Roger Doyle - Frail Things in Eternal Places [Silverdoor - 2016]Since completing his "life's work" the vertiginous Babel project -released as a 5CD set in 1999 - Roger Doyle has not rested on his laurels. The themes and techniques explored during those years composing Babel have since been further refined into a number of different but interconnected projects. The three volume Passades series explored duration, utilising the creative possibilities of software to sculpt music as a series of near freeze frames, moving backwards and forwards over small pieces of instrumental or vocal sound. Two narrative works, building upon the theatrical legacy of his earlier group Operating Theatre, which the composer calls "cinema for the ear" were produced in the form of Adolf Gébler, Clarinettist and the chilling The Room in the Tower. And in recent years memory and time have become increasing central to Doyle's work as reflected in the imaginary world music of The Thousand Year Old Boy and most clearly in the series of pieces composed around old telephone answering machine messages grouped together on the Time Machines record. With the premier of his first opera Heresy: The Death By Fire of Giordano Bruno due in November this year the release of Frail Things in Eternal Places appears as something of a companion piece bringing together all the key elements of the previous fifteen or so years and linking back to aspects of Babel.
The evocative title is drawn from Italian Renaissance philosopher Giulio Camillo's L’Idea Del Teatro (1550) whose idea of a theatre of memory neatly brings together notions of architecture, language and of course memory; all of which have at different times been key concerns of Doyle's work. From the outset of the first piece By the Glimmer of Memory (one of four pieces with titles drawn from Joyce's Finnegans Wake) it's the human voice that immediately draws the listener into Doyle's sound-world. Caitriona O’Leary’s wordless singing emerges out of a backdrop of stretched and transformed electronic and acoustic sound which gradually opens up allowing the voice to take centre stage before closing in again. O'Leary is one of eight vocalists featured on the record, the others including Ellen Demos, Morgan Crowley, long term Doyle collaborator Elena Lopez and Doyle's wife Mary Costelloe.
Many of the vocal parts are improvised providing a more organic sounding counterpoint to the complex layers of electronic sound. Often, as on pieces like Shiramine or Mnemonic Space the use of electronically processed voice alongside the singing creates an interesting blurring effect which like some of the best pieces from Babel and Passades is both disorientating and fascinating. And speaking of Babel there are two explicit references to Doyle's old master work in the form of - the title referring back to Dark Scenery Court Games from Babel and another in the series of "entry levels", here present as Entry Level 8. The former is a brilliantly percussive piece featuring an ecstatic vocal from Dublin born Carolyn Cahill. The Bandcamp page for this record includes the tag "Space opera", which the drama of this piece richly deserves! Indeed with Doyle's history in music-theatre (and now Opera)and the concepts imbued in the record's title it's not surprising that most of the compositions presented operate at an explicitly dramatic level. One could imagine these works being performed on a stage on some distant scarcely imaginable world in the future.
Akasha, Mask Up and Chantry each focus in on aspects of improvisation; the first more introspective, almost mournful, before opening up into more overtly experimental composition on the other two pieces. Percussion is transformed on Mask Up, punctuating Costelloe's voice with strange metallic crashes and hissing cymbals. On the last of the three Doyle weaves his electronics around Tuula Voutilainen's improvisations, the electronics rising and falling with her voice, before evolving into a more percussive even dub inflected mode across its seven minute duration. The Duskiss - a Hiberno-English variation on the word Dusk is a darker more tense composition evoking the atmosphere encountered in some of the areas of Babel's imaginary tower. The vocal part is more limited here, strained through dissonant pulses of electronic sound.
Explicitly evoking Giulio Camillo Theatre of Memory is another stand out piece featuring the album's eighth vocalist, Ukrainian born Olesya Zdorovetska who provides an especially primal performance. Stuttering tones and freeze frame edits give way to powerful drones over which Zdorovetska chants as if conducting an ancient ritual. The final piece The Curves of Quickest Descent is also the longest at over eight minutes. Here Doyle layers electronic glissandi and keys following Morgan Crowley's plaintive singing. Multiple tones slide in and out of tune as the voice blends and then disassociates from the electronics. After three minutes a short break of silence then it begins again with a different set of harmonics coaxing Crowley into the open again. Not so much a dance but a kind of seduction ending with the electronics sliding down in pitch until nothing remains. The stage is empty.
Those familiar with Roger Doyle's work will find much to admire in the refinement and quality of these compositions. For the uninitiated Frail Things In Eternal Places is as good an introduction to his work as any, bringing together many of the signature techniques, themes and working practices the composer has developed over his career. In particular the array of vocal talent and performance Doyle has brought together should open up this work to any listener interested in contemporary use of the voice. Fans of Lisa Gerrard, Sidsel Endresen or even Stephan Micus would find a great deal to appreciate here. Perhaps most satisfying is the sense of maturity on the level of composition and technological mastery and as a composer working with a set of ideas that clearly inspire him. If there is any justice the performance of Heresy later this year and the release of the opera's music in early 2017 will bring this underexposed composer to a far wider audience. Duncan Simpson