Úna Monaghan, Composer, Performer and Research Fellow in Music, Cambridge

Úna Monaghan, Composer, Performer and Research Fellow in Music, Cambridge

BY: Úna Monaghan

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My primary training in music was as an Irish traditional harper. I studied Physics and Astrophysics at Cambridge University as an undergraduate, and sought to combine aspects of physics and music in an MA in Sonic Arts on my return to Belfast in 2005, at the newly opened Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC).

The year of MA study introduced to me the previously unfamiliar world of experimental and electroacoustic music. My creative work was influenced, and began to be directed by the work of the vibrant and varied community of sound artists, programmers, composers, and performers at SARC. I began to create electroacoustic fixed media pieces, interactive computer music and sound installation work. After the Masters I was employed as Studio Assistant at SARC from 2007-2010.

The decision to begin a PhD, while in hindsight one of the best decisions I have made, was not an easy one. The funding initially available was conditional on my working on a project that was not directly related to my interests, which would itself be quite time consuming. I was apprehensive at the significant cut in my income; I was leaving a permanent job for the uncertainty of a project that was relatively undefined, which needed to be trusted to evolve, and which had no certainty of work at the end of it. I was aware that people took varying lengths of time to finish PhDs, despite finite funding, and some never finished. I worried that it was not a process or work situation which easily allowed for ‘life’ to happen alongside it. I was also concerned that my main motivation was around the creative work: on making it, analysing it, building upon it and situating it in the context of other artwork. While I knew a career in academia was a possibility, it was certainly not a clear goal, and was definitely at that time secondary to the work itself. I had seen first-hand the effect on friends and colleagues of a move within universities to become more like a business, more focused on numbers and targets and feedback and assessment. It seemed to me that this changing culture and atmosphere, and the time required of researchers for administrative work, was already proving difficult and was getting worse. On the one hand, I thought, if the intention was not necessarily to work in academia, then to leave my job, take four years out of well-paid work, and confront the difficult challenges a PhD posed mentally, was a risk. On the other hand, to have a reliable income for three years with the opportunity to work on creative projects as part of that, was more stability than many artists or musicians unattached to academia could expect.

My undergraduate and masters degrees had involved following a syllabus, with the accompanying stress of attempting to work out what would be successful, or at least acceptable, in examinations. On the basis of this I presumed the PhD would be more of the same – attempting to do what interested me within the structures of a formal education system defined by some ‘other’. However, to my eventual delight, it turned out very differently: the work was all from and for myself. The transition to working in this way was a long and difficult process mentally, requiring relearning of freedom and balancing it with discipline, learning to trust, and most importantly, with support from others, and my supervisor’s tireless belief in the value of what I would produce. I had also to acknowledge the effects of my background in physics; it took a while to expand my models of working and behaviour from a science-centred training, to one that allowed methods more suited to humanities research.

The thesis that I completed combined ethnographical, compositional, historical and musicological research, software and interface design and performance practice.

My PhD was funded for three years, but it took me a fourth year to finish writing, partly because I needed to work to earn money. For this last year and for two years afterwards, I worked as a freelance musician, sound engineer and composer. I worked on many different projects, writing music for theatre, performing on national TV and radio, and at concerts, festivals and academic conferences. I applied for and was awarded several artist residencies, and toured as a sound engineer for Irish traditional performers. I managed to make things work with a combination of these many different projects, along with working as an instrumental teacher privately and in schools, universities, and arts centres. I also led workshops for youth groups in digital music, run by a charity organisation. However, the balance between these paid positions necessary to maintain an income, with constant applications for funding, residencies and commissions, while travelling and working creatively, was difficult to achieve. It involved switching between very different roles, sometimes requiring wildly different character traits, and with constant and usually extensive fluctuation in the perceived value of my work and its financial recognition. There was a lack of job security and there were barriers to things like pension schemes, mortgage eligibility, insurance applications, along with other financial and social stresses. The effect on stress levels and mental health that accompanied this needed to be closely and continuously monitored.

I have now returned to academia as a research fellow, a post that allows me to continue to work in the area of traditional music and experimental music performance and composition, expanding upon my PhD research. I am delighted with the course things have taken, and very grateful for the assistance I have received, but it has been and continues to be an uncertain path to forge.

