Devised and composed by Canberra composer, Sally Greenaway, with a script by Canberra writers Paul Bissett and Catherine Prosser, 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age is the result of a Merlyn Myer Fund Composing Women’s Commission.
Greenaway has been steadily building a reputation for the versatility of her compositions, embracing classical chamber works, choral, big band jazz, film and documentary soundtracks.
Because the commission imposed no restrictions as to subject or style, Greenaway challenged herself to create what she describes as “an infomercial musical”, in which the actor doesn’t really sing. She also took advantage of the opportunity it offered to experiment with different genres and styles. The work received its first performance in Melbourne, where the solo actor was a woman.
For its Canberra season, the work has been re-jigged with the script now performed by actor, Dene Kermond as a kind of Phileas Fogg Victorian-era, explorer character, who arrives by hot-air balloon to expound on the virtues and inspirations for the various inventions. These inventions ranged through telecommunications, aviation, space exploration, massed warfare, the artificial brain and computing and biomechanical and medical marvels.
As in Melbourne, Greenaway’s music was stylishly performed by the Melbourne based, Syzygy Ensemble, who played a variety of instruments and also participated as various whimsical characters. They performed in a suitably cluttered museum setting, for which no designer is credited, but which tantalised with its myriad of objects including an early telephone, a gas mask, a 1940’s iron, an Arnott’s biscuit tin and various antique recorders, typewriters, computers and radios.
Greenaway’s music was equally eclectic and playful. A ragtime interpretation of Bach’s Two and Three Part Inventions to represent telecommunications, evocations of a European carousel suggested the advent of film, and a haunting cello solo conjured up medical marvels.
The result was a charming, if slightly puzzling musical experience. The cleverly presented, information often tended towards the superfluous, and the transitions between the narration and music were not always successful, sometimes distracting from the witty, attractive and beautifully played music.
Providing the glue between the narration and the music, Kermond’s performance was perhaps a little too broad and energetic for the intimate performance space. The necessity to dash from side to side, dodging instrumentalists and props, sometimes made it hard to concentrate on the information he was imparting.
However, even if not entirely dramatically cohesive, as an ‘infomercial’, or extended advertisement to promote the advertiser’s product, the 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age still impressed for the originality of its presentation, and the opportunity it provided to experience the work of one of Australia’s most interesting and enterprising composers.
7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age
The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, Canberra City West
Performance: Friday 28 July 2017 – 7.30pm
Season: 26 – 29 July 2017
For more information, visit: www.thestreet.org.au for details.
Image: Dene Kermond with Syzygy Ensemble pianist in 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age – photo by Novel Photography
Review: Bill Stephens OAM