An Interview with Roger Doyle
Roger Doyle, the ‘Godfather’ of Irish electronic music, has been composing for over thirty-five years. ‘I have a good two-way relationship with technology,’ he says, ‘and if I find a piece of technology that opens up a world I’m interested in exploring then I’ll jump right in.’ He talks to Jonathan Grimes.
Originally published in 2005.
Jonathan Grimes: You’re just about to begin a weeklong show, Here Lies, in Galway as part of the Galway Arts Festival. Can you tell me a little bit about this show?
Roger Doyle: It’s produced by Operating Theatre, a music theatre company formed twenty-five years ago this year by actress Olwen Fouéré and myself. We’re doing something unusual -- but nearly everything we do is unusual. We’re performing in the Imperial Hotel in Eyre Square in Galway, and the piece centres on the French philosopher, actor and poet Antonin Artaud, who stayed in that particular hotel in 1937. It’s what we’re calling a performance installation -- we’re building a glass room within the space of the hotel. The central performer is Olwen Fouéré as Artaud and there’s a music soundtrack on radio-controlled headphones. Unusually, only eight people at a time can experience this every fifteen minutes.
JG: So Olwen Fouéré is a live performer?
RD: Yes, and I’m a live performer too. I’m in it too, not as a musician but as a presence. I did acting for a number of years -- many years ago.
JG: Did you?
RD: I did. I earned my living as an actor for a number of years; in fact I found acting to be almost as exciting as composing. I wouldn’t say I’m acting in this; I’m more of a presence.
JG: And the soundtrack is experienced by headphones?
JG: And what made you choose this as opposed to amplified sound?
RD: It’s the conditions of the room. It’s not a bedroom, it’s a lobby. It’s quite a small space and we wanted the experience to be an intimate one, and it just seemed a much better solution than just sticking loudspeakers around this very small space.
JG: Operating Theatre, as you mentioned, is now in its twenty-fifth year. What made you found your own music theatre company?
RD: We were just sick of people standing around talking and that was what Irish theatre was, and mainly still is. Of course, that’s a contentious issue. In our last show, Passades, which we did last year in an abandoned warehouse, I wrote a programme note where I said ‘I’m sick of people standing around talking.’ We wanted to make music a really central element to the theatrical experience, and in recent years we’ve almost gotten rid of text altogether. The show last year, which I mentioned, was based on a large composition of mine, so there was no text whatsoever. In that sense we fulfilled a life-long dream with that show.
JG: How important has Operating Theatre been as a vehicle for your composing?
RD: It has been very important. I suppose it’s worth saying that we haven’t been active for all of the twenty-five years. There was a ten-year gap in the middle when we weren’t active and we reformed six years ago. It’s become very important for me because otherwise I’m just in the studio all day long composing. This gets me out into the big world and gets me collaborating with people. We rehearse and brainstorm for very long periods of time, and devise, usually from nothing. It’s very inspiring to work that way. Also, you’re buffeted around a bit because if you’re working like I am in the studio, you’re used to your word being taken as the right musical word, whereas with this I’ve got to fight for musical space. I come up with stuff, which I think is just as good as my other stuff, and it doesn’t always go into the show. The same is true for the lighting designer. That’s awkward and gets you on your toes. Also it’s another source of income for me. I’ve done music for other theatre companies, most noticeably for Salomé in the Gate Theatre. That ran for several years with various different companies and I saw the world with that show as a piano player. All of these things get me out into the world, get me interacting with people, and earn me enough money to survive on.
My life would be far less rich if there wasn’t theatre in it. Theatre to me is a really beautiful and exciting thing and I really love the spirit of theatre and what theatre can be. That’s not to say I like a lot of theatre that I’ve seen here; I don’t.
JG: And would you go to the theatre regularly?
RD: No. It’s so boring. Each time you’re disappointed and there are an awful lot of people who tell me that they have had the same experience. They don’t go to theatre any more because they’ve been disappointed just too many times. There was a good show that I saw here last year called Dublin by Lamplight by the Corn Exchange. It was so exciting, so side-splittingly funny and inventive that it made me slightly less cynical. But theatre is people still standing around talking. I admit that I’m in a minority but my musician’s brain doesn’t think that theatre should be like this.
JG: Moving the focus more towards the music end of your work, how and when did you discover electro-acoustic music?
RD: I was a teenager in Paris, and there was this very big successful show by this dance company, Maurice Béjart, and they'd done this very successful piece called Messe pour le Temps Présent by the French composer Pierre Henry. I bought the LP and it was a life-changing experience.
JG: Did it have an immediate impact on you?
RD: Yes, along with Revolution No. 9 by The Beatles. This experience I had was in Spring ’69. It was like, as I’ve said before, remembering this music, which I’ve never heard before; it felt familiar and yet I’d never heard it before and I knew it was what I was looking for.
JG: So it had a resonance with you?
RD: It had this strange familiarity. It was a magical world that I wanted to find a way into. I didn’t know how they made these sounds. I was very innocent and child-like. ‘How do you make these sounds? You need a tape recorder.’ So I saved up and got a tape recorder, not knowing how anything was done, and that way began to experiment.
JG: Prior to that, what was your experience of music? Were you learning music or composing before this?
RD: Yes, I was composing from the age of eighteen. Before that I had been a drummer in pop groups in my local village and I’d studied piano from the age of nine. So the classical thing was floating around, and the pop thing was an equal love. The Beatles had a profound effect on me, as did Debussy in those days. Those two strands were going along -- the classical and the pop -- and then came the electronic thing. Then my pop drumming became jazz drumming. I was a drummer, pianist and composer and moved effortlessly between all these musical worlds, which I still do.
JG: You’ve often been credited with being the father of electro-acoustic music in that you were composing in the early 1970s when very few composers in Ireland were writing electronic music. What was it like back then being a composer of electronic music in Ireland?
RD: It was fine. I got just as many performances of pieces [as I do now]. Those days were different from now: you could actually get on the radio and be interviewed in the newspapers. I’ve got two books of press cuttings and the early 1970s are very active. Do you mean from the public’s perception?
JG: Yes, from all aspects. If you think of what was happening then in Ireland during the early 1970s in music, and more specifically that there was very little happening in the field of electronic music. Perhaps that was exciting for you: did you feel you were at the cutting edge of something new?
RD: No, I never did. I spent three years out of Ireland studying electronic music -- two years in Holland and a year in Finland. I never thought of it as anything special. I was vaguely aware that hardly anyone was doing this music in Ireland. It’s only when you look back over your shoulder that you realise that you were, if not the only one, then nearly the only one [composing electronic music in Ireland]. This ‘Godfather of electronic music’ is something that has been happily pinned on me in recent years but at the time you don’t think of those things. I suppose the hardest part was my late twenties, which would have been the late 1970s, when I came back from the scholarships to live in Ireland. There was nothing for me here to come back to -- no studios, nothing. Those were very difficult years financially. I was completely inactive for one year because I had very little money and there was no possibility for doing this kind of music.
JG: Was it hard back then to find outlets for your music or to get your music known?
RD: We’re not living in a golden age of the twenty-first century, you know. Things are worse now [than the early 1970s]. I know these things come and go in waves and five years ago I wouldn’t have said this. I brought out an LP [Oizzo No] of my own in 1975 -- paid for it myself out of my scholarship living expense money. I got huge coverage on the radio and interviews this big. I had a second album [Thalia] out in 1978 on CBS Classics. Things were fine in the seventies -- they were going swimmingly. When I was offered a record on CBS Classics I was twenty-seven, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I too young to be famous?’ [laughs] Of course, it didn’t turn out that way.
JG: So what you’re saying is that now things are not as good as they were back then in terms of awareness or coverage?
RD: Yes, it’s impossible to get any coverage now as a composer in this country. I’ve just got a brand new CD [Passades Volume 2] out in Holland -- can I get it reviewed here? No. I’m not just talking about me now -- I’m talking about all Irish composers. Any Irish composer now with a major work gets no coverage. The press are not interested, the radio stations are too busy chasing the ratings. Composers are now pretty much inaudible and invisible in this early twentieth-first century. Things are bad -- I couldn’t get the coverage I got in the seventies now.
