Úna Monaghan: ‘I can point out which music pieces were AI-generated and which were not’

Her new album Aonaracht is an exploration of the relationship between the musician and their instrument

The communion that characterises our experience of traditional (and all) music is a magical thing: that ephemeral connection that dissolves the space between artist and listener, so that both are entwined in the moment. What, though, do we know of the communion between a musician and their instrument? Mostly, very little, as it’s a private relationship underpinning each and every performance but rarely taking centre stage.

Úna Monaghan is a harp player and a composer, a sound engineer and an academic whose latest solo album, Aonaracht, is a heady exploration of “the private relationship between a musician and their instrument”. A collection of six pieces for solo traditional musician and computer, her album explores some complex questions. And Monaghan’s facility with tune titles prods the listener to delve deep beneath. Between the Piper and the Pipes and Who Do You Play For? are just two of those titles that draw the listener deep beneath the surface of the tunes, to reveal a glimpse of what that relationship might be – a 21st-century meditation on Yeats’s question, how can we know the dancer from the dance?

This is an album with a lengthy gestation, inspired by Monaghan’s desire to see whether technology could be used to sound the world of traditional music beyond the tune. Piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, singer Pauline Scanlan, concertina player Jack Talty, fiddle player Paddy Glackin and pianist Saileog Ní Cheannabháin are her co-conspirators on this picaresque adventure, each musician immersing themselves in a custom-made piece that included computerised elements taken from field recordings, electro-acoustic sound, improvisation and live electronics. It’s a parachute leap without the parachute, in many ways, each musician taking a leap into the unknown with Monaghan, yet all clearly enjoying the ride.

“There were two things that I was thinking about,” Monaghan muses as she reflects on the genesis of Aonaracht. “One was the concept of the solo performance, because we know that was how it started out, way back, when musicians didn’t have too many opportunities to perform together. Then there was this advent of the group as a commercial performance in the 1960s and ‘70s, and that was how I often experienced traditional music. The band often had a very similar line-up: four or five instrumentalists and one singer. I felt this keenly as a harp player because you had your own accompaniment there, and whatever way the harp tradition developed, there was a lot of solo performance.


“When I started to play, it wasn’t an instrument that was common in the early 1990s. I was quite sensitive to the idea of playing on your own, and when you found yourself in a group at a session, you’d be asked to play on your own too. But maybe the flute or fiddle player wasn’t asked to do that. So it’s something I’ve always been thinking about and it’s brought me full circle to that relationship you have with your instrument. That’s always there, and yet we tend to think about traditional music as a group community activity, but you’re rehearsing on your own, and you’re often learning on your own. So, I think there’s a tension there between the community aspect of it and the solo aspect of it.”

Monaghan has a degree in astrophysics from Cambridge, and the academic in her is constantly probing and exploring what lies at the heart of traditional music. For this collection, she thought long and hard about what shape Aonaracht would take before approaching anyone to collaborate with her.

“I was thinking about which trad musicians I wanted to work with,” she explains, musing on a creative process that evolved organically. “They had to be someone who was brilliant at what they do, someone who had an interest in experimentalism, someone open to a collaborative process and someone who I could form a relationship with.”

There are some big questions at the heart of this collection. Jack Talty, true to his form as a fearless musician, embarks on a musical conversation with three tunes drawn from the folk-rnn (recurrent neural network) collection of 100,000 tunes generated by artificial intelligence, and informed by a corpus of 23,000 tunes from thesession.org’s collection.

“I can immediately point out which pieces were recognisably AI-generated, and which were not,” Monaghan explains. “I chose three of those pieces which the computer had made, and Jack played them with his feeling, his lift and ornamentation.”

Titled Safe Houses, it’s a set that cuts laser beam-like to the heart of the tradition and has layers of meaning embedded within.

“Faced with this collection of AI-generated music, it was unclear whether some tunes were AI-generated or traditional music,” Monaghan says. “One of the things I used to help me pick what tunes to include on the album was that I’d ask others to listen. I noticed that the musicians felt a threat when they heard these. Which is not that surprising, really. If you’re a traditional music composer and you make three pieces in a year, and the computer has spat out 1,000 in five minutes, it’s understandable that you’re going to shudder.”

But there’s a long history of concern for the “safety” of the tradition, which Monaghan wanted to explore too.

“I was struck by the sense of unease, but it also ties into the protection of the tradition,” she says. This is something that’s been going on for years. You hear it all the time: `The tradition is in good hands.’ We’re quite nervous that our tradition will be attacked or lost, and that’s because historically that was the case. There have been attempts to stamp it out in the past, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The tradition by definition renews in different ways; the bodhrán is not an old instrument, and the oldest instruments aren’t necessarily instruments that are played today, so I think this is another step in our relationship with what the tradition is, what it can do and what its potential is.

“I’m sitting in this place between love for the tradition and interest in new things. But I’m acknowledging that the use of computers can be worrying for some. So Safe Houses was a reference to that unease.”

Monaghan has an intimate knowledge of the depth and richness of the relationship between a musician and their instrument. It’s at the heart of this collection, anchored by the ties that bind piper to pipes, the “big” instrument of our tradition.

“I remember I was abroad once,” she says, “and there was a danger to the harp because of the climate, and I physically felt worried about the harp. That was the first time that I realised a relationship with an instrument could be that strong. With the piper, I chose this instrument to unpack that idea a bit more. The pipes have a reputation and a status in traditional music and I know many pipers. Not everyone is the archetypal piper. But there was always this ritual that a piper would have to go through when they would join a session. They have to assemble the instrument, check all the parts are working so what you get is an audio symphony before they’ve even started: all of this richness of sound that comes from the pipes. Immediately, that’s a very beautiful thing, so I wanted to foreground that noise and to bring us through every single part of the sound of the pipes.

“And if you put mics in the tubes as they’re being played, you get access to the air movement in a way that you don’t get if you’re not a piper or if your ear isn’t right on the leather.”

Aonaracht is the start of a whole new series of conversations about traditional music, sparked by a woman whose curiosity is the engine driving her many endeavours.

“I do four things intensely,” Monaghan offers by way of reflection. “I write music, I perform music, I think about it in the academic work and I work as a sound engineer. For whatever reason, it works for me to do all of those things to the best of my ability. Having the background in physics did two things for me: it honed my technical skills and my ability to think about things in a very analytical way.”

Aonaracht is out now. unamonaghan.com

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts