7 GREAT INVENTIONS OF THE MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGE
Syzygy Ensemble and Dan Richardson
Move Records MD 3427
It took me a while – in this case, something like three months of desultory listening – to get onto the wavelength of this CD. As usual, the big problem was taking the whole exercise too seriously when anyone with a modicum of sense, after hearing the first track, would have known that composer Greenaway’s intentions are coloured by whimsy, not a post-Revolution intention to pictorialize musically the advances that she has selected to illustrate.
Before getting down to what happens, it would be wise to give some physical data. For the disc’s 10 tracks, the actual musicians involved from the Syzygy Ensemble are: piano Leigh Harrold (who has the first track to himself and has the last word as well), Laila Engle’s flutes, violin Jenny Khafagi, cello Campbell Banks, Robin Henry’s clarinets and guest percussionist Dan Richardson beavering away at various sound sources. Greenaway might have determined on 7 inventions, so where do the extras come in? Well, they comprise a solo piano preamble, a finale that begins by involving everyone until Harrold takes over, and a Hymn to Freedom.
As for the inventions themselves, she singles out telecommunications, aviation/space exploration, advertising, artificial intelligence, world war, medicine and the cinema. That afore-mentioned paean to freedom follows the war track (which is the CD’s longest), the composer reassuring us that the worst of these creations has its ameliorating counterpart. The odd feature of all this is that everything – preamble, inventions, Beethoven’s Ode updated and the postlude – lasts under 37 minutes total running time.
We begin with a little Bach gesture; if we’re talking inventions, how about the Two Part in F Major? Not that you get much of it (a suggestion only) before the mood changes to Scott Joplin-style ragtime for the opening Invention Reinvention. That’s fine; it sets a sort of time-frame that suggests what follows is either contemporaneous with or follows the Maple Leaf Rag era. The Invention is something of a spoof of both Bach and Joplin but it makes sense even if the working-out almost tips over into laboured territory.
Telecommunications begins with a concerted flourish which gives way to some blurred radio transmissions before a Gershwin-style blues headed by clarinet and flute, with a few more radio interpolations and a humorous coda that honours an early drawback in domestic television sets the world over. Next comes a Cape Canaveral countdown and a rising scale before a bit of early American astronaut humour and a fade into the sort of optimistic tapestry you get when you experience a satellite’s view of the globe. A heavily-sequenced melody takes pride of place, suggesting onward progress, which is counter-weighted by a super-imposed static-heavy ‘We have a problem’ message and the space enterprise fades into nothingness.
By this point, you have a pretty firm handle on Greenaway’s vocabulary which is diatonic with a neat hand at modulation. The tracks pass so quickly that any thought of old-fashioned development is out of the question; textures don’t so much change as meld into each other without fuss. A skin-cleansing ad with a broad American accent from the 50s leads in to the advertising celebration, followed by a bouncy sequence that suggests events in the preceding movement, which is interrupted by an old Maxwell House ad enunciated in Received English/ABC newsreader-speak; then, a washing machine (Whirlpool) gets a guernsey. Betty Crocker cakes, Remington razors and a layer of superimposed tracks reduce advertising to what it has become: meaningless burble and informational white noise. All this rises to a high dynamic level before stopping on a dime before another ad, this time for Quick-Eze proposing the possibility of a mental cleanser to parallel the product’s physical specialty at ameliorating heartburn and indigestion.
The Mechanical Brain starts with a piano ostinato which is broken into by arpeggio-rich breaks from the other instruments. This pattern is followed without much variety, suggestive of the remorseless advance of machines although the music itself is not particularly threatening. Soldiers marching, tanks or trucks on the move, explosions all lead into the actual instrumental elements of the And So Begins Massed World Warfare movement. A cello solo based around a vehement low G is soon accompanied by piano chords and some stentorian gestures that fade to expectant silence; then a violin’s solo arpeggios with some disjunct piano chords, and the flute brings a descending motif into play. This segment is pretty obviously ‘free’ in rhythm as the players work through some limited individual material. An air-raid siren sends out its warning and downward violin glissandi lead to a welter of piano chord clusters as the bombs land. Here is no Penderecki Threnody, nor even Holst’s Mars but a pocket-sounding image of conflict; more a Schleswig-Holstein spat than the horrid spectre of a doom-carrying Enola Gay.
The consequent Hymn stays in C minor for its four or five repetitions. It is sung in unison by the instrumentalists, Harrold coming in with supporting chords that rarely move outside the predictable. It’s a quiet, wordless lyric with no Finlandia bravado; more, something that you might have overlooked in the soundtrack to Schindler’s List. The mood changes for the medical marvels. B flat Major and minor oscillate in a rather whining set of motives over tinkling piano arpeggios. A scientist discusses the new wonder of penicillin while the instruments do a Poissons d’or imitation. We hear Graeme Clark speaking of his first attempts at a cochlear implant, then a therapist and patient pronounce individual words in antiphon. The movement ends in a warm major chord; in this segment, it has to be noted that the music is of secondary interest to the recorded texts.
Last in this fleeting caravanserai are the moving pictures, The Advent of Cinema. You hear a whirring old-time projector in action, more piano arpeggios over a pedal; there’s no real melody, just an awfully predictable modulatory sequence. Again, we’re between major and minor tonalities as a waltz rhythm starts up, with a little less subtlety than the matter of this nature that Rota supplied for Fellini’s 8 1/2. It’s all pretty heavy-handed and a strangely retrogressive image of film history.
The Finale opens with a small-scale fanfare that breaks into a retrospective of some themes and progressions that have featured in the preceding movements before Harrold is left with his Joplinesque syncopations to bring us home.
In the end, this is not a grave memorialization of the 20th Century’s most significant achievements but a quirky take on some of those advances that have made us what we are, for better and worse. Greenaway has constructed more of a divertissement than a suite and – with all respect to the Syzygy players and Richardson – there isn’t much here that stretches the participants’ talents.