My primary training in music was as an Irish traditional harper. I studied Physics and Astrophysics at Cambridge University as an undergraduate, and sought to combine aspects of physics and music in an MA in Sonic Arts on my return to Belfast in 2005, at the newly opened Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC).

The year of MA study introduced to me the previously unfamiliar world of experimental and electroacoustic music. My creative work was influenced, and began to be directed by the work of the vibrant and varied community of sound artists, programmers, composers, and performers at SARC. I began to create electroacoustic fixed media pieces, interactive computer music and sound installation work. After the Masters I was employed as Studio Assistant at SARC from 2007-2010.

The decision to begin a PhD, while in hindsight one of the best decisions I have made, was not an easy one. The funding initially available was conditional on my working on a project that was not directly related to my interests, which would itself be quite time consuming. I was apprehensive at the significant cut in my income; I was leaving a permanent job for the uncertainty of a project that was relatively undefined, which needed to be trusted to evolve, and which had no certainty of work at the end of it. I was aware that people took varying lengths of time to finish PhDs, despite finite funding, and some never finished. I worried that it was not a process or work situation which easily allowed for ‘life’ to happen alongside it. I was also concerned that my main motivation was around the creative work: on making it, analysing it, building upon it and situating it in the context of other artwork. While I knew a career in academia was a possibility, it was certainly not a clear goal, and was definitely at that time secondary to the work itself. I had seen first-hand the effect on friends and colleagues of a move within universities to become more like a business, more focused on numbers and targets and feedback and assessment. It seemed to me that this changing culture and atmosphere, and the time required of researchers for administrative work, was already proving difficult and was getting worse. On the one hand, I thought, if the intention was not necessarily to work in academia, then to leave my job, take four years out of well-paid work, and confront the difficult challenges a PhD posed mentally, was a risk. On the other hand, to have a reliable income for three years with the opportunity to work on creative projects as part of that, was more stability than many artists or musicians unattached to academia could expect.

My undergraduate and masters degrees had involved following a syllabus, with the accompanying stress of attempting to work out what would be successful, or at least acceptable, in examinations. On the basis of this I presumed the PhD would be more of the same – attempting to do what interested me within the structures of a formal education system defined by some ‘other’. However, to my eventual delight, it turned out very differently: the work was all from and for myself. The transition to working in this way was a long and difficult process mentally, requiring relearning of freedom and balancing it with discipline, learning to trust, and most importantly, with support from others, and my supervisor’s tireless belief in the value of what I would produce. I had also to acknowledge the effects of my background in physics; it took a while to expand my models of working and behaviour from a science-centred training, to one that allowed methods more suited to humanities research.

The thesis that I completed combined ethnographical, compositional, historical and musicological research, software and interface design and performance practice.

My PhD was funded for three years, but it took me a fourth year to finish writing, partly because I needed to work to earn money. For this last year and for two years afterwards, I worked as a freelance musician, sound engineer and composer. I worked on many different projects, writing music for theatre, performing on national TV and radio, and at concerts, festivals and academic conferences. I applied for and was awarded several artist residencies, and toured as a sound engineer for Irish traditional performers. I managed to make things work with a combination of these many different projects, along with working as an instrumental teacher privately and in schools, universities, and arts centres. I also led workshops for youth groups in digital music, run by a charity organisation. However, the balance between these paid positions necessary to maintain an income, with constant applications for funding, residencies and commissions, while travelling and working creatively, was difficult to achieve. It involved switching between very different roles, sometimes requiring wildly different character traits, and with constant and usually extensive fluctuation in the perceived value of my work and its financial recognition. There was a lack of job security and there were barriers to things like pension schemes, mortgage eligibility, insurance applications, along with other financial and social stresses. The effect on stress levels and mental health that accompanied this needed to be closely and continuously monitored.

I have now returned to academia as a research fellow, a post that allows me to continue to work in the area of traditional music and experimental music performance and composition, expanding upon my PhD research. I am delighted with the course things have taken, and very grateful for the assistance I have received, but it has been and continues to be an uncertain path to forge.

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