains. "He makes his students listen to a film before they watch it for the first time. There's also a French electronic record label, which has a series called 'cinema for the ear' - though their pieces don't have any scripts."
Such, he says, is the way influences accumulate for him as a composer. "Things don't just pop out. They germinate for a while, and suddenly you have an opportunity to do it."
THIS PARTICULAR PIECE has been made possible by a commission from RTÉ - for the music - and a project grant from the Arts Council for the "cinema for the ear" aspect. The compositional process began with Carlo Gébler's script, adapted from his memoir, Father And I.
"He was a dream collaborator," says Doyle. "At one point I needed a song. I e-mailed him, and within a day he had e-mailed back saying: 'Here's the words of the song. Is there anything else you'd like?' "
Despite their obvious rapport, it took a little time for the notion of "cinema for the ear" to be hammered out in practice.
"The first script Carlo sent me had things like 'View of Adolf's apartment, San Francisco, 1963'," Doyle recalls with a chuckle. "I'd write back and say, 'You can't have a view of his apartment - this is audio only'. And he'd say, 'Oh, all right, okay'. So he'd do another script and it might say, 'Adolf picks up his clarinet and does such-and-such'."
The distinction between details that are strictly visual and those that can be suggested through sound is a topic which fascinates Doyle.
"At the moment I'm working on doors opening and closing," he says. "You wouldn't believe how many different recordings of doors I've listened to. It's extraordinary how much information there can be in a door opening. For instance, in the scene where someone from the army calls to take the newly married Adolf Gébler to the internment camp, I chose a very creaky door to give the impression - which is true - that they were really living in hard times."
Doyle admits to having an obsessive streak, which drove him to pillage the sound effects departments of Windmill Lane and RTÉ in search of, say, footsteps on precisely the right kind of floor surface. But he insists that Adolf Gébler, Clarinettistisn't just about special effects gone mad; it's an emotional engagement with the story of this musician.
"In a way, Adolf Gébler had a rotten life - as did his wife," he says. "At the very end of the piece there are these stark chords and you're wondering, 'Will there be another one?' And when the last one finally comes and you realise it's the end of the piece . . . well.
"I've been quite moved myself by that ending, not because I'm ego-tripping, but because I genuinely feel something for the characters in the story. When the music stops, you think 'Oh my God, what a life'."
During the performance, Doyle will be in the control room "pressing knobs on the CD player". In another incarnation, however, he often takes to the stage as a pianist.
"As anybody who plays an instrument will tell you," he says, "there's nothing like it - your physical body playing something - especially when there's an audience out there."
Come St Patrick's Day, he'll be giving a live concert in New York. He'll also be playing in a new production of Salomé, to be staged in Pittsburgh this year.
"I've been on three world tours with Salomé," he says. "The first one was at the Gate Theatre in 1988 with Steven Berkoff, so it's 20 years ago this year."
Doyle performs his own music on stage for the full two hours of the show. " I love every night of it," he says. "I must have performed it 500 times, and I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every one of them."
IT MAKES QUITE a change from the solitary world of electro-acoustic composition, which mostly takes place in his studio at home in Bray, Co Wicklow. Doyle first became interested in electronic music when he heard a ballet score written for Maurice Béjart's dance company by a French composer called Pierre Henri. The sound-world was, he says, instantly and strangely familiar to him. Can he explain why?
"Well," he says, "I suppose I can rationalise it. It's like the feeling I had when I first went to Paris. I really felt as though I'd been there before. Now, that was probably because of my vivid imagination, and because, as a teenager, I loved Debussy's music deeply. As I still do. I just felt, 'here's a space I can call home, a house I can step inside'."
The house of electronic music is furnished with an ever-changing array of technical software, an environment in which Doyle feels completely comfortable. His five-CD work, Babel, is a celebration of the diversity of musical language which took 10 years to complete and incorporates - among many other things - two hours of a fictional radio station, complete with news, ads and traffic reports as well as music, all of it written by Doyle. His most recent work, The Ninth Set, uses an electronic widget which, for want of any better way of explaining it, freezes time.
"I worked for years with that piece of software, in my obsessive way," he says, "and I've just won a prize in France for The Ninth Set."
Doyle glows with pride when he talks about the Magisterium Prize at the 2007 Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition - partly because it recognises all his hard work, partly because it gets his music on to CD and played on 32 radio stations around the world. For a composer, that's what it's all about: being heard.
"Having a career like this, you don't expect success," he says. "You expect to be trundling along and to keep going. You appear above the horizon briefly, then you disappear for a while, then you show up again. I was first interviewed in The Irish Times'sfeature, Musicians of the Future, in 1980; 28 years later, I'm still here.
"It's a bit like that story about the tortoise and the hare. Everybody may be shooting by you - whoosh! whoosh! - but there you are, slowly carrying on, doing what you do."
Adolf Gebler, Clarinettist will be performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Maloney, at the National Concert Hall on Tue, Feb 5, at 1.05pm. Admission is free. There are also free lunchtime Horizons concerts by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra today and again next Tue, Jan 29, focusing on composers Jerome de Bromhead and Jane O'Leary respectively
Roger Doyle's music can be accessed on his website, www.rogerdoyle.com