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7 Great Inventions: A rich sensory experience

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“I think we are too safe nowadays because we only think four years at a time.”

I’ve never met anyone so excited about copper wiring. But when Sally Greenaway starts talking about the technological advances of the twentieth century, I’m drawn into a world of inventiveness and vision. These were people who made their mark by “dreaming big”.

We’re discussing Sally’s recent work, 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age, initiated by the Merlyn Myer Fund and co-developed by the Fund and Melbourne Recital Centre. Through music and drama, the production gives life and humanity to technology long taken for granted or consigned to textbooks.

The work derives authenticity from rigorous research; Sally spent a year poring over archival materials and conducting focus groups with researchers, health workers and 90-year-olds. The production is infused with the perspectives of the people who lived it first hand.

“Whatever their experiences were and how they said their stories, with the emotion and background behind it…that’s what I put into the music…I’m just an outlet for them,” says Sally.

Sally produces several tiny glass jars containing remnants of the period and tells me how she put together each keepsake by hand – one for every audience member of the Melbourne premier. I hold a jar containing a bullet casing and a slip of paper with the words ‘short and brutal’ – a sobering reminder of the power of human innovation for both growth and destruction.

Indeed, 7 Great Inventions doesn’t gloss over the darker shades of the twentieth century– from the world wars to the cruel normality of polio that still clings to living memory. Sally weaves haunting harmony through a soundscape that gives musical life to mechanics; interspersed with authentic archival audio and a wealth of visual artefacts.

Syzygy Ensemble. Credit: Melbourne Recital Centre

Syzygy Ensemble. Credit: Melbourne Recital Centre

“I wanted to fill a gap in my knowledge and empower myself with history, and with science, and with technology,” she explains.

When Sally received the inaugural Merlyn Myer Fund Composing Women’s Commission last year, she knew she had to produce “something of significance”. The financial guarantee gave Sally a liberating chance to take a creative risk; a kind of job security rarely experienced by any composer, let alone a woman.

Sally tells me she was one of only three women included on a recent ABC Classic FM countdown. It isn’t a humble brag, but an indictment of a male-dominated profession where women face widespread barriers to crucial networks and mentorship. There’s a fatigue behind the words when Sally describes it as a “staying game”.

However, any weariness is upstaged by Sally’s force of determination. This is a woman committed to building up her peers and championing their work. Sally is less concerned with “trying to change Australian music” than she is with providing an example for the next generation of composers – female and male. 7 Great Inventions represents her own self-empowerment; an opportunity to explore knowledge she felt had been “left out” in her early schooling.

“I can push myself artistically…and I know that I cannot fail,” she says.

The production also gave Sally the chance to “learn how to work in interdisciplinary arts fields”. She discovered a natural collaboration with Canberra-based wordsmiths Catherine Prosser and Paul Bisset; very few changes were required from first draft to final copy. Catherine and Paul shared Sally’s excitement: “we liked the challenge of making an exciting, humorous and engaging story with a single character that worked with the music”. The result is a rich sensory experience that will summon poignant nostalgia for one generation, and spark wonder and curiosity in another.

Performed by Syzygy Ensemble and Dene Kermond with direction from Shelly Higgs, 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age will take you on a thought-provoking journey through seven innovations that continue to shape us, the way we behave and the way we think.

the essentials

What: 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age
When: 26-29 July 2017
Where: The Street Theatre, Childers Street, Civic
Web: thestreet.org.au

Free pre-show conversation with Sally Greenaway, Thursday 27 July at 6.30pm

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