Aonaracht I was originally conceived by composer, Úna Monaghan, as a collection of six pieces for solo musician and computer. “Traditional music is often thought of and enjoyed in group contexts. I wanted to think of the traditional instrument as it is to the player – first and foremost a private relationship between one person and their instrument. What might it be like if something of that relationship was heard alongside the acoustic insturment? Can technology be used to sound the world of traditional music beyond the tunes?”
In the event at the performance at the National Concert Hall on February 27, only five pieces were presented – due to the unavoidable availability of piper, Tiarnan Ó Duinchinn. However, the five pieces all offered intriguing explorations of Monaghan’s central theme. The Chinwag began with Úna Monaghan, herself, on harp: the primary tune on the harp being embellished by an almost choral resonance from the computer.
As the piece developed, voices in conversation began to take over the role of accompanying the instrument – with the conversation stopping and starting in sync with the rhythm of the tune played on the harp. The conversation between three elderly women had been recorded in rural Donegal in 2012. Úna Monaghan explains that the snippets of the women’s voices are manipulated live song pitch detection and motion sensor.
Safe Houses performed by Jack Talty on concertina with a taped accompaniment was inspired by the folk-rnn collection – a collection of over 100,000 tunes which has been generated by using an artificial intelligence called a “recurrent neural network” (RNN), developed by Professor Bob Sturm of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and Dr. Oded Ben-Tal of Kingston University, London. The melodies played by Talty on the concertina were composed by the computer having learned from collections of notated traditional music – while the parallel piece, played by the computer, was composed by Monaghan from recordings of her playing as she learned the computer’s compositions.
What Haven’t We Heard?, performed by Úna Monaghan on harp with vocalist, Pauline Scanlon was inspired by their experiences as activists with FairPlé, the campaign for gender equity with traditional and folk music. The piece, which also featured taped sounds as well as live electronics, was in three parts. The first, Data, attempts to provide a sonic representation of the disparity between male and female representation in various quantifiable phenomena like the number of participants in festivals and performances or the number of recipients of awards. Using the percentages for the proportion of men and women represented under these headings, Monaghan imagined the notes of a tune as voices and what might be heard if those voices were represented only in proportion to the gender split.
The second element, Context, is inspired by the powerfully moving poem, Weather Vane, by Belfast-based poet, Maureen Boyle, in which an expectant mother considers her situation in a mother-and-baby home. This leads into the third section, Experience, drawn directly from Úna Monaghan’s research with FairPlé – in which she facilitated the collection of reflections on the experiences of women (mainly) and men on various of aspects of traditional music and song from a gender perspective. Some contributors were happy to be identified but others wished to remain anonymous. For the performance, Monaghan and Scanlon took it in turns to read quotations from cards after which Scanlon sang in response to the quotations. What Haven’t We Heard? was not only highly persuasive at an intellectual level but also deeply moving at an emotional level. Each of the three elements offered complementary ways of seeing the issue of gender equity in traditional music and its relationship with gender issues within wider society.
Traditional Architecture was performed by Saileog Ní Cheannabháin on piano and vocals with live electronics and taped sounds. The piece quotes from seven of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, arranged by John Stevenson and seven traditional melodies, arranged by Saileog. The tune fragments are set against live computer-generated sounds triggered by the piano, as well as a variety of pre-recorded background sounds.
Saileog Ní Cheannabháin, widely respected as a singer and fiddle player, proved to equally gifted as a pianist. According to Úna Monaghan, the “piece is about the piano and its relationship to traditional music – now and in the past; Saileog as a singer and musician; what happens when another takes material and use it or changes it; colonisation, the interruption of space, concentration or intention; the architecture of the piano, its range and how different that is to putting a whistle in your inside pocket; chamber music, background music and performance contexts; what traditional music is; the inner voice of musicians; and space to think.”
The final element of the suite was Who Do You Play For? performed by fiddler, Paddy Glackin, accompanied by live electronics, pre-recorded sounds and voices which included excerpts from Last Night’s Fun by the late Ciaran Carson, Orpheus na gCnoic by Cathal Ó Searcaigh and Caoineadh Uí Néill played by Séamus Creagh.
“Musicians play in so many different contexts, moods and times,” explained Monaghan, “and for so many different people and reasons. This piece is inspired by the personal experience of the traditional musician, as a soloist, what they are feeling and why they are playing. It comes from my experience of traditional music in particular as a force that spans social, political, professional, historical, creative and emotional life. The live sound from the fiddle player feeds a computer improviser. Alongside this, chance processes trigger voices that interweave with a tape part featuring recordings of Glackin against his live playing.”
Although the soundscape quickly became multi-layered, the solitary nature of the performer’s experience was highlighted by the staging as Paddy Glackin opened the piece with his back to the audience – suggesting that we were eavesdropping on a private moment. Midway through the piece, Glackin changed his position on the stage to sit sideways on to the audience before returning to his original seat with his back to the audience. Leaving the symbolism of the presentation to one side, the musical experience was enthralling.