AT first glimpse, the title “7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age” doesn’t suggest musical theatre, but in the hands of Canberra composer Sally Greenaway and her theatrical collaborators, music will meet scientific history at The Street.
The result of the inaugural Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission that Greenaway received, it was first seen at the Melbourne Recital Centre last year.
Musically, it centres on the talents of Melbourne’s Syzygy ensemble playing many different flutes and recorders, classical sax, air-raid sirens and test tubes filled with water to the accompaniment of a soundtrack drawn from real-life NASA recordings.
Dene Kermond will be playing Harry Hawkins, a 19th century journalist who follows the path of new inventions over the course of 100 years with Ziggy, his Zeppelin pilot.
The director is Shelly Higgs and lighting is by Linda Buck. Designer Christiane Nowak’s set will be filled with no fewer than 100 objects including a genuine Mark One Radar device found in the vaults of the Melbourne Theatre Company.
With so many options, Greenaway hardly knew which inventions to select – the Cochlear implant, instant coffee, space travel, satellites, the iron lung, the NBN and vaccinations (“I’m hoping a few anti-vaxers might come along and learn a few things,” she quips).
Eventually she and her Canberra scriptwriters, Paul Bissett and Catherine Prosser, divided them into seven categories, the seven great inventions of the title.
When we catch up with Greenaway she’s finalising a Musica Viva commission to create original music for schools around Australia.
One of Australia’s busiest composers, she recently made it into the ABC’s top 100 Classics with her love song “Stay Awhile” and if she needs to pay the bills she occasionally knocks up a film score jingle, like the one she did recently for the government’s end-of-taxation-year commercial.
This versatility is one of her great strengths. Trained in jazz at the ANU School of Music and Royal College of Music, she is also an accomplished classical pianist who, even while getting into the jazz groove, never let go of a formal training in practice, aural skills and theory with the late Peggy Ann Crosskey.
It all comes together in “7 Inventions”, which shows the 20th century when, she says, “people were exploring and innovating and totally transforming humanity”.
Armed with the totally unasked-for grant from the Myer Foundation, she embarked in 2016 on creating a work that would cut across the genres and give her a chance to collaborate with lighting and sound people, designers and scriptwriters.
The grant guaranteed her a performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre along with any technical support she needed.
“I could try new things without fear because I knew I was guaranteed a performance,” she says.
She composed in a broad range of musical styles, even turning Bach into ragtime.
As composers go, Greenaway is a serious thinker.
“I realised that in my schooling I missed out on a lot of stuff – physics, science, how things work… often girls are not being taught swathes of stuff – I feel like this is a big injustice,” she says. And the only music was in the choir.
She got a fresh start in years 11 and 12 at Narrabundah College where she found herself studying alongside jazz whiz kids and top music students such as pianist Teddy Neeman.
After finishing school she “begged” her way into the the ANU School of Music, where, she blushes to admit, she auditioned for a course that valued improvisation with scripted music, “Take 5” and “The Entertainer”. They took her in “as a wild card”, she worked hard and became one of only 6 international students to be selected for the Royal College of Music in London, winning several awards and scholarships.
Nowadays, with the support of husband Peter, who works in IT by day and is a jazz trumpeter for fun, she can live by her music, saying of jingles and film scoring: “I can get those jobs done so quickly, I’m wearing a different hat”.
But she knows she is fortunate.
“I don’t know how, but my music seems to have an appeal in schools and choirs,” she says.
“I’m one of the lucky ones who is able to create not just jingles but original work for people and get paid for doing it.”
“7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age”, The Street Theatre, July 26-29. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.