We live in remarkable times, though we rarely stop to reflect on this fact. Sally Greenaway’s steampunk infomusical The Seven Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age asks us to step back and consider the major technological achievements of the past 150 years. As Michael Orloff tells us in the show’s information-packed brochure, over the last 40,000 years:
- Only 120 generations have known and used the wheel.
- Roughly 40 generations have used windmills and watermills.
- 20 generations have known and used timepieces.
- 10 generations have known printing.
- 5 generations have travelled in [steam-powered] ships and trains.
- 4 generations have used electric lights.
- 3 generations have travelled in automobiles, used telephones and vacuum cleaners.
- Only today’s generation [and a half?] has travelled to outer space, used atomic energy, PCs and notebooks and artificial satellites to transmit audio, video, and other information around the globe.
Greenaway takes us through the advent of telecommunication, the Age of Convenience, computing, industrial warfare, modern medicine, and cinema with the help of an adventuring reporter (Anni Ha) and her luddite, morse-coding zeppelin pilot. Ha shares the stage with Syzygy Ensemble sporting 1920s aviation kit and several fantastical stage pieces by Candlelight Productions. As each issue segues neatly into the next, the audience is left with a succinct message concerning the benefits and drawbacks of the technology we take for granted. Have telecommunications really made us feel more connected to one another? The audience ponders this as the ensemble bounces jazzy themes back and forth. We consider how appliances don’t seem to leave us with more free time as fragments of vintage radio ads build into a suffocating crescendo.
As someone of an almost futurist persuasion, I loved seeing the mechanical miracles of the past century and a half paraded before my eyes. But I wondered whether the negatives were understated. Greenaway’s accelerating runs and drifting harmonies capture the thrill we all should feel flying around thousands of feet above the ground in machines with over a million moving parts, but the obvious ecological impacts of international flight were not addressed. It also seemed a bit weak to end a three-movement meditation on the horrors of war with a call to consider the technological advances that war has accelerated. But that was always going to be a difficult episode to segue in and out of and overall the issue of war is handled with sensitivity and tact.
The show’s pedagogical intent is obvious and its value extends to the appreciation of avant-garde musical composition. Greenaway whips out an arsenal of groaning and clashing extended techniques to represent industrial warfare, showing just how affecting these sounds can be when contrasted with tonal materials and inserted into a narrative. Her incorporation of prerecorded material is also effective, particularly when we listen to a scientist describing bursting into tears after implanting the first successful bionic ear. Thanks to the Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission, Greenaway was able to bring together a stellar team of musicians, actors, and producers to create an enthralling and polished work.
The Seven Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age
The inaugural Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission
The Melbourne Recital Centre
27 April 2016