Celebrated Australian composer-pianist Sally Greenaway (b.1984) composes and performs in an exceptionally wide range of musical styles – from classical to jazz to film soundtracks. Hailing from Canberra, Greenaway’s music has been performed all over the world and one of her pieces Stay Awhile made #56 in the ABC Classic 100 “LOVE” countdown this year. Her latest album Aubade & Nocturne (2015) was released to critical acclaim on the ABC Classics record label and was long-listed for the Australian Music Prize. The album also earned her a coveted Canberra Critics Circle Award.
Greenaway’s most ambitious work to date, The 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age, was created with thanks to the Merlyn Myer Composing Women’s Commission, for which Greenaway was the inaugural recipient in 2015-2016. Greenaway’s music has been performed by the Melbourne and Canberra Symphony Orchestras, jazz ensembles Trichotomy and the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, chamber music ensembles Plexus and Syzygy, and most notably by numerous community groups in the Canberra region, including the Resonants, the National Capital Orchestra and many others.
She is a graduate from the Royal College of Music, London, where she received the Lucy Anne Jones award. She has more than 60 works published, many of which are available through the Australian Music Centre.
The Street talked to Sally about her music and upcoming Canberra premiere of 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.
The old cliché is true: the arts are like the air I breathe, the food I eat and the water I drink. It stimulates, enthuses, soothes, nurtures, challenges, and more often that I’d like it often frustrates me. My first memories are songs sung when I was a little toddler, then a long relationship with the piano. I have studied music to a highly detailed level in my adult years completing several university courses both here in Australia and overseas. It is a constant in my life whether I want it or not, and it has stood with me through thick and thin. I can’t imagine an existence without it: all I can see is a black void if it the world fell silent. Music is integral to culture and humanity and the shared experience of what it is to be alive.
YOU ARE BOTH A PIANIST AND COMPOSER? WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A COMPOSER?
Growing up I remember very clearly my 5-year-old self’s disappointment when my older brother got a ‘proper’ 4-octave keyboard at Christmas but I was given a little toy thing that you couldn’t play – you pressed a key and it played nursery rhymes. Throughout my childhood I composed and improvised little songs on piano for my own enjoyment but in my teens I realised that music was a powerful way of communicating, particularly in sharing empathy and story telling. I started writing music inspired by the Great composers and wishing I could one day continue in their legacy and share beautiful music with the world that broke down barriers and ‘gave’ to our community.
TALK US THROUGH THE COMPOSING PROCESS?
Inspiration can come at very inconvenient times – I get my best ideas when I’m sleeping: I have to wake up to write things down before they’ve vanished from my memory. Other times ideas spark following a meeting when narrowing down the musical criteria for a new commission. I don’t sit at the piano to compose unless it’s a piano piece – I prefer to sing the material and ‘hear’ the rest of the detail (like the harmony or counter melodies or percussion gestures) in my mind at the same time – and then write these down in a condensed short score format on manuscript paper to be fleshed out and orchestrated later. It is extremely important to have a clear vision of what each moment or section of a work is meant to ‘feel’ like (emotionally or atmospherically) and how much momentum it must have before committing a note on paper.
YOU WERE THE INAUGURAL RECIPIENT OF THE MERLYN MYER COMPOSING WOMEN’S COMMISSION TO SUPPORT AUSTRALIAN FEMALE COMPOSERS TO CREATE AMBITIOUS WORKS AND PROVIDE A PLATFORM FOR THE EXPRESSION OF THEIR EXPERIENCE. WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO WIN THIS AND THE OPPORTUNITIES IT PRESENTS FOR OTHER WOMEN?
The dire truth about Classical music is that it’s a genre that currently favours the dead over the living: we prefer programs featuring Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to our living, breathing composers of today’s world. Another truth is that women composers have never been visible nor celebrated in the history of Classical music – until now – with thanks to programs led by organisations (like the Myer Foundation), concert venues and programmers (like Melbourne Recital Centre and The Street), and music ensembles (like Syzygy), who are committed to levelling the playing field by commissioning, programming and performing music by living Australian composers and especially female composers.
This is why this commission is so vital: it helps to chart a course for balance, growth and development within the Classical music sector and directly supports the increase in commissioning and performing Australian female composers’ works. It is an absolute honour to have been chosen to be the inaugural recipient of this important award.
