“I can tell which pieces of music are AI-generated and which aren’t” – The Irish Times

The communion that characterizes 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. But what do we know about the relationship between the musician and his instrument? Mostly, very little, as it’s a personal connection that is at the heart of every performance, but rarely takes center stage.

Úna Monaghan is a harpist and composer, sound engineer and academic whose latest solo album, Aonaracht, is an intoxicating exploration of “the personal relationship between a musician and his instrument”. A collection of six works for solo traditional musician and computer, her album explores some complex questions. And Monaghan’s facility with tune titles prompts the listener to dig deep beneath them. 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 connection might be—a 21st-century meditation on Yeats’s question, how can we know the dancer from the dance?

It’s an album of long gestation, inspired by Monaghan’s desire to see if technology could be used to sound the world of traditional music beyond melody. Piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, singer Pauline Scanlan, concert performer Jack Talty, fiddler Paddy Glackin and pianist Saileog Ní Cheannabháin are her co-conspirators in this picaresque adventure, with each musician immersing themselves in a bespoke piece that includes computerized elements taken from field recordings, electroacoustic sound, improvisation and live electronics. It’s a skydive without a parachute in many ways, each musician taking a leap into the unknown with Monaghan, but everyone is clearly enjoying the ride.

“There were two things I was thinking about,” Monahan reflects as he reflects on the genesis of Aonaracht. “One was the concept of solo performance, because we know that’s how it started, way back when musicians didn’t have too many opportunities to perform together. Then there was this emergence of the band as a commercial act in the 60s 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 a singer. I felt that strongly as a harp player because there was its own accompaniment there, and regardless of how the harp tradition developed, there were many solos.

“When I started playing, it wasn’t an instrument that was common in the early 1990s. I was quite sensitive to the idea of ​​playing alone and when you get into a group in a session you will be asked to play alone. But perhaps the flute or violin player was not asked to do this. So that’s something I’ve always thought about, and it brought me full circle to the relationship you have with your instrument. It’s always there, and yet we tend to think of traditional music as a group community activity, but you rehearse alone and often learn alone. So I think there’s a tension between the community aspect and the solo aspect.”

Monaghan has a degree in astrophysics from Cambridge and her academic background is constantly exploring and investigating what underlies traditional music. For this collection, she thought long and hard about what form Aonaracht would take before approaching anyone to collaborate with her.

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

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

“I can immediately tell which parts are recognizably AI-generated and which are not,” explains Monahan. “I picked three of these pieces that the computer had made, and Jack played them with his feel and his lift and his ornaments.”

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

“Faced with this collection of AI-generated music, it wasn’t clear whether some tunes were AI-generated or traditional music,” says Monaghan. “One of the things I used to help me choose which tunes to put on the album was that I wanted other people to listen to me. I noticed that the musicians felt threatened when they heard them. Which isn’t that surprising, really. If you’re a traditional music composer and you make three pieces in a year and the computer spits out 1,000 in five minutes, it’s understandable to cringe.

But there is a long history of concern about the “safety” of the tradition, which Monaghan also wanted to explore.

“I was struck by a sense of unease, but it’s also about protecting tradition,” she says. This is something that has been going on for years. You hear it all the time: “Tradition is in good hands.” We are quite nervous that our tradition will be attacked or lost, and that is because historically it has been. There have been attempts to eradicate it in the past, but this has long since ceased to be the case. Tradition, by definition, is renewed in various ways; the bodran is not an old instrument, and the oldest instruments are not 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 sit in that place between a love of tradition and an interest in new things. But I admit that using computers can be unsettling for some. So Safe Houses was a reference to that anxiety.

Monaghan has a deep understanding of the depth and richness of the relationship between the musician and his instrument. It is at the heart of this collection, anchored by the ties that connect bagpipes to pipes, the “big” instrument of our tradition.

“I remember one time I was abroad,” she says, “and there was danger to the harp because of the climate, and I was physically worried about the harp. It was the first time I realized that a bond with an instrument could be so strong. With the bagpiper, I chose that instrument to unpack that idea a bit more. Bagpipes have a reputation and status in traditional music and I know many bagpipe players. Not everyone is the archetypal piper. But there was always this ritual the player had to go through when joining a session. They have to put the instrument together, check that all the parts work, so what you get is an audio symphony before they’ve even started: all this richness of sound coming from the pipes. Right off the bat, it’s a very beautiful thing, so I wanted to bring that noise to the fore and take us through every single part of the sound of the pipes.

“And if you put microphones in the pipes while 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 skin.”

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 endeavors.

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

No more loneliness. unamonaghan.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *