Interview with Roger Doyle

Recently elected as Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour bestowed by the state-supported association of Irish creative artists, Roger Doyle, who also celebrates his 70th birthday this month, speaks to CMC’s Jonathan Grimes about this achievement.

Jonathan Grimes: You've just recently been elected as Saoi of Aosdána. How important is it to you in receiving this recognition and what does it mean to you?

Roger Doyle: In interviews, I often remember talking about various musical advances and achievements in my own work and in technology, and I often used to end the interview by saying a bit of recognition would be nice. We all want recognition. I'm very thrilled and excited, and it was so unexpected that I got sufficient votes in order to become a Saoi. The actual official event hasn't happened yet, but I'm looking forward to that immensely. And the President of Ireland conferring on you with a gold Torc with my name engraved ... it can't get any better than that.

JG: Just dwelling on the issue of recognition and how important it is for artists in any discipline to have that recognition. In music it's been especially challenging, hasn't it?

RD: We've made ground with the career of being a composer, but we've also lost ground as well, certainly in relation to other art forms. A writer publishes a novel and it's news, whereas a composer has a new album out (which I do), it's hard enough to get that out into the papers and into the public and I rely totally on the Internet to do that. We don't have the audiences we used to have, probably because the music is free and it's been very bad for musicians, and there are no labels left. The whole thing has collapsed in many ways, but we struggle on being one-man bands so to speak.

JG: So do you think when you first started working in the early to mid 70s that it's actually deteriorated since then?

RD: I keep scrapbooks and press cuttings. And when my first album came out - of course I was younger and I was very focused on being a composer and very focussed on getting that record heard - I got interviews in the newspapers, I got on the radio quite a lot, I did a show in the theatre festival. Things were happening. It was a bit of an event bringing out that album. I was 25 and on top of the world.

Interview with Roger Doyle (June 2019)

RD: Irish composers in general are not celebrated. The latest work is not taken as much notice of, certainly in the wider print and in the media in general.

JG: What about the actual community of people that go to these concerts and engage with contemporary music? If you put the media aside for one moment and the well-documented problems that there are in terms of coverage of music in the national print, radio etc. Have the audiences for new music and for your music improved?

RD: No. The reason the newspapers, television and radio don't go near it is that they say, 'you don't have the audience'. These things are linked. We don't have the status. As a career choice composers in Ireland - probably elsewhere too - have lost a bit of status.

RD: If you look in the 'What's On?' section in the newspapers, you see pop music pages, cinema pages, pages for jazz and folk music, but under classical you'll see two concerts - maybe Beethoven for one of them and a choral concert. That's terrible when you think of all the fabulous work that's being made in this country by many composers. They're not getting the attention they deserve I believe.

JG: Because you've got that very high recognition for your work as a result of your election as Saoi of Aosdána, do you feel a sense of responsibility now to advocate more publicly for these issues?

RD: I've been advocating for years. A group of us used to go out to RTÉ to ask them to play at least 5 per cent of Irish-made music, and they couldn't guarantee us that. It's hard graft all the time really.

JG: What's the answer?

RD: Well, I don't really worry about it anymore. I just get on and compose. I always remember a conversation I had with an aunt of mine in the 1970s. I said, 'Who's listening to my music?' And she said, 'Don't worry about that. Just keep making the music. 'And that's still really the only way I could function. And I'm making music more intensely, and there's more of it. That's probably something to do with the ageing process.

JG: Do you feel that sense of urgency picking up?

RD: I don't feel it actually. I'm only assuming that maybe there's something going on in the subconscious that's making me do it. I get up in the morning, I start composing. It's something I love doing. It makes me happy. That's what it is: composing makes me happy. This sounds crazy. I have a need to compose and I need to fulfil that need more than I used to do in the past.

When you're young you're living a different life - you have other things going on, and composing music is maybe not the primary thing you do. So certainly as I've gotten older I've focussed in ... Well, actually it's since I got my own studio. Maybe that's it. I was able to afford my own recording studio in 1988; I was 39. I had enough money to afford to buy some equipment. So maybe it's not something to do with getting old at all. It's just that I have a studio.

JG: Would you like to be starting out as a young composer in 2019?

RD: I often think about that, and the answer is definitely no. Knowing what I know now - the opportunities I've had and the amount of music I've been able to compose. It's a once in a lifetime chance. If I had a sixth sense and if I was 18 and 19 now, I'd be so worried about getting the work done that I've been able to do in this different world that we are in now. I wonder would I have those opportunities.

JG: Is it a case that these opportunities are not there now?

RD: I have a sort of nightmare scenario in my head of living on my own in some tenement somewhere in Dublin with no money and wishing to get involved in music but being lonely and penniless and not having an opportunity, and for my whole life with me sitting in a room with noisy neighbours. This is a horrible fantasy. It's such a strong image. No, I think the opportunities are pretty good for young composers in general. There's lots of stuff, lots of festivals. They have to do it all themselves, you have to be very proactive.

I used to do some teaching in Trinity College, and so a lot of students passed through the class, and a lot of very talented students. Some of them went on to somewhat curtail their talent in order to earn some money from music. And that's something which is a hard decision to make. If I was a young composer, I would really hope that I would have access to technology. My whole composition life has been defined by my access to technology.