WHERE DID THE INSPIRATION COME FROM TO COMPOSE A SCORE AROUND INVENTIONS?
In the early planning stages of creating the work I was exploring themes that could be made up of several music movements intertwined with narrative or poetry. I recall the ‘Brothers Grimm’ fairy tales being a possible contender. However I really wanted the work to celebrate our Australian-ness and the globalised world we live in today and during my research I discovered that 90% of humanity’s total body of knowledge and material values were developed during the 20th Century. Just over 100 years ago there was no space travel, bionic ear, computers, cinema, telephone network or atomic bomb. All of these innovations changed us irreversibly – and Australian inventiveness contributed a great number of innovations to the world that have made such an impact! I then focussed on 7 broad categories of inventions from the 20th Century and how I could bring their trajectory to life in a musically exciting and inspired way.
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS OF CREATING THE WORK?
How these innovations developed is mindboggling and completely astounding: how we landed people on the moon with magnetic tape, punch cards and only 2KB of memory (not a silicone chip in sight because it hadn’t been invented yet) I find breathtaking and incomprehensible.
All of the innovations explored in this work had huge social and political impacts for humanity. In particular, the medical advances that have brought a new level of healthcare to the world – with the discovery and development of antibiotics and vaccines, invention of bionics and development of surgical advances, prolonging and improving life.
Having gone through the process of researching all of this, I think it’s vital for all of us to look back and not only marvel at these innovations but to help our resolve in remaining clear and focussed on future innovation to continue the legacy to secure a better future.
7 GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGE FOR THE THEATRE HAS BEEN A COLLABORATIVE PROCESS. TALK US THROUGH THE COLLABORATIVE RELATIONSHIPS AND HOW THEY HAVE INFORMED THE WORK?
I have always wanted to create works that intersect several artistic disciplines. I have enjoyed the process of working with professional writers, actors and lighting and set designers to create something that is highly captivating and all encompassing for people to experience!
My music degrees taught me how to be an excellent musician, but it didn’t delve into areas about collaborating with other art forms – so I have relished this opportunity to discover how other artists go about their work and how we can create links to cross the divide. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I am loving every moment working with such a brilliant team of highly skilled and passionate arts professionals.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE MOVEMENT OR INVENTION IN THE SHOW?
It’s hard to pick a favourite because that’s like picking your favourite child… I enjoy the ‘Advent of Convenience’ movement for its ‘shock’ factor and the cheesiness of the music: old radio advertisements that are shocking to today’s population (like testing a face cream’s efficacy by making it radio active and plastering it all over a woman’s face), are interwoven with the music. It ends with a hilarious jingle about how much the age of convenience has made life ‘simple’ and ‘quick’. Or has it?
From a music-nerd point of view, I quite proud of the opening piece of music in the show because I pay homage to Bach (one of the greatest musical inventors of all time) by taking the theme from his 2-part Invention in F Major and re-imagining it as a 1920s ragtime piano work. That was a very fun piece to write and I think Bach would enjoy it!
YOU ARE THE FIRST COMPOSER UNDER THE AGE OF 40 AND THE ONLY CANBERRA-BASED COMPOSER TO MAKE THE ABC CLASSIC FM TOP 100 “LOVE”. WHY DO YOU THINK YOUR MUSIC HAS BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL?
I am very grateful for the opportunities I have received so far in my career – especially in an industry that has no clear pathway or support like other jobs have. One of the things I’ve always strived towards is to take the creation of music and composing to be a very serious undertaking – I am creating a legacy that has the potential to help someone somehow, now or in the future. Whether it’s as a gesture of support and hope, or to invigorate and inspire, music is a profound art form, so creating new music that at its heart is to give or comfort or entertain (with a deeper meaning behind it) is at the core of my compositional aesthetic: it is my compositional responsibility. I don’t want to waste time on this earth creating something that is throwaway and of no consequence – I want to help people, and this is the best way I know how.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
I’m currently discovering the secrets of Renaissance instruments like the theorbo, cornetto and viola da gamba for a new work I’m writing about Leonardo da Vinci! There aren’t many detailed reference or textbooks available about these instruments or how to write for them, so it’s a wonderful rabbit warren I’m exploring. This new work is being tailored for children and will be performed in schools around Australia from 2018 through Musica Viva.