Pointing Towards the Future

Úna Monaghan

Pointing Towards the Future

Belfast harper Úna Monaghan's new album is a surprising – sometimes startling – mix of traditional music material and electronics, writes Anna Murray.

Úna Monaghan, harper and composer from Belfast, independently released her debut album For early this year. In the sleevenotes, she makes an interesting observation: ‘it is impossible to make patches in Max/MSP [the live electronics system], or tunes in Irish traditional music that are not… built on the work of others’.

For is an exploration of this legacy, seeking more connections between both, and honouring the repertoire of others that she builds on, whether it’s Irish airs or filters and effects. 

All the works on the album are composed (or in some instances improvised) by Monaghan herself, but she frequently draws on existing tunes in their entirety or as a basis for composition; she also uses a full historical gamut of approaches to electronics, from processes like reverse loops, reverbs and found sounds to a live performance system in which the electronics are controlled by her own movements. 

Broad, deep sound
Throughout For then, Monaghan has one hand tightly gripped on to the past and one pointing towards the future, making for an album that takes regular wild swings of direction but still has a clear trajectory. A significant part of what makes this varied collection work is the consistency of approach. All the tracks on the album were recorded live (including all the electronics), and the harp throughout has a broad, deep sound, making you feel as if you are right beside it rather than listening to a performer on stage. The effect is of a rare intimacy which allows us to hear the nuances of her confident playing.  

For is an album of primarily Irish traditional-rooted music, though Monaghan’s treatment even of these elements feels contemporary, her sculpting of melody skeletal, though with a textural bed exemplified in the strong contrapuntal lines of opening track Tubaiste agus Taisceadán. There are moments of slight over-romanticisation, and an ever-present reverb adding a ringing resonance to the lower register that gives some of the album a slight tourist-music vibe (for example in For Mary). Though there is a nod to indicate that perhaps Monaghan is aware of this, as this resonance occasionally acts as a quiet overhanging drone to ease us from one track to the next. 

Dark, claustrophobic
Sometimes Monaghan’s treatment of the electronics feels a little pedestrian, and their appearance in some tracks (such as Nanny Nora’s & The Clean Player) inconsequential, an add-on for effect rather than a fundamental part of the work. The times when the album is at its best is when it takes all these elements and does something genuinely surprising, such as in The Choice. It begins with a manically repeated riff, similar in tone, until halfway when we are unseated by increasing interjecting clanging and suddenly dragged into a dark, claustrophobic mutilation of the material. Utterly startling, it shocks you into listening to the album with a new appreciation of its re-emerging brightness.

However, the 13-minute Naomhóg is the standout track on the album, consisting of a trio of newly composed jig, air and reel which feel like a realisation of what Monaghan has tried to achieve throughout the album – it is the ultimate destination of the trajectory, the most subtle considered marriage of traditional music to experimental electronics. Starting with the dancing, intricate jig, the material gradually softens and expands. There is a gradual evolution across the piece, building on the foundations of what came before – the language broadens to include more of what we would call contemporary gestures, the electronics introduced slowly as a whirring buzz and moving filters. 

Úna Monaghan is an artist who seems equally comfortable in the realms of Irish traditional music, experimental electronics, installations, sculpture and movement. For showcases all of these, and is sporadically surprising and brilliant. However, coming in at just over an hour in length, the album does occasionally dip and sag, and the listener is left gasping for Monaghan to push a little further, to bend and splinter the edges of the traditional and the experimental as she fits them together. 

Published on 28 March 2018

Anna Murray is a composer and writer. Her website is www.annamurraymusic.com.

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