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
It is not that acclaimed Irish electronic music composer Roger Doyle is anywhere close to throwing in the towel (he’s a youthful-looking 62) but thoughts on his early ambitions are filtering through.
We are talking provisionally about his forthcoming appearance at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and his debut opera work, The Death by Fire of Giordano Bruno, but that conversational strand quickly ducks and dives into how, as a typically callow teenager, sleeping until lunchtime, lounging around his home village of Malahide (as it was in the 1960s), and being shouted at by his parents to get a job, Doyle was harbouring a secret: he knew he could write music.
“In an act of a desperation, I wrote a four-page piano piece and showed it to the professor of composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.” Duly impressed, the academic sanctioned weekly sessions for Doyle, who was required to deliver a composition every seven days. No more rut, no more wasting time in bed.
“When I look back at the music I have composed since then,” ponders Doyle, “it has been a non-stop torrent. If I had been forced into a job I didn’t like, then I know the music would never have happened. But the composing thing was there, waiting to be tapped. I was about 18 then . . . ”
From that point onwards, Doyle has continued to produce work of marked intellectual vigour across a breadth of musical disciplines, each one approached with a palpable sense of creative giddiness and a laudable modus operandi that always seems to ask why not, instead of why. He says with an impish grin on his face that his recorded work (which, to date, totals 21 albums) constitutes a “multitude of Rogers”. Technology, he infers, is what allows his explorations to take shape.
“There’s an invitation to me from technology to engage with different kinds of work. I think it’s saying to me, come on, come on, try it, try me. You jump in and you’re never quite sure what’s going to come out at the other end.
“When I was 25 I brought out my first album, Oizzo No, and there are nine completely different pieces on it; nine Doyles. People were saying then not to worry about the breadth of music, that I’d find the right Roger Doyle. But that never happened – there are now many more Doyles. Even in the opera for the Kilkenny Arts Festival, technology led to me to create fancy beat-based music; there’s almost pop music, dance music in it, and then it goes somewhere else. You hesitate for a second, and ask yourself should that go into an opera? And then you immediately say, yes, yes, put it in! Heavy beat music with a counter tenor over it? That’s going to be so bizarre . . . Wait till you hear it. Mad stuff . . . ”
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.”
Doyle’s music isn’t for everyone, of course – it is, according to taste, either dull and tuneless or imbued with an ecstatic kind of melodic inventiveness. He has written letters to music critics bemoaning their occasional cavils, which can often be construed as an artist suffering under the weight of either arrogance or self-belief. How self-critical is he?
“That’s a difficult one to answer because I embarrass my friends, and myself sometimes, by liking my own music far too much, so maybe I’m not critical enough. Most of the time I’m jumping around the studio at what I’m listening to. But the technology helps you; sometimes you’re trying a technical thing – let’s see how this works – and the results are amazing.”
We are squaring the circle; talk turns once again to his forthcoming opera at Kilkenny, and future plans for it. “In January next we apply for a larger grant, and then the work will be done for 2015 or thereabouts. We’re planning to make it as super as we can. How super? Well, there’s a significant electronic score to it, four instrumentalists and five singers – not operatic in the traditional sense, more early- music singers.”
So aims and ambitions are still important, then? “Well, yes, of course, but what I would love to be able to do is to send this music I’ve created back to the 18-year-old Roger Doyle. I didn’t have much of an idea back then, and so I’ve achieved way above what I thought I would. It would show the Roger Doyle back then that things would happen.”
Were things that bad? Were you that bad? “Oh God, I was lazy – I was heading for nothing. I played poker all the time, wasn’t that brainy, got a pass in the Leaving, didn’t get into university . . . ”
Where was he heading, then?
“Limbo? Long-term unemployment? I don’t know where. But I do know this: music saved my life.”
Roger Doyle performs the opening act of his debut opera, The Death by Fire of Giordano Bruno, at Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny, August 14th, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. kilkennyarts.ie