Stephanie McBride
School of Communications, Dublin City University

Creative Commons 4.0 by Stephanie McBride. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

“The Godfather of Irish Electronica” is the label most frequently used to classify Irish artist Roger Doyle and his work. This meme persists in media mentions and profiles about Doyle, from listings and features on RTÉ’s website (where the phrase occurs at least four dozen times) to The Irish Times (“about 136 results” according to Google). While the label is an expression of respect, and while Doyle is indeed among the leading exponents and earliest pioneers of electronic music in Ireland – for example, he was one of the first people in the country to work on a Fairlight synthesizer / digital audio workstation – it hardly does justice to his wide-ranging career as a composer, musician and performer, as well as a body of work that refuses to be pinned down in any one genre. For more than half a century now, Doyle has had an almost Zelig-like presence in the Irish avant-garde, appearing in so many times and places – from gigs by early prog rock bands to the music credits on films by the likes of Bob Quinn and Joe Comerford, to acclaimed experiments in dance and theatre. As a longstanding member of Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists, Doyle’s pre-eminence in the arts was further recognised in 2019 when he was conferred as a “Saoi” (wise one).

Biographies can be difficult to structure at the best of times, and even more so for an artist with such an extensive CV. Brian Lally’s The Curious Music of Roger Doyle (2018), a feature-length documentary about Doyle’s life and music, uses his first opera Heresy as a narrative anchor around which to build a relatively fluid overall structure. The rehearsals for the opera’s premiere at Project Dublin in November 2016 are punctuated by flashbacks to Doyle’s previous works and performances, as well as interviews and musings, as well as clips with some of his many artistic collaborators.

Before analyzing Lally’s film in more detail, it is worth sketching just some of the many milestones in Doyle’s career. In the early 1970s he studied composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and at institutes in the Netherlands and Finland; he was also a drummer with various experimental bands including Supply, Demand and Curve, a jazz-rock group whose strange music alerted many music students, steeped as they were then in piano etudes and two- and three-part inventions, to other sonic possibilities. His debut album Oizzo No (1975), an electro-acoustic mixture of works, became cult listening. Meanwhile he began composing scores for what would turn out to be a Who’s Who of experimental Irish film-makers, from Joe Comerford’s shorts Swan Alley (1969) and Emptigon (1971) to Cathal Black’s Pigs (1984) and Bob Quinn’s Budawanny (1987) and his Atlantean series (1984). In 1981 Doyle co-founded the music-theatre-dance company Operating Theatre with actor Olwen Fouéré, and the duo produced many acclaimed site-specific productions. He also wrote and performed the music onstage for Steven Berkoff’s “slow-motion” version of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1988, and later at its West End run in London and on three world tours.

Around 1990, Doyle began work on Babel, an evolving series of pieces that celebrate the multiplicity of musical languages and evolving technologies; each track would correspond to one of the many interlocking rooms or zones within a giant tower-city. He developed another large-scale series of electronic works, Passades, over 2002-07. In 2013 he founded Meta Productions with opera director Eric Fraad, to explore new forms of opera including Doyle’s full-length work Heresy.

For the greater part of its duration, Brian Lally’s documentary about Doyle adopts a fly-on-the-wall approach. Its opening eavesdrops on the composer in a masterclass at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, as he performs on a reconstructed Moog synthesizer. The instrument, he tells the students, predated him as it was a product of the Sixties and his own musical beginnings were in the Seventies. This date leads neatly into a series of photographs of a younger Roger in performances before bringing us up to date as he sits in his home, packing CDs to send off at the local Post Office. He talks of the pleasure it gives him – “sad but glorious” and, in answer to an unheard question, he explains that this probably yields the cost of cappuccino a day – “Not bad for a composer of contemporary music,” he jokes.

The director, having clearly built up a rapport with his subject, allows viewers into Doyle’s reflections as he recounts his development as a composer. On screen he recalls wondering what to do after leaving school – a time when he was playing drums, poker and smoking – before gaining a place at the RIAM based on his early compositions. This was followed by a time at the wonderfully-named Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, where he was required to master a complex studio system. Before being let loose to play, students had to complete 22 studio exercises to know the destination of each cable. At this time too, he was earning recognition as an important emerging contemporary composer.

Despite the documentary’s focus on one artist, it also draws us into a rich cultural history of alternative and avant-garde art in Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s, a vigorous if underfunded period of cultural production in the country. Doyle’s reminiscences of his teenage gang – which included an actress, painter/filmmaker, poet and a sculptor – are both humorous and insightful. A clear gem in the documentary is the number of interviews with artists he has collaborated with, such as Cathal Black and Joe Comerford (a fellow gang member) and, a little later, Olwen Fouéré. Doyle went on to compose soundtracks for many of the new wave of Irish films in the 1980s, and Black explains how Doyle’s music added further narrative and emotional layers to the ending of his film Pigs. Each young artist was intent on developing his own language – for Doyle a language of sound, for Comerford and Black a language of film. The Sheridan brothers’ Project Arts Centre was another hub of progressive artistic ferment, especially in theatre. The Project was a significant venue in Doyle’s early career, so it seems a fitting venue for his first opera, Heresy.

Long-time collaborator Olwen Fouéré describes how she and Doyle had a taut, demanding yet always rewarding working relationship, as both were determined to stretch the contours of their practice. In particular she explains the exacting physical demands performing Doyle’s Passades, extending the range of the possible in movement and performance. Through Fouéré we get a strong sense of the unflinching commitment necessary in pushing the boundaries of art forms.

More insights come from film-maker Bob Quinn; he recounts making a film based on Doyle, Listen (1978), as a response to an RTÉ-commissioned theme on alternative lifestyles. Quinn, ever the maverick, jettisoned any conventional notions of “alternatives” such as doing something about cheese makers, and argued instead for a film concentrating on Doyle’s sound art: the rhythms of a boiling kettle dissolving into the rattle of a moving train, and so on. Quinn, who affectionately refers to Doyle’s work as “squeaky gate music”, was also wittily precise in his requests to the composer for film music, telling Doyle that he needed “around two inches more, or maybe a foot more”, for a particular film sequence.

The documentary showcases Doyle’s openness to different forms of sound. The tracks of his 2011 album Time Machine are built largely on a reworking of old voice messages left on his answering machine. A set piece in the documentary features the voice of the late Jonathan Philbin Bowman, as Doyle transforms the journalist’s midnight stream-of-consciousness answerphone message into Coat Hanger Kisses in a collage of voice, piano and text. In a highly charged moment in the film, Doyle also plays the voices of his own parents in recordings of their telephone messages – powerfully intimate, poignant reflections, trembling through time and memory, with a plaintive “And look after yourself” signing-off from his mother. Family photo albums have a strong emotional pull, but here it is the grain of the voice that preserves a unique sonic memory, in a family album of voices.

With Arts Council funding in 2015, Doyle’s opera Heresy was developed as a major feature in the 50th anniversary of Dublin’s Project. The opera’s director, Eric Fraad, revels in the undertaking because it is “unlike any other opera seen in Dublin … outrageous, provocative”, which also characterises the opera’s subject, the brilliant and controversial Renaissance figure Giordano Bruno. Burned at the stake in 1600 after a nine-year trial by the Church’s Roman Inquisition, Bruno had envisioned an infinite universe without a centre, and the possibility that other galaxies might foster life of their own (a philosophical position known as cosmic pluralism). Lally’s fly-on-the-wall filming of the rehearsals offers glimpses into the skill and technique of the singers, testing and exercising, revealing the demands on the voice for the stretch of a long note. There is also interaction, interpretation, and direction as Doyle taps out the rhythm, gradually building up the tempo. At other times, the glorious rarefied operatic sounds come to an edit by the call for a tea break.

After the insights of rehearsals, after all the notes and amendments, comes the big reveal in the film’s narrative climax – the opera in performance. Using a combination of close-ups, reaction and master shots from carefully selected sections, the documentary presents the magnificently sparse stage set, an uncluttered symmetry of geometric shapes, a backdrop for changing colour tones – gold, silver, coral, midnight blue. In this setting for the soaring, searing purity of voice, words and phrases emerge – “transubstantiation”, «the earth revolves around the sun” – recalling the contested legacies, ways of seeing and of the seismic force of Bruno’s science. Lally’s chosen segments skillfully condense the opera for audiences both as a sonic and visual pleasure.

Yet notwithstanding Doyle’s contribution to Ireland’s cultural landscape over five decades, and in spite of his prolific output throughout that time, a central theme of the documentary is how this internationally acclaimed composer is relatively neglected in his own land. Or, as musicologist Barbara Jillian Dignam puts it in the Journal of Music, the film’s underlying question is “why does Roger Doyle’s music still go largely unnoticed by the Irish public?” Dignam concludes that there’s no easy answer. Historical relations between contemporary music, funding bodies, organisations and Irish audiences – not to mention formal music education with its prescriptive canon doing little for the dissemination of experimental works, let alone those by Irish artists – require consideration. Lally does not partake in such intense debate.

