Exploring Identity and Solitude at the Cutting Edge

Úna Monaghan

Exploring Identity and Solitude at the Cutting Edge

A new film exploring the making of Úna Monaghan's experimental album 'Aonaracht' was broadcast on TG4 on 5 June. Don O'Mahony reviews.

The title of Úna Monaghan’s second album was bound to raise questions. Aonaracht is the Irish word for solitude, but in Damian McCann’s similarly titled and likewise meaning documentary it became apparent that Monaghan, a solo harper amongst many other things, is not entirely on her own. Released at the beginning of 2023, the album contains myriad other presences. Making individual contributions to the six compositions are Paddy Glackin, Saileog Ní Cheannabháin, Pauline Scanlon, Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn and Jack Talty. There are also more ghostly presences in the form of the voices of Ciaran Carson and Cathal Ó Searcaigh.

In the film, Monaghan states her intention of wanting to put the focus back on the solo musician within the tradition of Irish traditional music. In his review of the album in this very organ, James Camien McGuiggan asserts the fundamentally social nature of the music. Teasing apart the idea of solitude, he identifies that none of the musicians are entirely alone. They have their instruments, and Monaghan has partnered them with computer intelligence. Wizard of Oz-like, the film Aonaracht peeks behind the curtain to show these clever levers in action.     

A physics graduate keen to introduce experimental practices to traditional music, Monaghan can certainly be described as a singular artist, which can be another definition of the word aonaracht, However, it wouldn’t have the same root meaning as the current popular concept of The Singularity, the moment where artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence. AI is certainly the ghost in the machine in the album, but, if anything, the film affirms the human will to create and the power of that creativity.

Monaghan began the process of recording Aonaracht in August 2021, so one could truthfully say it had a long gestation, and McCann was there to capture it all from the beginning. But Aonaracht the film is not a mere ‘making of’ document. Even though the recording of the album forms its spine, it also encompasses two other projects the musician was intent on achieving. The first being to finish the recording of a GAA inspired piece with her bassoonist brother Éanna, And the Goals Will Come, and the other to tour with Iarla Ó Lionaird and cellist Kevin Murphy. As the film unfolds it is apparent that there is a convenient happenstance to threads that subtly inform other themes that arise in the film. The idea of family, for sure, and particularly in the case of Monaghan, a family of creative people; and very importantly for the subject, identity. Not just who one is as an artist, but how you are perceived. 

A hidden presence
Crucially, there is a hidden presence attending the early recording sessions for the album. Monaghan is with child, and this is the source of some anxiety for her in that it provides urgent impetus for her to achieve her ambitions. As she confesses with some concern, she doesn’t know how she will be after the baby arrives.  

As a pulling back of the drapes on the making of the album, the film is insightful and revealing, demonstrating both the magic and artistry that technology and computers can bring to her John Cage-inspired philosophy, as well as capturing the challenging nature of this approach. 

The film lifts a veil on the mysterious nature of some of the compositions, while holding back from over-ventilating the actual works. Viewers unfamiliar with the album may not fully appreciate the alchemy of the process, but hopefully there is enough to prick their curiosity. Where previously, the use of technology in traditional Irish music may have meant adding or accompanying samples or using loop stations to build layers in real time, Monagan employs an array of sensors whose calibrations may be predictive or totally unpredictable – just like any human accompanist, in a way – but can also catch the solo musicians off guard.  

‘I messed up the chords,’ declares pianist Ní Cheannabháin apologetically as she tries to forge a path through the computerised sounds being generated simultaneously in the making of ‘Traditional Architecture’. Even Glackin, who performed on Cage’s 1979 urtext of avant-garde Irish traditional music, Roaratorio, confesses to a fleeting moment of disorientation as he encounters the deliberate intrusion of other sounds while playing on ‘Who Do You Play For?’

True to her musical hero, Monaghan is cheerfully open to chance. ‘No normal here’, she counters when her recording engineer Chris Corrigan wonders where she normally has the gain on her amp. She sets singer Scanlon at ease by assuring the singer that the very idea of making a mistake with this music is an impossibility. However, the film finds that the fearlessness of her artistic vision contrasts with the imponderables of new motherhood. Never more certain of who she is when she is engrossed in her work, she wonders on the impact having a child will have on that part of her. There is also her discomfort with the outward signs of pregnancy. Completing her tour with Murphy and Ó Lionaird in her home town of Belfast, she expresses her unease at the prospect of being seen as a pregnant woman rather than a musician. It has been a perennial and well-documented struggle of all women in music, and not just those who happen to be pregnant, of how they are perceived and treated, but the particular thoughts Monaghan raises feel rarely expressed. 

It may not have been obvious to her, but, naturally, the answers to her worries have always been there in the form of her mother, the sculptor Nóirín Nic Alastair. In a lovely reminiscence, Monaghan recalls how it took Nóirín, a mother of seven, ages to get one wax sculpture ready to be cast in bronze because there was always a child coming along who would damage it. 

Nóirín Nic Alastair and Úna Monaghan (Photo: TG4)

A small sound
As a filmmaker, McCann, who has made documentaries on Liam O’Flynn (Píobaire), as well as the recent Irish language mystery drama Doineann, also provides an example of chance favouring the prepared mind when Úna’s thoughts on recording unusual sounds are interrupted by the loud toot of a car horn in the street outside. Monaghan gave birth to her son in November 2021, midway through the recording of the album, but McCann finds a way to give space to her anxieties while also capturing a largely trouble-free process. In a seeming digression from the main threads of the film, he shows her doing live sound engineering, which serves to tell a story of how Monaghan’s interest in music and technology arose from an incident at a soundcheck for an early concert she was performing at. It caused her to marvel at how a small sound can fill a space. 

The film ends with the launch of her album. While previously admitting to missing the state of being alone, it’s clear she’s content to work differently, now that she has something different filling the space of her life. Perhaps the film, as much as the record, exposes the elusiveness of the solitary experience. Whether instrumental, digital or human, there is always another presence. 

And in an understated rejoinder to the critic Cyril Connolly’s infamous dictum of there being no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway, McCann captures Monaghan in her hallway, putting shoes on her son before venturing out to her album launch. Where, touchingly, he encounters Paddy Glackin for the second time. Ó ghlúin go glúin.

Aonaracht can be viewed on the TG4 player here

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Published on 20 June 2024

Don O'Mahony is a freelance arts journalist based in Cork.

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