JG: I suppose that access to technology happened at the right time in your career.

RD: Perfect timing for me. As a young 25 year old, I found myself in Holland studying electronic music and felt completely out of my depth. At one point I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here? This isn't me at all.' From that, I managed to make it work. And I've been through all those changes - the multi-track tape recording and the digital revolution. You wouldn't believe the number of changes that I've come through, but I've had access all the time.

You go with what's available. All that's really required is that you have a deep internal sense of how music could be, and how music isn't, and you're the one that can do the 'could be' part of us. I don't know if the newer technology makes me a better composer.

I only took the leap into fully working with software eleven years ago. I had a computer with Pro Tools and I was too scared to go near it. So I'm late to that, but I revel in it. I love it to bits.

JG: Let's talk about your latest album, The Electrification of Night.

RD: It seemed to be in the news all the time about how little sleep we're all getting, and it's really affecting our lives, and part of the reason people are not sleeping is that there's light at night-time. The lights are on and the computers are on, and your mobile phone is on and everything's on. And the night has been electrified and I thought, 'That's a great title'.

The whole of world civilization - not getting enough sleep. Making us bad-tempered, making us ill. Musically it's got nothing to do with that. There are always things happening musically that have a life of their own. It's a combination of me playing stuff in [to the computer] and all kinds of high tech manipulations of sounds.

JG: I remember when I interviewed you the last time you were playing me something - whatever you were working on at the time. I remember being very struck by the fact that you were saying, 'Yes this is amazing. It's brilliant!' As if you hit on gold. Is that always your approach when you're composing?

RD: Oh, gold all the time, gold seam. And when my wife isn't in the house I'm screaming and yelling in joy at what's going on. Because I throw stuff together not quite knowing how it's gonna happen. I put it down to my right brain - somehow my right brain knows what's going on and I'm trying out stuff. Sometimes I just drag and drop something and you couldn't have done it better if you had planned it. So the whole thing is a kind of joy. And I lie awake at night too excited to sleep.

JG: Hence the title of the latest album.

RD: Yeah. I used to compose 36 minutes a year. I worked it out over the years. I used to compose six hours per decade. That's three minutes a month. That was the average. Now I'm on 70 minutes a year. Pretty much doubled. Who knows why?

JG: Is that because of what you were saying earlier? It's this focus, having your own studio, the daily routine.

RD: It's the daily routine. And it comes easy. The technology is so great. It suits me. It's just experimentation and trial and error. I'm like a magician who doesn't know how the tricks work. I'm as much amazed as anyone. If you were to see me screaming and yelling in surprise, you wouldn't believe it. It's a form of magic which I can't fully describe.

JG: You're turning 70 in July. Reflecting back on your career, is there anything you might have done differently?

RD: I might have made more of the contacts I made over the years. There was a time when I had a record out on U2's Mother label, and I used to hang out with U2. They were just real people to me; they weren't rock stars. I hung out with some famous people in my life, in theatre as well as music. If I'd been more career-oriented I would have tried to maybe do more with those friendships, but I never did. Some of them were influential people that could have done more for me maybe. I don't know.

JG: But you might not be sitting here now talking about your joy at using the latest software.

RD: Yeah I might have been doing some awful soundtrack to some film where they were telling me to make it sound like Philip Glass or something.

JG: And if you were to give a young composer one piece of advice today starting out, what would it be?

RD: I used to say to the students in Trinity if you don't have an obsessive streak in you yet get one soon! You've got to be obsessed and teach yourself how to do things. Obsession is a wonderful thing.

Another thing I used to tell my students was, 'Postmodernism. Can we please move on?' I still am sick of people composing pieces using other people's music - playing around in the rubbish tip of music. Can we please move on from the recontextualization of history and can we please find a way forward through all this. I'm just sick of it. I wish young and old people would move on from that.

JG: I remember you said to me before. I don't know what it was in connection with, but it was, 'Where's the 21st Century?'

RD: Yeah, where's the 21st Century? I haven't heard it, even technically. You hear the electronic music of the 60s in Germany, the 80s and 90s in Canada. Amazing advances in technology. And of course, the advances in technology are even greater now. I just don't hear stuff using new technology in ways that would blow my mind.

I really don't think that's because I'm about to be 70. I can imagine my professor when I was 18 or 19 saying, 'It's terrible what they're doing now.' And I hear that as I say that, but I still think it's true.

JG: Maybe that's because you're doing it?

RD: Perhaps some of it.

There's lots of really super talent here. Either new people I hear or people I already know who are much younger than me. Yeah, they gotta pay the rent. They have to earn some money somewhere. Who am I? Here I am as an Aosdána member - I get a stipend every three months. The rent is paid, you know, but it doesn't make me financially independent.

But yeah, I think inevitably some people are curtailing their talent and not focussing on simply how do we cope with being in the 21st century. Everyone talks about the Rite of Spring in 1913, which changed everything. I think every composer should in their minds be thinking of their own Rite of Spring, no matter what their circumstances.

Roger Doyle was interviewed in CMC in June 2019.