Babel – Roger Doyle

A review of Roger Doyle's magnum opus – his five-CD Babel.

‘And the Lord came down to see the city, and the tower; which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are all one people. and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come. let us go down. and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth … ‘

The Act of Providence by which human pride was punished according to the Book of Genesis has always been an auspicious source of inspiration for the Irish composer and musician, Roger Doyle (b. Dublin, 1949). His magnum opus Babel is one of the most remarkable CD productions of recent years. It is at once a tribute and a celebration of the existence of the plurality of musical languages. Each piece on the five (!) CDs can be taken as occupying its own space within an enormous tower city – a sort of acoustic virtual reality – with each space in the tower city having its own musical language.

The first three CDs (‘Temple Music’, ‘Chambers & Spirit Levels’, ‘Delusional Architecture’) comprise a seemingly random selection from the architectonic rooms (‘Mr Brady’s Room’) and the imaginary social and cultural elements (‘The Room of Rhetoric’) from which Babel is built. The other two CDs form an annex hereto and consist of transmissions from KBBL, Babel’s virtual radio station. Here, DJs, writers, actors, singers and musicians all make their appearance, so that KBBL is made to sound like a ‘real’ radio station, with commercials, traffic updates, telephone quizzes, and so on, all imbedded in the music of Roger Doyle.

The music of Babel is as diverse as the diversity of languages in the ‘real’ reality: satire, pop, world music, electro-acoustic sounds in combination with traditional instruments, pure electronic music (including ‘Spirit Levels I-IV’, which in 1997 won Doyle the Program Music Prize during the Bourges International Electro-Acoustic Music Competition); all form part of the Angel/Babel theatre show. Doyle uses this to recreate the world that inspires him. A world that is as real as it is virtual, and which also really exists for the simple reason that it is conceivable.

Babel offers an interesting variant on the ‘shuffle-play’ of your CD player: as a listener you can conduct your own tour de maison around the imaginary tower. Search for example for traces of the ‘Iron Language Alphabet’, the alphabet invented by Doyle of an imaginary language consisting entirely of abstract sounds. This alphabet is introduced as part of ‘Temple Music’, though the various ‘letters’ appear again elsewhere in different parts of the Tower City.

The illusion of an aural architecture becomes all the more tangible when in the various rooms, as in Mr Brady’s Room, you hear sounds coming through from other rooms: fragments of KEBL (the Babel radio station) or the sound of someone practising his piano lessons. Sounds permeate through the walls; voices are heard reacting to circumstances that conjure up a hall or a room (‘Oh, it’s dark in here’) and as the weather forecast is broadcast from the top of the tower via KBBL you can hear how the wind howls at such a height …

Doyle studied composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, at the Institute of Sonology in the Netherlands, and in the studios for experimental music run by Finnish radio. He has composed many pieces for theatre, film and dance productions, most of these in collaboration with the music theatre companies, Operating Theatre and Icon tact. Roger Doyle’s colourful music on Babel reflects his development as a musician, from a drummer in pop groups via experimental and improvisational music, to studied electronic compositions. Permeating through this is his ambivalence towards the music of the land of his own birth. Doyle specialises in electro-acoustic music, but has also written pieces that feature the uilleann pipes – this instrument can also be heard in one of the pieces ‘broadcast’ by KBBL. Doyle: ‘There is not a single trace of Irishness in my work. I have a complex relationship with my Irish background. I feel like a stranger in my own country, yet very gradually I am beginning to accept the fact that I am Irish, and taking this into account. I am conscious of the so-called Irish music that has been enormously successful, and am not thanked when I express my opinion on this. But I really feel that “Irish music” is being sold as a soft misty thing and this to me is repugnant.’

The Babylonian confusion of tongues that denotes punishment in this biblical story provides the instrumental force in Doyle’s creation of a varied and exciting collage of sound. As a result, Babel is not something to be classified in accordance with traditional musical criteria. Doyle has succeeded in transcending a number of obstinate musical barriers, which is no mean feat. What is conveyed is not necessarily easy music to while away the time. But those who take the time to listen carefully and repeatedly will enter an exciting adventure in a world of sound that is both imaginative and real.

(Text translated from the Dutch by Caoilte Breatnach)


First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 2 (Jan–Feb 2001), p. 14

Published on 1 January 2001

Aad van Niuewkerk is the Senior Producer with APRO Radio 4 in The Netherlands.

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