Although the documentary’s structure achieves narrative coherence, flow and climax, by its very nature it is a partial account. Babel, composed and revised over a decade and stretching to five albums, is curiously absent from the film. The project, which the Contemporary Music Centre calls “his magnum opus” and is described in the “Biography” section of his own website as “his life’s work”, was released as a mammoth five-CD set in 1999. An earlier version of Babel was also released as the first free CD with an Irish art magazine, as part of the “work in process” series in Circa Art Magazine in 1994.

In an otherwise elegantly visualised documentary, the film’s title typeface – a form of data compression itself – seems clunky. Another weakness is a sequence featuring Doyle performing Chalant in the ornate surroundings of Centre Cultural Irlandais in Paris. Instead of offering the concert extract per se, the sequence is punctuated by arbitrary cutaways to unknown and unidentified persons around Paris, and this jolts as visual clutter instead of being sympathetic to and directly serving the performance; a quote from Thomas Jefferson in no way cushions this incongruous, intrusive wallpaper. It is as though the camera is afraid to stay with the performer, because the audience needs a constant feeding of visual “extras”. The treatment here contrasts sharply with a sequence after the opera premiere, in which Doyle’s wish to perform Adolf Gébler, Clarinettist is realised in the splendid majesty of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. It is a quiet moment and a sublime coda to the film.

Doyle’s working method emphasises rewrites and revisions. The filmed rehearsals for his opera give some glimpses into that behind-the-scenes process – the invisible labour, the necessary repetition, the reworking and adjustments, further revisions and more pondering as to when it might finally be finished, and the need to leave out certain elements (“Magic Memory didn’t make it into the final opera”, as Doyle comments). Moreover, Doyle’s approach frequently involves a reconfiguration of his music – the layering of new rhythms and harmonies, creating new work from a re-assemblage.

Lally’s documentary has been well received on the festival circuit. While some might have expected a formally experimental film essay to resonate with Doyle’s own style and practice, the film is a fluent and effective introduction to and celebration of the artist and his work. And just as Doyle had to jettison some pieces from the final opera to be reassembled elsewhere at another time, Lally too has found space for some of his extra material via YouTube.

In a way the film’s production tells a story about the current state of documentary making in Ireland. Lally produced and directed it through his own production company Instigator Films. “Using my own resources and time I took the film to the stage of a good rough cut and I submitted that cut to Screen Ireland for completion funding”, he says. It is worth noting that Screen Ireland only part-funded the project and this is a measure of the wider difficulties in funding traditional feature-length documentary in recent years. While the Arts Council’s film policy and funding have developed effectively through building up a range of excellent schemes to encourage formally innovative work, this leaves more “traditional” types of documentary such as this one to find support from Screen Ireland, BAI and/or broadcast television, where pressure of ratings and designated slots heavily determine the commissioning process (although, arguably, Doyle might rate as “a national treasure” within those labels and categories that commissioning agents tend to adopt). Despite the lack of interest from the usual funders, Lally went ahead with the project, funding it mainly from his corporate video commissions. Thus, essentially a labour of love, it involved filming Doyle over ten years, in various concerts and locations. Such self-funding is a growing aspect in the Irish production landscape as – while access to facilities becomes more financially reasonable – a key issue continues to be distribution. If, as Lenny Abrahamson asserts, “Ireland’s presence globally is through its culture, that’s our strongest identifier” (Keegan), then the distribution of Irish features and documentaries such as Lally’s will need increased attention and resources to face the ongoing fragmentation of audiences amid a glut of content on a range of global platforms.

Works Cited

Dignam, Barbara Jillian. “Music from the Mothership”. Journal of Music. 10 December 2018. 12 February 2020.

Doyle, Roger. “Biography”. 26 February 2020.

Griffin, Nathan. “Director Brian Lally Discusses The Curious Works of Roger Doyle”. IFTN. 30 October 2019. 12 February 2020.

Keegan, Rebecca. “Irish Film Board has growing ambition for its industry after 2016 Oscars”. LA Times. 26 March 2016. 14 February 2020.

Profile of Roger Doyle. Contemporary Music Centre Ireland website. 14 February 2020.