New songs for forgotten rocket man

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Jazz vocalist Liam Budge with composer Sandra France. Photo: Helen Musa

A jazz song cycle inspired by the little-known inventor of the black box flight recorder is about to debut at The Street. Intrigued? Arts editor HELEN MUSA was…

TRAINED as a rocket scientist, David Ronald de Mey Warren was probably Australia’s least-acknowledged inventor.

And yet he created the Black Box Flight Recorder, that essential tool in analysing data from aviation disasters around the world that’s compulsory on every commercial flight.

He made nothing from his invention, which had been inspired by his own father’s death in a plane crash in 1934 and an aviation disaster near Mackay in 1943.

Fame came late. Before his death in 2010 at age 85, he was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and Qantas named one of their Airbus A380s after him, then posthumously the ACT government named David Warren Road in Hume after him and the Defence Science and Technology department renamed its Canberra headquarters the David Warren Building.

Now Canberra composer Sandra France, best known for her Canberra bushfire opera “From A Black Sky”, has joined forces with playwright Alana Valentine to come up with a song cycle called “Flight Memory,” opening at The Street Theatre soon.

Neither an opera nor a conventional song cycle, the work has been written as 18 numbers to be performed in the jazz idiom. France sees “Flight Memory” as a narrative song cycle, to be staged in an unconventional format with each singer not so much entering the character as delivering part of the story through a microphone.

We caught up recently with France and Canberra star jazz vocalist Liam Budge, who’ll be sharing all the roles onstage with Melbourne jazz singer Michelle Nicolle and Canberra jazz and musical theatre identity, Leisa Keen.

Budge is not long back with his wife and one-year-old son from New York, where since 2014 he’s been living the life, singing and taking lessons from great jazz mentors such as Kurt Elling.

When The Street Theatre’s Caroline Stacey, who is directing the coming production, realised she’d needed top jazz singers she was on the phone like a flash to New York to engage Budge, who’d been keen to come home anyway.

“I’ve never done any acting,” he told her, but Stacey remembered his role singing Walt Whitman’s poetry set to music at a Fresh Funk Dance performance in 2012, so reassured him.

“Flight Memory” began when Canberra was consumed with stories commemorating the Centenary of World War I. France got thinking about stories drawn from science and defence and consulted the experts at DST, who came up with a swag of suggestions.

“I settled on the black box because it seemed like the perfect match of sound and story,” she says. 

Inventor David Warren with a prototype of a black box.

“It was a human story, I met David‘s family and found the personal side. We did touch on the loss of Australian ideas and what they might mean in royalties, too.”

Beset by self-doubt and frustrated in a workplace averse to innovation, Warren had assembled the first-ever “black box” not at work but in his garage, from 20-year-old radio parts.

“I love jazz and classical music at the same time, both Brahms and Herbie [pianist Herbie Hancock] together, but I wasn’t thinking opera, I was thinking something intimate to do with a jazz singer and a mike, full of emotion,” France says. 

So when jazz-tragic Stacey told her that she, too, would like a jazz work, it was a simple step for France to relate the music to the subject matter to the musical traditions of improvisation, “almost a lost art in classical music,” she says. Besides which, Warren had played jazz clarinet in his spare time.

It became a show about experiment, so each song is “a separate world”, she says, with many tricky time changes, exemplified in the song “Crystal Set”, which refers back to the gift of a mind-changing crystal radio set from Warren’s father. 

Musically that requires expertise, so France herself will act as pianist and musical director, supported by a star line-up of ANU jazz graduates and former staffers.

“The overarching theme is that David Warren invented a machine that listens to the voices of people about to die – that’s pretty intense,” France says.

“Flight Memory”, The Street Theatre, November 14-17. Book at thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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