UNA MONAGHAN – Aonaracht (own label UMM002CD)

AonarachtAonaracht is an album that will divide opinion. The strapline on the sleeve – ‘a collection for traditional musicians and computer’ – is probably enough to make some traditionalists give up on it, but hasty judgments are always best avoided. A fuller reading of the sleeve notes and publicity material suggested to me that this was going to be a very thoughtful and intriguing piece of work. Una Monaghan is an award winning Belfast harper, composer, sound engineer, writer and researcher. She is clearly a talented musician, with a deep connection to traditional Irish music, and this album is full of fresh ideas and serious thought around what folk music is and should be. That said, one of the key ideas, is actually very traditional.

The album’s title means alone in Gaelic, and there’s a reason for that. Since the Irish and British folk revivals of the Twentieth Century, we’ve grown used to hearing ensemble performances. Una’s compositions and arrangements here, take the music back to individual performance. Each of the six tracks is a solo piece, albeit accompanied by experimental electronic soundscapes. The line-up of musicians is also packed with talent; Paddy Glackin (fiddle), Saileog Ni Cheannabhain (piano), Tiarnan O Duinnchinn (Uilleann pipes) Pauline Scanlon (vocals), Jack Talty (concertina), and Una herself on harp and computer.

The first track, ‘Between The Piper And The Pipes’, opens with a long sequence of what I can only describe as strange, ambient sounds. In time, an industrial sounding hum comes in and the uilleann pipes arrive. To start, the pipes are played in short discordant blasts, with the background sounds continuing throughout. As it moves on, the track becomes busier and more chaotic. The tune is intended as a homage to the pipes and the rituals of the pipers. The amusing sub-title ‘Music It Might Have Been, But Piping it Certainly Wasn’t’, comes from an audience member’s comment, overheard at a piping competition.

‘The Chinwag’ opens with a gentle harp tune. It’s interspersed with short periods of silence, while human voices, distorted and sounding robotic, can be heard in the background. The voices become more human and it’s clear that we’re listening to snippets of real conversation. It is, in fact, a recording of three elderly women, made in rural Donegal in 2012. Some of their words continue to be manipulated, so that they merge with the melody of the harp. The conversation revolves around simple reminiscence and reflections on life, the absence of deep subjects making it all the more personal and moving. Combined with the beauty of the harp playing, this makes for a delightful and touching track.

This whole album might alarm some purists, but something even worse follows – folk tunes generated by AI software! Developed by academics at Kingstone and Stockholm Universities, Folk RNN is recuring neural network, trained using over 23,000 tunes on the very useful sessions.org website. So far, it’s generated over 100,000 tunes, three of which feature on ‘Safe Houses’. They are played on concertina, accompanied by some heavy computerised sounds, on a track with some very discordant sequences. The title originates from the alarmed reaction of other folk musicians when Una told them about Folk RNN. The newly generated tunes are numbered, and Una chose these three by the street numbers of her former Belfast homes. I don’t know if this association with home calmed the alarmed musicians. For my part, I find the idea unsettling, but I’m happy to report that none of the tunes here made me think that AI can do better the human mind.

This is followed by the most powerful track on Aonaracht, ‘What Haven’t We Heard?’. This a musical setting of Maureen Boyle’s poem ‘Weather Vane’. A poem about Magdalene Laundries. Accompanied by more beautiful harp playing, Pauline Scanlon sings the words of a young woman confined in an institution. In the sixth month of her pregnancy, she is set to work cleaning moss off of the rooftiles, as a ‘punishment for vanity’. In the second part, Pauline turns to vocal improvisation around the theme of the poem. The results are heart rending lamentations while the electronic soundscape, present throughout, becomes more intense and evokes a feeling of desperation. This really is powerful stuff.

Electronic sounds, interspersed with snippets of recorded voices, open the next track. ‘Traditional Architecture’ is the piano track, and the longest on the album. Consisting of a set of traditional Irish melodies, including some familiar tunes, it feels like light relief after the previous track. Not that it’s in anyway frivolous, as it looks to explore topics such as the inner voice of musicians and what traditional music is. Personally, I always enjoy hearing folk melodies played on a piano, and Saileog Ni Cheannabhain’s playing here is terrific. The electronic soundscape continues and, like other tracks here, discordance grows as it goes on. A brief snippet from a recording of beautiful unaccompanied Gaelic singing brings it to an end.

‘Who Do You Play For?’ is the final track, and a good one to end with. After an opening in which computer generated sounds mix with brief recorded excerpts of what sounds like a dance band, the track consists largely of a spoken monologue, exploring why folk musicians play, accompanied by the fiddle. For Una, who wrote the text with Ciaron Carson, folk music is a force spanning social, political, professional, historical, creative and emotional life. It’s movingly read by Ciaran himself, accompanied by a terrific fiddle solo by Paddy Glackin. Again, the electronic soundscape becomes more prominent as the track progresses. Towards the end Cathal O’ Searcaigh reads ‘Orpheus na gCnoic’, a Gaelic poem that he wrote for this piece.

Aonaracht is unlike any album I’ve listened to before. Knowing that this album fuses Celtic music with electronica, my mind turned to artists who have worked in this genre. In particular, my mind turned to the late Martyn Bennett, whose work also incorporates electronic music, field recordings and spoken words, but I’m not sure that this comparison works here. Una’s work has a different level of ambition, trying to create a new soundscape, using experimental electronic music to probe the essence of folk music beyond the tunes themselves. It’s not surprising then, that Aonaracht is ambitious, radical, challenging, and very experimental. Such an album will inevitably provoke mixed feelings, so I’ll try to sum up what I feel are the pros and cons.

On the plus side, Aonaracht does have much to recommend it. There’s innovative use of technology, great performances and some truly powerful and moving moments. On the other hand, experimentation brings risks, and while some parts work well others didn’t do it for me. Ambition is a good thing, but this album might suffer from trying to do too much. At times I found the electronic elements a bit overpowering, and there just seemed to be too much happening.

Aonaracht certainly won’t please everyone, but with an album as radical as this, that’s not really the point. Una Monaghan’s approach might not always work, but she’s a talented and very intelligent artist who is developing intriguing new approaches to traditional music. I’ll be following her progress with great interest.

Graham Brown

Artist website: Úna Monaghan (unamonaghan.com)

‘The Chinwag’ – original live acoustic version: