A Tempered Solitude
Music is fundamentally social, and if that’s true anywhere it’s true for Irish traditional music. So many of our images of it are of the open sessions in pubs or homes warmed by the spirit of community. Or, well… These images are easy to tire of: they are a sort of Pollyannaish fiction that Irish traditional music communities are too ruddy and simple to ever fight with one another, the musicians too superficial for any one of them to need to forge their own, idiosyncratic, disapproved-of path. These images also falsify the tradition, which requires solitude as much as any other music, and which has its lone, solitary geniuses, such as Tommie Potts – and their representation in art, from Jennifer Walshe’s outsider artist Caoimhín Breathnach in her ‘aisteach’ works, to Martin McDonagh’s depiction of a composer desperate for solitude in his film The Banshees of Inisherin.
It is this more critical stream that Úna Monaghan is drawing from in her new album Aonaracht, which consists of six works for solo traditional musicians developed between 2015 and 2022. Even the title translates as ‘solitude’.
It is a tempered solitude, though. None of the musicians (Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, Jack Talty, Pauline Scanlon, Saileog Ní Cheannabháin, Paddy Glackin and Monaghan herself) are entirely alone. First, they are joined by their instrument, and this is not trivial, as we hear in the opening tune, ‘Between the Piper and the Pipes’ or ‘Idir an Píobaire agus an Phíb’ (the programme notes and all the composition titles are given equally in Irish and English), performed by Ó Duinnchinn. This work thematises the strangeness of instruments and how they have to be coaxed, massaged into alliance with their players. But additionally the musicians are all partnered with some or another form of computer accompaniment, which represents all the relations that arise between the nodes of the musician, their instrument, and the music they make: musical and social history, imagined and real audiences, the bills they have to pay, even the mysterious ‘spirit’ that music aims for.
The nodes and their relationships are cleverly interwoven in these works, which range from six to twenty minutes in length. The notion that music is fundamentally solitary is not any more true than the notion that it is social. Solitude is required to listen deeply to ourselves, but we listen to ourselves speak or make music in a language that is taught to us by others, which we share with others. Solitude itself, if you will, is social. So, for instance, in ‘Safe Houses’, Talty plays tunes that are created by a neural network, ‘folk-rnn’, trained on the corpus of the tunes transcribed on thesession.org: tunes that are a distillation of the entire tradition. Glackin plays against old manipulated recordings of his own playing on ‘Who Do You Play For?’, alongside which the taped voice (semi-present) of Ciaran Carson evokes all the different relationships traditional musicians find themselves in. Are these taped memories or the emergent electronic elements of the performance, node or relationship? Is this society or solitude?
Processes and meaning
Aonaracht, though, seems sometimes to forget that its sounds have a shared meaning that is not nullified by the esoteric, private compositional or computer processes that lead to them. The listener does not, after all, hear the processes, but just the sounds that result. Probably the biggest frustration I feel listening to the album is that Monaghan has not always attended to how these sounds sound, and so they often sound like nothing in particular, even when her theoretical intelligence is vivid. For example, folk-rnn’s tunes sound nonsensical, and the particular aural character of that nonsense doesn’t seem to matter to Monaghan: the point, for her, seems just to be the algorithm. I felt similarly on listening to any of the live electronics, especially in ‘Who Do You Play For?’
Perhaps this is deliberate. The musicians Monaghan has assembled for this project have substantial roles. Ní Cheannabháin arranges half of the traditional melodies in ‘Traditional Architecture’; Glackin, as well as Scanlon on ‘What Haven’t We Heard?’, improvise in response to the live electronics; and so on. Whenever these musicians make a decision, it exudes musicality. (I include Monaghan’s own playing on ‘The Chinwag’ here.) The interaction of these elements with the algorithms creates a productive tension between sense and nonsense, humans and computers, or music and its simulacrum. It is fascinating to hear Talty force melodic shape and coherence onto folk-rnn’s nonsense tunes, or to hear Glackin course-correct when his live electronics throw him a curve ball.
The result is certainly a testament to these musicians’ musicianship, but I am not sure what more it is. The album’s use of machine learning seems to want to say something about creativity, and about how people and software learn a repertoire. But the only time I got a genuine shiver was in ‘Traditional Architecture’, where algorithmic music-making is set beside – juxtaposed against? – appropriative arrangements of traditional music. Ní Cheannabháin plays piano arrangements of traditional melodies, half by the eighteenth-century Irish Protestant vicar Sir John Andrew Stevenson and half by herself. Meanwhile, the live electronics respond in their own way. All three ‘arrangers’ put their stamp on their transformation of the music, capturing some elements and neglecting others. It is easy for us to see what is missing in Stevenson’s Percy Grainger-esque arrangements, which draw the tunes towards the colonial powers who nurtured the piano and its performance traditions; but Ní Cheannabháin hardly takes an opposite approach: her arrangements are more sensitive, but they’re still, at the end of the day, arranged for piano. Is this a problem? Is it, by extension, a problem that the live electronics also distort their source material? Monaghan seems here to be asking who a coloniser is, and about who determines the ‘soul’ of a tune – or of the tradition as a whole. These are difficult questions, and I was drawn in. It was a rare moment of resonance, but then that might be fine: Aonaracht is a rich album, experimenting in all sorts of directions, and too inquisitive for a review to answer it.
Aonaracht by Úna Monaghan is available on CD and vinyl (shipping in August 2023) from https://unamonaghan.bandcamp.com/album/aonaracht.
Click on the image below to listen.
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Published on 2 March 2023
James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.