Roger Doyle: Cool Steel Army

Irish electronic composer Roger Doyle (recipient of the Magisterium Prize in 2007 at the Bourges International Electro-acoustic music competition in France) selected “Cool Steel Army” (an anagram of Mary Costelloe, his wife's maiden name) as the title for his latest album but the honour should really have gone to the thirty-eight-minute musical-theatrical piece “Adolf Gebler, Clarinettist” which is the dominant one of the album's three. That opus is preceded by compositions which pay tribute to Doyle's wife and son, the aforementioned title piece and “Paavo's Engagement.”

One shouldn't read too much into such things perhaps but “Cool Steel Army” seems hardly a sweetly romantic paean to his life's love; with the exception of a few seconds of solo piano in its middle, the piece thunders like an out-of-control tank as Doyle showers his aggressive piano playing with electronic noise while Ian McDonnell on laptop percussion hammers alongside. By comparison, “Paavo's Engagement,” which Doyle composed on the occasion of his son's wedding announcement, benefits from the solo piano presentation, with Doyle's interlocking arpeggios and cascades generating a spirited mass whose seventeen minutes passes quickly.

“Adolf Gebler, Clarinettist” is aptly characterized as both “a soundtrack for an imaginary film” and “a cinema for the ear.” Based on a true story (written by Carlo Gebler, the story concerns his grandfather, who was a first clarinetist with the Radio Eireann Studio Players in 1936 and who moved to Ireland after falling in love with an usherette he met in 1910 at a Dublin concert), Doyle scored the work for symphony orchestra, piano, and female singer, with pre-recorded dialogue and sound re-presenting the acted scenes; as a result, the listener feels as if he/she is present at the screening of a film designed for the ears only. Though the work was premiered in February 2008 in Dublin, the recording itself is a revised and expanded version that was re-created using the Vienna Symphonic Library software. It's a thoroughly entertaining listening experience, something not said as often as perhaps it should be. Jonathan Ryan, who plays the titular character as both a young and old man, recites throughout, most often in a gravelly voice to suggest an older man reviewing his past. Real-world sounds occasionally punctuate the narrative, such as the bluster of a ship's horn and seagulls during “Going to Ireland.” Admirers of Michael Nyman's music will find much to like about Doyle's piece too, with “Concert Roger” featuring some lovely chamber writing for woodwinds, strings, horns, and piano of the kind one might hear the Nyman band play. The elegant ballad “Leave Him He's Mine,” which immediately follows and is similarly Nymanesque, is elevated by a lovely vocal performance by Fionnuala Gill. Naturally, clarinet is the primary instrumental voice and its presence throughout helps hold the work's disparate parts together, as does the reprise of the “Leave Him He's Mine” theme in “You're Touching My Knee” and “Finale” by the clarinet and Gill respectively.

May 2009