JG: But do you not think that the coverage you had nationally in the 1970s has transferred onto the web and other new forms of media?
RD: Only partly but you still can’t sell. I get the odd mention here and there when somebody else is being interviewed. What Irish composer with a new CD out can get an interview in the paper or large chunks of it played on the radio? It’s an old cliché that every Irish writer gets the coverage that we wish to have. For the immense amount of talent that this country possesses in composition -- young and old, male and female -- we’re worth it. Why can’t we get the exposure?
JG: So composers are still largely invisible in Ireland today?
RD: Invisible and inaudible.
JG: On a more upbeat note, your magnum opus, Babel, was completed in 1999 after nearly ten years of work or possibly more?
RD: Yes, it’s an awkward one to set an exact date on. Some of those pieces were from back catalogue, so it’s probably more than ten years if you add it all up.
JG: It’s your biggest body of unified work so far. Did you think when you began work on this that it would grow to be as immense a project as it actually did?
RD: No, I thought of it as a double CD -- two hours twenty minutes was how I projected it. I was totally obsessed by it and I talked about it for years before I began it. It grew and grew to five CDs.
JG: There are lots of ideas and concepts behind Babel and we can’t go into all of them. One of the things I picked up on very strongly is the multiplicity of languages -- different musical styles coexisting alongside each other. Would you say this concept characterises your approach to composition?
RD: Yes. Babel was an attempt for me to make a virtue out of the fact that I composed in all these styles, and there’s no sign of the styles decreasing as my years increase. As I mentioned earlier, when I was a teenager I moved effortlessly between these styles and genres -- that just kept proliferating as the years went by. It’s never a problem for me -- I’m comfortable whether it’s pop music or hard-edged electronic music, or whether it’s side-splittingly funny or achingly serious. Babel was that: put it all under one roof and make a virtue of it. For me it’s a celebration of the multiplicity of languages, not like the biblical story where it’s a big catastrophe. I’ve just finished another big work, which is not like that at all -- it’s incredibly unified and in the one musical style, which is something new for me. It’s a two-hour work, which took three years to complete, calledPassades.
JG: Let’s talk about Passades now. It’s obviously similar -- although not musically similar -- in that it’s a project that has taken up quite a lot of your time, albeit not as much as Babeldid. Are there any similarities between your approach to composing Passades and Babel?
RD: It’s similar only in the sense that I’m always on the look out for something that will inspire me or trip me up so that I fall flat on my face into a musical world that I’m interested in exploring. In Babel I was purposelessly trying all kinds of different techniques and technologies. With Passades, I discovered a particular piece of technology which inspired the music. I’ve a good two-way relationship with technology in that I’m vaguely interested in the kind of musical world I’m interested in exploring, and if I find a piece of technology that opens up that world for me then I’ll jump right in. In this case there was a particular piece of software that I found completely compelling and dived in, again not realising that it was going to be as big as a two-hour piece; I thought it would be a thirty minute piece. So in that sense it’s somewhat similar in that I’m curious to find new ways of tripping myself up and to lurch forward into new worlds, because I can’t sit there and plan them -- I actually need to try things out. If I sat here for ten years trying to think of where to go next I’d come up with nothing -- I need these things to catapult me.
JG: So tell me a little bit about this approach, this thing that tripped you up and caused you to spend three years of your life writing what became a two-CD work.
