Music from the Mothership

Roger Doyle

Music from the Mothership

'The Curious Works of Roger Doyle', a recent documentary on the Irish composer, asks why his music is not better known by the wider public. It's an important question, writes Barbara Jillian Dignam, but with no easy answer.

Recently screened in Galway, Dublin and Cork, Brian Lally’s documentary explores the ‘curious’ oeuvre of Irish composer Roger Doyle. Set against the backdrop of rehearsals for the premiere of Heresy, Doyle’s formal foray into electronic opera, the underlying question of this semi-biographical film remains thus: having been active as an avant-garde composer for five decades, producing 27 albums of multifarious outpourings, and receiving international recognition and awards, why does Roger Doyle’s music still go largely unnoticed by the Irish public?

This is an important question given his contribution to Ireland’s cultural landscape since the 1970s. The dilemma of gaining recognition and retaining it is nothing new, and Doyle cannot be accused of not engaging with the public. His ongoing relationship with the Project Arts Centre is testimony to that. Nonetheless, it is particularly valid here in contemplating a composer who would unknowingly form part of a diverse cohort of artists in Ireland, establishing the foundations of an experimental lineage that has paved the way for generations of successful contemporary composers.

But 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. Instead, he presents a celebratory portrait of Doyle as rendered by select contributors with whom he has directly collaborated – film and theatre notably dominating the film’s perspective – interspersed with references to electroacoustic, musical theatre and film music works, footage of Doyle on RTÉ, and his performances at the Centre Culturel Irlandais and Hugh Lane Gallery. 

Precarious life of a composer
The opening scene illustrates the perpetual story of the precarious life of a composer: Doyle posting CDs to an audience almost exclusively outside of Ireland (earning him the price of a cappuccino a day) contrasts with the announcement that Arts Council funding will allow him stage his first full-length electronic opera  – a work based on the Renaissance friar and philosopher Giordano Bruno. The film moves from Doyle’s musical upbringing to the first rehearsals for the opera, then navigates through the various contributions and extracts in semi-chronological order, beginning with his musical theatre and avant-garde performance works and concluding with his film-music contributions. Only passing reference is made to his more experimental electronic offerings, with no mention of his magnum opus Babel (music from 1980s through 1999), itself a chronicle of Doyle’s heterogeneous musical interactions.

The most insightful contribution comes from Olwen Fouère, Doyle’s longstanding collaborator and kindred spirit. When asked to describe Doyle’s music, she immediately replies: ‘It’s coming from the mothership … it’s how he has often described it. I think his music comes from a very distant place’. Since 1978, this symbiotic relationship has produced around two dozen projects and staged several ambitious shows, all stemming from the transportive power of Doyle’s music, itself coming from his affinity with science fiction. One such work is Passades and we witness genuine pride as Doyle listens back to an extract. The work earned him the coveted Magisterium Award at Bourges International Festival in 2007 and is arguably his greatest achievement so perhaps more time could have been devoted to it.

Click on the artwork below to listen to Passades.

Additional interviewees concur with the supposition that Doyle has an innate need to develop a musical language that is truly his own. Yet, given the centrality of sound to Doyle’s creative language, the notable lack of discourse with professional musicians presents a somewhat imbalanced view of the true range and quality of his writing. In attempting to provide an overview of Doyle’s myriad works, it would seem that musicians should have been included in some way. While Lally affords the viewer access to rehearsals for Heresy, the singers’ musical opinions go largely unheard. Perhaps this would have railed against Lally’s ‘fly on the wall’ documentary style, encroaching too much on the creative process in motion, and that is fair enough. Yet, one can’t help noting the lost opportunity in not directly engaging these performers in uncovering more of Doyle’s collaborative processes ‘in the present’, as opposed to a recounting of previous creative experiences.

‘I would like to be remembered…’
In the closing moments of the film, Lally queries how Doyle would like to be remembered. ‘I would like to be remembered’, he replies jokingly. His honesty speaks to an anxiety, not of how he will be remembered, but that he will be remembered at all. At 69, Doyle is composing now more than ever and clearly has no intentions of slowing. This seemed the perfect denouement for the film; yet the footage cuts from the opera to the finale from Adolf Gebler, Clarinettist (2007) at St Patrick’s Cathedral and with Doyle at the piano. This leaves us with a mixed message, as though Doyle has now achieved all he has set out to.

Overall, the film succeeds in bringing some of Doyle’s multifarious voicings together, is most assuredly a compact introduction to these musical languages, and certainly contextualises Doyle within the theatrical and film music worlds. First and foremost, he is an expert collaborator: much of his musical theatre, popular and electroacoustic outpourings have been the result of effective collaborations with other creative entities, mostly performers and actors, and his opera Heresy is no exception. For those looking for more insight into Doyle’s idiosyncrasies as a composer, his compositional processes and his musical philosophy, this film probably won’t satisfy that need, but is still worth a curious look.

The Curious Works of Roger Doyle was produced in association with Fís Éireann. It was first screened at the Galway Film Fleadh on 12 July 2018, as part of IFI Documentary Festival on 27 September, and on 11 November at the Cork Film Festival. For more on Roger Doyle, visit http://rogerdoyle.com.

Published on 10 December 2018

Barbara Jillian Dignam is a musicologist and Lecturer in Educational Development at University College Dublin.

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