Have a quick listen to the voicemail messages on your phone. You probably won’t save those fleeting hellos and routine exchanges and use them as the backbone to a modern composition project a few decades down the line. You probably don’t think like Roger Doyle though, this country’s pioneering electroacoustic composer, regarded as ‘the Godfather of Irish electronica’.
Doyle has just released the album Chalant – Memento Mori, centred on telephone answering machine messages from the 1980s, interwoven with original piano and electronic compositions. These “verbal time capsules” preserve the voices of now-deceased loved ones, his young son, colleagues and close friends, evoking jolts of nostalgia that posed family portraits can rarely achieve.
While the pieces offer a snapshot of Doyle’s life during a particular period, the album’s universal themes and interactions steer the listener down their own memory lanes as the compositions evoke “a world of ancient race memory” – the inherited subconscious ideas and feelings passed on from our ancestors. State spoke to Doyle about his inspiration behind the album, and how it compares with his other acclaimed projects.
Was there any particular event or milestone that inspired you to invoke the phrase ‘memento mori’ [‘remember your mortality’] for the album?
There was the milestone of becoming a grandfather last year as I listened to my son, then aged 10, on the answering machine.
Does the period of the late-80s hold particular significance when you look back?
My career was in full bloom back then, and it just so happened that I got an answering machine at that time to cope with all the messages. I knew even as I recorded them that one day I would incorporate them into an album. I composed the music for this new album quickly, it only took about nine months, from October 2010 to 2011. The tapes were in a box in my studio all the time. There is about a half an hour of recordings for each month (January 1987 to December 1989). In the end I used less than I thought I would.
The messages are described as “intimate verbal time capsules”. How does this compare with memories evoked by flicking through old photo albums?
More like old family movies. They really give a crystal clear idea of an artist’s life in a Merrion Square flat in Dublin in the 1980s. The music came first and then I fit the messages in with it.
When you played family and friends the finished album for the first time, what was their reaction to hearing their words along with the music?
Somewhere between muted and amused.
Was it difficult to include passages from loved ones who have since passed away?
No it wasn’t, as I was coldly fitting the text with the music. After the pieces were finished I felt an emotional response as an artist to the work and how the combination seemed greater than the sum of their parts.
What’s the significance of the street depicted on the album cover, and when was the photo taken?
The photo was taken recently by an old friend Paula Nolan who places photos she takes of Dublin cloud formations on her Facebook page. I ‘liked’ so many of them and this one in particular struck me and magical. Clouds and the sea give a feeling of permanence/impermanence.
One of the most poignant passages is ‘Coat Hanger Kisses’. What’s the story behind this message from Jonathan Philbin Bowman [the journalist who died tragically in 2000, aged 31]? It’s difficult to tell whether it’s a late-night stream-of-consciousness or a brilliant fully-formed poem.
It’s part of a longer message he left when he was talking about the joys/difficulties of being a young father, and then he suddenly went into this – a stream-of-consciousness by a young mind on fire.