RD: I’ve always wanted to do something that was tonal but still. In my mind I had an image of tonal glass. If you had asked me after I’d done Babel ‘What are you interested in doing next?’ I would have said ‘tonal glass.’ That probably would mean nothing to anyone, but for me it explained the sort of world I wanted to explore. I discovered this piece of software that freezes time. If you have incoming material and you click the mouse, that moment in time will be frozen like a freeze-frame in video or DVD. That was the starting point and the sounds I got from that were exactly what I was looking for. I inputted earlier compositions of mine -- in fact, chunks of Babel went in but you wouldn’t recognise them in this frozen environment. I’m against using other people’s music towards my own musical ends. I don’t sample other people’s stuff, I don’t think I ever will. If I’m looking for new material, I will always use material I have made myself. So this was tonal, almost standing still, but yet it sounded fairly new. I am attracted towards tonality and I wanted it to be tonal but something you’ve never heard before. With this high-end piece of technology, which requires a lot of processing on the computer, you’re able to get these frozen sounds and then move these sounds backwards and forwards slightly with hand-to-eye-to-ear coordination.
JG: So you’re not just a slave to technology -- you’re actually manipulating it in a manual way?
RD: It’s like calligraphy -- you’d be in the middle of a take, moving the mouse on-screen and listening to what you were doing. It was a one-take only situation and if you made a mess of it you’d have to start it again.
JG: Was this quite a labour-intensive process?
RD: Yes, labour-intensive in the sense that you’re using one hand. I gathered far more material than I used. It’s a two-hour piece and I’ve three hours of material -- loads of stuff didn’t quite work.
JG: You mentioned earlier about finding something that you want to delve into. When this happens, do you tend to keep going until you feel you’ve explored this idea fully?
RD: I’m relentless in that way, like a dog with a bone. I suppose that happened in Babel too -- it feels like you’re on to something and you’ve got to really push it to the end. The interesting thing about Passades was that the bigger it got, the more connections I was able to make. It’s in about twenty different sections or sets as I call them. The bigger it got the more connections I was able to make between sets. The time consuming part was making the links between the sets. If you become familiar with it, you’ll hear bits of other sections mixed in new environments all over the place. That’s the bit that really excited me in the closing stages of this large composition. It’s like one big joined up dream.
JG: So, it’s a piece that will reveal itself to people on repeated listening, so that the more you listen to it the more you appreciate the different connections between the works?
RD: There are harmonies and melodies in it. As the piece was drawing to a close, I tried putting some of the melodies inVolume 1 into certain sections of Volume 2 and found that they worked. I was incredibly lucky in that material fitted like a glove in completely different places, so that you hear stuff reappearing twenty-five minutes later that would have appeared in a completely different environment. In this day and age, to get anybody to listen to anything more than once… It’s slow music and we don’t seem to be living in a slow music world at the moment. If I can get anyone to listen to the damn thing they’d be very rewarded!
JG: Is there a temptation to keep going with this process? How do you know when to stop?
RD: It's interesting because it’s different for each situation. With Babel, I meant to start it for many years -- I talked to everyone about it, read books about the Tower of Babel -- and I began it without realising I’d begun it. I actually composed seven minutes of it before I realised I’d started it. Something really worked which later became The Room of Rhetoric in Babel. I was a couple of weeks into it when I realised, ‘My God. You’ve started Babel.’ I didn’t realise it at the time, and similarly Babel ended without me realising. My wife reminded me that I was approaching fifty and suggested I bring out Babel for my fiftieth birthday. I thought ‘What a great idea!’ I wrapped up the pieces I was working on; finished it in May, and on my birthday on 17 July Babel came out on my own label.Passades was slightly different in that I knew it was coming to an end about six months before it did. I would have finished it a lot earlier if all these links hadn’t started presenting themselves to me. Also, I knew that the remaining fifty or so minutes that I had to spare wasn’t good enough. I’m very keen on keeping the standard high so I’ve actually thrown out fifty minutes of material that wouldn’t have worked. The final part of Passades is a twenty-five minute piece that encapsulates everything. It has such a beautiful ending -- I’m slightly biased -- it comes to such a slow, beautiful ending and in the dying seconds you actually hear the opening of the work; you can’t go on after that! Again, I was trying to place things and discovering the most beautiful coincidences. There’s no way you can carry on with such an ending.
JG: So it came to a natural conclusion?
JG: One of the other things that I picked up on in your work is that you tend to link in material from the past. Passades is based on samples of your earlier work, and in Babel you took in some of your back catalogue. Is this something that you’re consciously doing so that there’s a linkage between your previous and current work?
