'I looked up Babel Project on the Internet and there's fifteen hundred of them. Just Babel Project alone.'
His own Babel no longer a 'project' but a five-CD boxed set launched for his fiftieth birthday in July, Dublin composer Roger Doyle sounds unperturbed. That there might be 1499 other Babel worlds out there for people to visit seems almost an exciting prospect, what you might expect from a composer whose work, and indeed whose conversation, navigates easily between various worlds, especially the real and the imagined. Doyle's Babel world is a vast, science fiction-inspired tower city brought to life by a blend of live and electronic music. Three discs from the set explore a variety of rooms and locations in the city, while the remaining two contain broadcasts from Babel's internal radio station, KBBL. Cross-connections abound with the sounds featured in one room being remotely audible in the presentation of others. The concept is compelling and evocative, and listening to Babel is an absorbing and immediate experience.
Beneath the surface, however, is a serious attempt to reconcile the conflicting worlds of abstract composition and popular music culture. Doyle has been interested in both since his early teens. A self-taught drummer in a local pop band, he was also a dedicated pupil of the piano until an interest in jazz alienated him from his teacher. He wrote his first pieces at eighteen and was studying composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music when, during a visit to Paris, a French friend urged him to listen to music by Pierre Henry (b.1927). It was his first encounter with electronic music.
'I bought the LP (Messe pour le temps présent) then and there. You never hear of Pierre Henry these days but he was very popular in Paris then -- we're talking about 1968. When I heard the first seconds of this record I knew that this was for me. I'm sure a lot of people say this, but it was familiar although I'd never heard it before. One of those wonderful moments. A very big turning point. But of course, I didn't know how to do it.'
On returning to Dublin he invested in a cheap stereo tape recorder. 'The Academy didn't have one. So really, like a child -- I still think this childish curiosity is an essential element -- I bought one and, just like a kid, I tampered with the speed changes and all the things you can do, cutting it up and backwards and just discovering. There are some early pieces that I even still stand behind. And with two tape recorders you can do so much more. It was really just seeing a world that existed but not knowing how to get to it, how to find a path to it: "I want to get to that world".'
His ticket to that world came in the form of a Dutch government scholarship to study electronic music at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, this followed by a further scholarship to Helsinki's Finnish Radio Experimental Music Studio. On returning to Ireland he embarked on a career embracing collaborative work in theatre, film and dance, leading to his election in 1986 to Aosdána, Ireland's state-sponsored academy of creative artists. This was also the year in which the idea for Babel first came to him. His Aosdána stipend, orcnuas, enabled him to build a small recording studio at home where, in 1990, he began to apply his compositional process to Babel.
'I like to generate a lot of sounds in my studio by experimental means and then I spend months piecing them together. Layering and editing are the two things I do. And I can make connections you wouldn't believe possible if you saw the bits and pieces on the floor. Of course it takes time. But that's the way it seems to work for me. I spend a lot of time making connections. I swim in the material, basically listening a lot. Something has to click internally within me. It's always been like that. I make decisions hundreds of times every day in the studio. I'm saying yes and no, that's not working, that is working. And I think that over the years I've developed a very good intuition. I know this because lucky things happen me all the time in the studio. I'm making connections that could never have been made if I'd planned them. I'm allowing accidents to happen.
'This is the first stage, and it's very time consuming. The second stage then is finding the structure and the balance and making endless revisions until you've made something from very unpromising material. For example, there are five or six solo acoustic instrumental pieces in Babel. And if you'd heard what those soloists played: an hour and a half of material and me coaxing them verbally in the studio and filling up tapes full of them improvising under instructions. After months of work, an hour and a half of material is reduced to an eight-minute thing and then it's placed in a room on the tower. I know lots of composers don't work this way because they like to plan it a bit more. But I like to think of it as making a mess and then going amongst it on my hands and knees and making good pieces out of unpromising material.'
Babel is a unique world, created from within the imagination of the composer and therefore a sometimes bewildering place for listeners to visit. But if initial impressions include a sense of randomness, Doyle is anxious to defend his music's structural integrity. 'I have ongoing, intense rows with fellow musicians and critics, that they don't hear structure in my pieces. And they're very structured. Structural problems apply equally to electronic music as to any other. I'm very strong on structure, and composers of electronic music shouldn't be let off the hook of structure. They have to do it. A lot of pieces I hear at festivals are just not structured and they're terribly boring and they go on and on and on and on. For Babel, there's an imposed Babel structure in that a lot of the pieces are linked and that it's all in the one concept. And you have the feeling that you're in the presence of a concept when you're listening to it: I hope! But those pieces should also exist completely, structurally speaking, on their own. Of course structure cannot be heard so clearly in unfamiliar situations.'
Yet Doyle is in no hurry to clear up that unfamiliarity. The sleeve booklet of the CD boxed set elucidates only a few of Babel's many rooms and situations, leaving the nature of The Squat, for example, or the reasons for the unsettled temperament ofMall Fountain to the listener's own imaginative discernment. Doyle is content for much of Babel to remain mysterious and esoteric and for his music to enjoy full artistic autonomy. 'I have my own personal story, or vision almost, for each piece and I don't really want to push that too much on the listener. Sometimes I play my music for art college students and art college people are so visual. They're all saying, 'I saw this' and 'I saw that' and 'I imagined this', and I don't want to stop that in a listener. There are five or six or seven actual rooms which have names. But then there are other places which aren't rooms but could be, like the Room of Rhetoric.
'It's a feature of about eight pieces in Babel that you can hear far-away sounds as well as close-up sounds. And the far-away ones are just as interesting. That probably comes from childhood memories when you're sitting in a room and you hear parents far away or music in a school hall or something. But those far-away sounds are close up in other rooms. For instance, in one section there's a piano lesson being given and there's this waltz with wrong notes in it, and it's distantly audible on two other tracks. There are just dozens, scores of connections.'
Clearly, while remaining reluctant to provide much in the way of stepping stones, Doyle is hoping that listeners will appreciate Babel's macro- and microuctures and will enjoy untangling its mass of intertwining internal connections. 'I think the only stepping stone that's really worthwhile is repeated exposure. My music is designed for repeated listening. I took so long composing each piece. And I revised each piece. On the back page of the booklet is an extract from a log I kept with all the revisions and versions of the pieces as they progressed. I think pretty much every piece has several years between its starting point and its finishing point, in order for me to get it just right. I worked in great detail for the Repeated Listening Reward. The RLR!' He laughs, revealing the source of Babel's scattered touches of humorous self-parody.
'We suffer in this country from not hearing enough new music for a start, but specifically enough music for tape or mixed media. It's like early cinema. People couldn't understand because there were edits in it -- I'm talking about the very early days of the century. With a little bit of familiarity, you get the hang of it.'
KBBL is the imaginary radio station -- 'born out of my complete distaste for commercial radio' -- broadcast throughout the Babeltower. The fourth and fifth CDs of the set comprise different radio shows from KBBL, complete with authentic DJs, commercials (Heaven's Gate Night Club. Corridor H on the 315th floor.), phone-ins, news and weather, all enhancing the evocation of a real environment inhabited by real people. KBBL also provides Doyle with an outlet for pop songs he has written over the years. It is here that the duality of Doyle's work is felt most acutely. He recognises the hazards but remains unapologetic. 'Either KBBL or the main section ofBabel, on the other three CDs, has the potential to play into your prejudices and that's a dangerous route to take. It's very hard to find pop musicians who like the abstract stuff, and vice versa. So I know that a lot of people will dismiss the pop stuff instantly, and another group of people will dismiss the "difficult", abstract, weird-sounding stuff. So it's already dangerous territory.
'But I make the point at the very beginning of the sleeve biography that pop music and modern classical music were there for me pretty much from the beginning. I didn't listen to pop music before the Beatles. The thing about the Beatles is that I liked them a lot and then they went all weird and I hated them: Revolver, Sergeant Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour. With each of those -- or certainly the first two -- I thought to myself, 'What have they done? They've made a mess. They were going so well and now they're doing this ugly...' But after a few listenings it wasn't ugly. It was extremely beautiful. I felt that the Beatles had educated and opened me up from an initial distaste to an extreme love of what they were doing on those three LPs.'
The Beatles coincided with his discovery of Debussy. 'It was thePrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which I think went deeper inside me than possibly any other piece of music ever has. Sometimes you feel as though you're shallow; but sometimes you feel that there's an absolute, bottomless pit in your subconscious.'
'I don't really have a definition of music. But music is more than what you think, more than you know, more inclusive than what you think it is. People would say, 'If it doesn't have melody, it's not music'. Well that's not true. It can be music and have no melody. If it doesn't have rhythm, if it doesn't have this, that, and the other... I would say that none of those statements is true. John Cage talked about the liberation of noise. You could say that historically, in the 1940s, noise came in. Up until then there were pitches. Then noise was reluctantly welcomed in. So basically it's just a huge big world: I would never say that for this to be music it has to be "dot dot dot".
'I always think of the image of transportation. People always said, for centuries, that in order for something to travel forward it must have four wheels. And it took until something like nineteen hundred years after Christ before someone came along with a two-wheeled travelling machine. Okay, it falls down when it's stationary but when it moves, it travels. Therefore it is a travelling machine. I've been a cyclist all my life and I love the idea of professors all over the world for centuries laying down the rule about what transportation must be. And it's the same for music. You'll always have somebody coming along with something you hadn't thought of.'
Who, then, will make up Babel's potential audiences? 'I don't think it's the National Concert Hall subscribers, but that's a bit of a generalisation on my part. I know that there's a huge new audience for new music, as you can see from the Crash Ensemble and the Composers' Ink concerts that have been taking place in Dublin recently. And indeed my music theatre group, Operating Theatre.Operating Theatre did a very strange show called Angel/Babel in the Project theatre in April. Nearly everyone was under thirty and it was pretty packed each night. And the same for the Crash. There's a huge under-thirty audience out there who are probably sick of the Top 40. I have a sense, and it's only a sense, that because the CD sales for pop music are way down there's an increasing amount of people disenchanted with the Top 40 and the quality of commercial pop music, who are looking for other things. People are looking into technology like they've never done before. My kind of music really plays with and celebrates technology. So that's a plus.
'For me a CD is a novel, not a recording of an event. So often there's a concert and we stick a mike up and say, "here's the recording and the best thing is to be at the concert but here's a CD which is a facsimile". That's not the case with my music. The CD is the event, the same as the novel is the event and the film is the event.
'So I'm optimistic, at least, that there's a big audience coming on stream, a disillusioned audience looking for something and hopefully -- well, I would say this -- Babel will satisfy some kind of hunger.'
In the meantime, while he watches and waits for the response toBabel, Roger Doyle has completed a joint commission from the Netherlands Wind Ensemble and the STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) studio in Amsterdam. 'They told me I must look at my folk roots. So I used Sorcha Griallish, a sean nós (traditional Irish) singer from Connemara whom I love, and some live interactive technology and ten or twelve acoustic musicians. The work was performed in four concerts in four cities in the Netherlands in October, with a live radio broadcast which is coming out on CD, so it was big exposure.'
'So being fifty is fantastic for the time being!'
Babel, Roger Doyle's five-CD boxed set, can be purchased by mail order or in person from CMC. See CD-Shop.