Live Reviews: Horizons – Roger Doyle

NCH, Dublin, 24 January 2006

Thea Musgrave – Memento Vitae; Doyle – Four Sketches for Orchestra; Raymond Deane – Embers; Doyle – Fragments from These Unsolved Mysteries; Doyle – All the Rage.
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Gavin Maloney, conductor

I still remember the first time I heard Babel (1981-1999), Roger Doyle’s mammoth tape work. On a very long bus journey, beginning in a very wet and bleak Coleraine, Doyle’s profound sonic exploration provided more than relief from the tedium – it was something to get lost in. At Horizons I had hoped to hear the composer’s orchestral writing in the light of his mature output of electronic music, but these were all relatively early pieces, and the experience was disappointing.

Four Sketches for Orchestra (1969) was written by a nineteen year-old Doyle, who had just begun formal composition lessons at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Though it was illuminating from a historical perspective – the material is crudely spliced, like tape: is this the genesis of Doyle’s sound collage? – this is essentially an adolescent work, full of self-conscious, apprehensive gestures.

Fragments from These Unsolved Mysteries (1987) was the only piece that seemed to be concerned with sound rather than gesture. This is a vigorous, corporeal piece of music, but the energy was lost somewhat by the hesitant performance. The final piece on the programme, All the Rage (1974), involving a reduced ensemble with balloons, is an amusing piece of theatre, but nothing more. The balloons are rubbed, deflated, pierced; the audience laughs uproariously, the performers laugh uproariously, so much so they cannot continue, etcetera, etcetera. The music lacks an intensity of focus, and there is no interest in the sounds being produced, only in the reactions they might glean from the audience. There is something mildly infuriating about this music: a sense of security rooted in a middle-class conservatism underwrites the attitude that makes it uproariously funny to turn things on their head every now and again – just for a laugh.

Raymond Deane’s Embers (1981) stood solid in the middle of all this. It embodied a clarity and inner stillness that had been lacking elsewhere in the programme. Embers hops back and forth between solo violin and ensemble, between movement and quasi-stasis; it is uncluttered and sincere.

Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s Memento Vitae – Concerto in Homage to Beethoven (1969-70) bears every mark of the pastiche: academic, mannered, and a rather text-book, bland orchestration. An elderly lady behind me seemed to be comforted by the fact that she was reminded of Mahler. Myself, I was reminded of Feldman’s words about Boulez: ‘his sound consists of a million gestures – all going upward (and certainly not to heaven)’.

It’s true that Horizons does not claim to be a cultivator of new works. In this case, however, it seems an obvious and important opportunity was missed. The concert became an exercise in blowing dust off old scores when it was really critical to hear something new from Roger Doyle: in his maturity and in his post/mid-electronic outlook.

Published on 1 March 2006

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label.

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