RD: Not really, no. Other people have asked me this too. The back catalogue in Babel was simply because those pieces were lying there and were never going to be heard unless I wrapped them up in the concept of the radio station. Passades was no great philosophical reworking of old work because you don’t recognise the old material; I just needed material to feed into this software. I do a bit of teaching and I’m sick of the way some of my students just get on to the Internet or get their home CD collection, take stuff off them and make pieces. [It seems] it’s quite acceptable that you just use other people’s material. I don’t like doing that, so if I want my own material I’ll use my own stuff. That’s how deep it goes.
JG: You mentioned earlier about producing your own CDs and records, and I remember you saying in a previous interview about coming back to Dublin in the 1970s with a bunch of LPs under your arm that you got pressed. This has continued throughout your career in that you’ve been very proactive in bringing out CDs on your own label. Was this something that you identified as being very important to get your music out there?
RD: Yes, but only by what I’d seen happening in Holland. I was a student there in those days and went to a lot of jazz concerts in Amsterdam. Every single group had an LP to sell at the door after the gig. I said to my teacher, ‘How do I make a record of my music?’ and he said ‘Ring up this guy in Phonogram and tell him you need 500 copies.’ Of course you had to pay for that, so I skimped on my scholarship spending money. It was just the example of watching others. I was twenty-five and I had my first LP out and it was the most exciting thing in the whole world. OK, I’d paid for it myself but it didn’t really feel like vanity publishing. I needed to sell three hundred and twenty of them to break even, which I did after two years. I had a little notebook and every sale went into it -- like a child!
JG: You sold these yourself at concerts?
RD: Yes, I was pushing them onto anyone I met, even the customs man when I was coming back from Holland! When you’re twenty-five you do that. Nowadays because there are four or five record labels in the whole world you’re forced to bring out stuff yourself. Absolutely nobody is going to do it, they won’t take the risk.
JG: You have your own label, Silverdoor, and you’ve produced a number of your own CDs including reissues from your back catalogue that were originally brought out as LPs.
RD: That’s right. That was a task I set myself when Babel came out: get the entire back catalogue out. I’ve done that, except for one -- some pop music I did with Operating Theatre in the 1980s -- which is going to come out later this year. My twoPassades CDs have come out on a Dutch label. That’s been great because they have bigger connections than I have with distribution.
JG: Do you still get a kick from producing your own CDs or would you rather have some record company. like BVHaast who produced your Passades CDs, take your music on board?
RD: I could have done Passades myself but I made a choice. BVHaast didVolume 1 of Passades -- they invited me to do it and paid for everything. I was very happy that they did that because I didn’t have any funds for my label. It seemed the most natural thing when I did get a grant that they would bring out Volume 2. They sell marginally more that I would on my own label but it’s enough to make a difference. There is a review in The Wire and they get various radio stations to play it that I wouldn’t have access to. It’s thirty years since my first LP came out. I’m not really selling that many more now than I did then. I’m selling them a bit faster, but in terms of numbers it’s small and it’s a problem for all of us -- the exposure.
JG: Turning to your working methods in a little more detail, one of the things I’ve noticed with the Passades project was the number of different versions you submitted -- redrafts and revisions. We must have seven or eight versions in the CMC archive of Passades Volume 1. Is this characteristic of your way of working?
RD: Yes, I love revising. I love getting a piece to a certain level and then finding more connections and ways of improving it. For me, pieces get to a certain level and they start to annoy me. I know that probably most composers live with that annoyance and they get on with the next piece. I’m not like that. I go to that annoying little bit and make the change. I relentlessly revise. With Babel I worked with DAT technology, so that when I revised I simply rubbed out the version that was there before so there are no early versions of Babel. I changed over to CD-R technology for Passades, so they’re all there. To know that you can, with endless amounts of time, come up with other ways of solving that problem… improving that piece, making it deeper. I really think that pieces can go from very good to extremely good and I think you can push pieces up beyond the extremely good, given time, to be really marvelous pieces. I can listen to the pieces now with none of those annoying bits. It’s embarrassing in a way because I love listening to the music I’ve composed because I’ve relentlessly revised those annoying bits out.
