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Roger Doyle - Rapid Eye Movements

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Artist: Roger Doyle

Album: Rapid Eye Movements

Label: Silverdoor

Review date: Jul. 15, 2003

Rapid Progress

Roger Doyle seems to suffer from a devastating urge to birth magnum opii. Most recently this has manifested itself in a five-hour opera written with the assistance of 48 collaborators, earlier though, we have Rapid Eye Movements, a 30-minute, obliquely successful, attempt at making a “masterpiece before the age of thirty”. The record, originally released by United Dairies, is the latest chunk of avant-arcana to be rescued from Nurse With Wound’s legendarily invaluable list of influences, following the finally reissued debut by the Sweedish experimental rock group, Arbete Och Fritid. Silverdoor releases the work alongside of 40 minutes of Doyle’s earlier pieces, which, while afflicted by a certain lack of development, are certainly ambitiously disparate, only stressing the necessity Doyle must’ve felt with his approaching 30th birthday to create something valuable.

The early experimental tape work, created between 1971 and 1977, is unfortunately rather interchangeable with the slew of electronic music created nearly a decade earlier. 1977’s "Fin-estra", referring to the Finnish Orchestra that performs as well as the French word “fenetre”, is, for most of its exhausting duration, a rather standard manipulation of orchestral sounds (speeding up, slowing down, panning left and right, etc..), yet something about Doyle, though very slight, does shine through. The “fenetre” is a reference to the open window of the studio in which Doyle birthed the piece, and subsequently reaped a bit of material from. Though not quite successful, Doyle sets up a hierarchy between the three sound sources: the serious institution of an orchestra, the mid-ground of the recording studio, and the freedom of the sounds outside of the window. At its best, "Fin-estra" would sound like at any given point, the listener could just walk out of the dark, immensely layered symphony at play, and get a breath of fresh air. Doyle’s decision to specifically integrate children-at-play with his field recordings, however, comes across as slightly stale and maybe a little bit more claustrophobic than the scenario would entail.

The other electronic piece “Why is Kilkenny so Good?” is particularly interesting as a possible precedent for Robert Ashley’s “Automatic Writing," which was still 8 years away from being composed at that point. Incomprehensible language, clamorous echoing bells in the background, it’s surprising that Ashley hasn’t been asked about his awareness of this piece. The fundamental difference however, is a general lack of subtlety. Ashley’s “Automatic Writing” is a testament to trance-inducing auditory hallucinations, Doyle’s relationship to Nurse With Wound shows jump-cut tape splices, dynamic juxtaposition, and plenty of good-hearted noisiness. This, of course, is a frustrating mold that a good portion of tape music fits comfortably into, showing why when Luc Ferrari’s “Presque Rien," a piece that is so achingly restrained that it could pass for a mere field recording. It’s not that there is anything intrinsically wrong about the utilization of the aforementioned techniques, it’s just a question of form following content. Where Nurse With Wound could use those procedures to lull a listener into disorientation, Doyle’s sounds often sound a bit too much like stock footage, simply drawing attention to its own technology.

Sandwiched in between these two dense works, Doyle’s “Piano Suite” comes as a pleasant surprise. Owing much to Debussy, despite a confessed integration of tone rows, Doyle shows that his musique concrete doesn’t come from so much of a progressive agenda, as much as a desire to deal with the meaning of sound. Not borrowing from either the Minimalist trend that was certainly widespread and popular at the time, nor indebted to the atonal, cluster-ridden piano music of earlier generations of progressive composers, Doyle shows his allegiance to the French School, revealing his proclivities towards the romantic and the absurd, music that still clings to the remaining vestiges of exposition and melody, though certainly from an unconventional angle. The liner note comment about deriving the piece from a tone row illustrates in words what the piece fails to convey, though. The idea something with an agenda like Serialism, that is, a music based totally in process and compositional detachment, can be applied to something where the agenda is lofty expression, while apparently at play here, is not particularly audible. Like the other earlier work, it simply lacks the clear, phantasmagoric and curious tenor of "Rapid Eye Movement", it is experimental, in the traditional sense.

So, then, what is it about "Rapid Eye Movements" that succeeds? The slight-of-hand that is musique concrete, that ability, not only to reproduce sounds taken from life, but create an image in the listener’s mind, is almost fictive. Where you can hear the voice of the narrator in a book, and see him or her placing an object on a table, or communicating with another person, none of that is intrinsic in the text itself. Similarly, musique concrete is music of listener imagination, the listener deciphering, organizing, and replaying the familiar sounds, or language, of the piece. The freshness of “Rapid Eye Movements” allies it even closer to Nurse With Wound, in the intent of surrealism, the juxtaposition and discomfort that can be created with sound image.

It seems surprising that a good number of the French innovators of this music didn’t see the type of sarcasm and surprise that, subsequently, has been the most popular use of tape music, or maybe it just didn’t translate. Doyle’s Irish origin and epic, playful scope easily invite relationships to Joyce’s irreverent progressiveness. The strength of the piece might even model itself after “Ulysses”, Doyle’s ability to travel through a city, into roar of private conversations and ocean waves crashing, the creaks of feet walking on wooden floors as they dictate in an unintelligible language, and seagulls, all seem to give the listener a chance to a dream-like omniscience, transiently passing through Doyle’s scope of Dublin. Doyle also mentions “aural déjà vu moments, where sounds heard before re-appear in different contexts”, which is pretty explicitly characteristic of Joyce’s book.

Importantly, though, and perhaps traveling alongside of a less obvious tangent, Doyle integrates some very electronic sounds into his ephemeral landscape, allowing that extra bit of surprise, that extra inhuman threat and sensory shock. He molds the fragmented field recordings into a dark and frothing nightmare, emphasizing those “different contexts” by the same techniques that seemed so pedestrian in his earlier work. A piano melody that resurfaces throughout might be thwarted by a sharp thump or sped-up into an anarchic oblivion. Any sound image, any complacent seaside pleasantry or clock-ticking has the ability to seamlessly change form, to become monstrous or to slide into a film shoot. There is a tension, an attention to drama, accentuated by the non-acoustic with the acoustic, the snippets of musical fragments, and Doyle’s keen intuition about where sounds fit.

Three minutes into the second half of the piece, Doyle coaxes French children into assisting with his recording, likely revealing Jim O’Rourke’s source of inspiration for the fantastic coda on Gastr Del Sol’s “The Seasons Reverse”, yet it is interspersed with the sounds of construction workers and ocean waves, harkening back to moments before in the piece, reminding the listener of all of the simultaneous places he must be aware of, the simultaneous, overlapping possibilities of any given place, apparently the fundamental theme in his Babel opera.

“Rapid Eye Movements” might not be the masterwork Doyle envisioned, it’s something more important than that, a strong, complex and entertaining piece of music, something almost as rare. It certainly makes the album Rapid Eye Movements worth hearing, giving context and attention to the progression of a somewhat obscure composer, finally acknowledged for his contributions. Perfectly, “Rapid Eye Movements," the piece and the album, end, the ticking stops and the alarm clock rings – then, of course, the clicking starts again, albeit a little bit softer, and further away from the clock. The symbolism applies itself well to Doyle, who, masterpiece or not, continues.

By Matt Wellins

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