Úna Monaghan: Electroacoustic experiments on the harp

19 March 2019



Pointing Towards The Future:

“Belfast harper Úna Monaghan’s new album is a surprising – sometimes startling – mix of traditional music material and electronics”

Article on “For” in The Journal of Music, by Anna Murray

28 Mar 2018



Michael Quinn – May 2018

Describing herself as ‘a harper, composer and sound artist,’ Úna Monaghan holds a degree in astrophysics from Cambridge university and a doctorate from Queen’s University in her native Belfast. She explores new technologies and experimental performance practices in contemporary Irish traditional music, blending the ancient harp with cutting-edge technology and ambient recordings; there isn’t anyone else quite like her currenty at work in Ireland.

Her debut album For finds her pushing, with considerable elegance, against the boundaries of the harp repertoire. The opening set of jigs, ‘Tubaiste agus Taisceadán’, uses motion sensors and pitch detection to trigger subtle electronic accompaniment, while Réalta juggles harp improvisation over electroacoustic textures to atmospheric effect. ‘The Choice’ blends live electronics, by turns agitated and epiphanic, into a hallucinogenic meditation on addiction, with crisp, koto-like chimes rising out of turbulent percussiveness. Composed in memory of singer Éamonn Ó Faogáin, ‘An Dearcadh’ is an epic collage of ambient sound, featuring children playing, a whistling kettle, fireworks and a passing ship’s horns in Belfast Lough, through which the harp weaves its way with charming delicacy. No less evocative is the Morse code, radio transmissions, rumbles of distant storms and birdsong in ‘The Bodélé Project’, in which the harp is conspicuously absent. A beautifully crafted, intelligently assembled and altogether rewarding album.

Track To Try: An Dearcadh



John O’Regan – June/July 2018

Úna Monaghan is a harpist and composer from Belfast whose music embraces both traditional and contemporary forms. Her debut album, For, centres around a collection of pieces written for different people; some who have been influential and now passed on, others who have suffered through addiction as on The Choice, and another for a woman who was murdered when the same age as Úna at the time (For Her).
This sense of identification gives the music a personal touch, awarding an intimacy unusual for the realm of the musician and the listener. The fact that some of the pieces, as illustrated above, dwell on darker subjects gives the music a mix of shades, illustrating both sides of the human experience. For was recorded in Shetland and cut live in the studio as an improvised performance, though many of the pieces are written in the traditional form, such as the jig or hornpipe.
The opening jigs, Tubaiste Agus Taisceadán, show mixed moods enveloping one another, their instantaneously composed nature sounding fresh – a similar feeling experienced in the hornpipes Nanny Nora’s and The Clean Player. The musical canvas on For also includes a series of improvised pieces and sound collages that enter the realm of musique concrete. The latter is the most left-field for traditional ears, and stakes bold strides into the creation of a music that tells a story through a series of collages of taped effects and looped sounds with the emphasis on creation rather than reinterpretation; creation to the point that none of the pieces are ever played in the same manner when rendered either on disc here or live in the flesh. This makes For a one-off project that engages the ears and challenges the concept of the harpist in today’s world. Listen with open ears.



Dai Jeffries – February 2018

Belfast’s Úna Monaghan is a harper, a composer and an exponent of electronic soundscapes – her description – and she combines those talents on her debut solo album, For. The title incidentally comes from the fact that most of the tracks are written for someone. Needless to say this is not a conventional solo harp album.

The opening track, ‘Tubaiste Agus Taisceadán’, is a set of jigs and for the most part is conventional enough, although I thought I heard the odd “wrong” note, before dissolving into ‘Réalta’. This is a harp improvisation played over Úna’s first electro-acoustic composition, itself made up of manipulated harp sounds. ‘Mammy’s’ is a pretty tune – maybe we are being led gently along – and so are ‘Nanny Nora’s And The Clean Player’. Except that the second half is played over a jumbled soundscape that seems to me to represent the rough and tumble of a hurling match – the clean player of the title was Úna’s grandfather and a county hurler.

‘The Choice’ is where Úna really starts to go to town. The piece is about addiction and it rapidly descends into chaos with all thoughts of music obliterated until the harp suddenly bursts through like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. It’s a brilliant depiction. ‘An Dearcadh’ is another major piece; three tunes played over a melange of field recordings, everything from kids in the Belfast streets to ships’ horns sounding on Belfast loch. This is sandwiched between two laments, I suppose we must call them, ‘For Her’ and ‘For Mary’, both written in response to deaths. ‘Ómós Do Sheamus’ is melody that emerges from discordant notes over the sound of the sea, as though the player is searching for a tune.

After the lovely ‘Half Moon Lake’ comes the longest track. ‘Naomhóg’ is a suite comprising a jig, an air and a reel, a virtuoso performance – recorded live, remember – and finally we come to the real hard-core soundscape that is ‘The Bodélé Project’ which Úna describes as an installation piece which should involve radios, weather systems and morse code transmissions.

I almost resent having to analyse this album, although by doing so I’ve almost certainly played closer attention than I might otherwise have done. I’d much prefer to play it and let my thoughts follow the music wherever it leads.

Artist’s website:



John Brophy – August 2018

Úna Monaghan is a harp player from Belfast. She also has a PhD from Queen’s University and is a research fellow in Music from Cambridge. In her academic work she is exploring how Irish traditional music can live in this new sound world of electronic effects. The title For reflects the many dedications due to her supporters.
There have been many attempts to put electronic effects with the music. Remember the theme for Dr Who, created a couple of generations ago? However, recently both Jarlath Henderson and Damien O’Kanes’ work leans towards this genre. Is there a new Northern paradigm emerging?
Una is a fine and sensitive player: the bass sound was nicely boosted on my version. That’s important for a harp, where every semi–quaver and triplet needs its 15 micro–seconds of fame, and the treble, well one word, clarity. There are several examples here of pioneering work such as The Choice (dealing with addiction) or An Dearcadh (The Viewpoint) using the sounds of Belfast to evoke childhood memories.
Una also has a tribute to Séamus Begley. She made the pilgrimage to West Kerry in a cold February to play tunes all night (and Mass the next morning to hear the choir from Cul Aodha in Ballyferriter). And that proves the thesis: music is a human communication, and the rules are not haphazard. In Irish music they go deep to the bone marrow, this pioneering is a stony path to tread and even the best of us can hope only to add a pebble to the pyramid, but I hope she will persevere. And like the Gobán Saor, bring a companion to shorten the road.