JG: Do you think that it’s easier for you to revise, given that you work mostly with electro-acoustic music, as opposed to composers who write for acoustic ensemble? Is this one of the reasons why you revise so much?
RD: I’ve just been sent a CD by a Swedish group called the Son Ensemble. I’ve a track on it [Shindstu]. I don’t do exclusively electro-acoustic music, I work with ensembles as well. I have a feeling with that piece that I’d like to revise it, but the score is already there. I’ve another CD [Under the Green Time] out with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and it’s the same. You’re listening to the tracks and you really think, ‘I would like to[revise it] but it’s too late for that.’
JG: What do you have coming up over the next couple of months and into 2006?
RD: I’ve formed an ensemble -- a very unique ensemble -- with funding from Operating Theatre. We’re still looking for a title for this group [since titled ‘General Practice’] but there are four of us in an electronic improvisation ensemble. I’m playing a glass bowl with my fingertips, which is being picked up with contact microphone and fed into amazing software. There’s some very complicated software out there now which I don’t claim to know much about -- the other guys in the group do. In the group is a trumpet player and software genius, a guitarist and software magician, myself on fingertip percussion, and another guy who does keyboards and sampling. It’s quite extraordinary. We’ve done paid rehearsals and recorded everything. I’ve edited down the best bits of what we’ve recorded and we’re now in the process of learning the pieces. We’re doing a concert inWhelan’s in August and the plan is that is has a life within the umbrella of Operating Theatre next year for a production we’re doing. I’m also playing the piano. This is more the performance side but I’ve two concerts as well.
JG: Do you like the performing aspect of your work?
RD: I love it. It’s like the acting days, although acting is far more dangerous than performing a musical instrument. The piano thing has been bubbling along. I studied piano as a kid so the technique is still there. I’m giving a concert in The Mermaid Theatre in Bray in September and I’m giving one in Amsterdam in Christmas week in a festival organised by the label that brought out Passades.
JG: Solo piano concerts?
JG: And are you doing all your own music or are you improvising?
RD: It’s all my own stuff. There’s no score. I rehearse a lot at home, making sure that I know where I’m going in these pieces so that I don’t stop dead. I rehearse structurally -- it is improvised but if I’m beginning to get lost I know where to go next. There’s a kind of structural safety net underneath all that I do.
JG: You’ve had Babel, you’ve had Passades -- two large-scale works. I know you’ve been asked this before, but maybe your answer differs depending on when you’re asked: do you envisage another large-scale work in the future or is it a question of finding something and and taking it from there?
RD: I don’t really plan on doing another big one; in fact I don’t really plan on doing much more composing this year. I really don’t know. It would be tantalising to go towards short little pieces of one minute long. There is part of the Passades which are link parts -- Link Separators -- and some of these are very short. They could lead me into an interesting world, a world of incompleteness. I’m very interested in incompleteness as a concept. To have shards or broken things that are obviously missing something: that’s an area I’d like to go into and that seems to suggest short mysterious unfinished pieces that don’t make sense, but are yet tantalising. We have mysteries in religions around the world: we have the Pyramids and the Sphinx: OK, these are large-scale projects. I’d like to do something like that. I also have hours of my most interesting phone messages from the mid 1980s when I lived in a flat in Merrion Square [in Dublin]. It would be tempting to do something with that.
JG: Phone messages as in people who left you messages?
RD: Yes, I’ve got some very good ones. My outgoing messages were always very funny so I have a lot of very good material which shows you what it was like living in Dublin in the late 1980s. If you listen to them, you really get a sense of what it was like. Tragically, some of the people who left the messages are dead. It could be a project, I don’t know. You’d have to write to all the people and get their permission.
JG: I think that about wraps it up for me, Roger, thanks very much.
RD: Thank you.
Roger Doyle was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 18 July 2005..
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.