A screeching flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos joined the wheeling seagulls over the Myer Music Bowl as Adrian Tamburini sang about “squadrons of birds” in the penultimate section of No Friend but the Mountains. It was a surreal ecperience seeing those birds and the way their screeches mirrored the Chauka screams of the birds on Manus Island. Could Behrouz Boochani hear those birds through the link to Christchurch, New Zealand? He could surely see an audience happy to sit in the light rain to hear Luke Styles’ symphonic representation of his words.
The final words of this symphonic song cycle: “the chant of the bird and the chant of man/ Both chants blend into one/ This lament … of nature… this lamentation of nature/ This lament… of a human… this lamentation of the human being” left performers and audiences immobilized. Rain seemed the perfect accompaniment to such sadness. There was no happy ending, no note of hope. It was a reminder that the suffering of asylum seekers persists. Boochani himself might be safe in a welcoming country, but his mind is very much with a fight that continues. In a pre-recorded interview that preceded the symphonic work, he acknowledged the success that his much-lauded account of his perilous sea voyage to Christmas Island and subsequent imprisonment on Manus Island had given him, regarding it as a space, an opportunity for others to learn; he regards his most important work to be his journalism – an ongoing endeavour, a continuing fight against injustice. Years were stolen from him as an individual and Kurdish culture is in the process of being stolen.
It was no accident that this word was used in a welcome to country, to the “stolen” land where stories have been told for thousands of years. Before we heard Behrouz Boochani’s story, Fahrhad Bandesh recounted his lived refugee experience and performed his song from detention The Big Exhale. In the interview, Boochani also spoke about the centrality of music in his life and its importance to him and his fellow inmates in times of suffering.
Bass-baritone, Adrian Tamburini, has been a notable figure in Melbourne’s musical life and this symphonic song cycle would figure as the most significant of his initiatives. In addition to being a driving force behind the creation of the work, he has embraced the taxing central role. While the socially distanced Melbourne Bach Choir sang fragments of the narrative, he presented the deeply poetic elements of Boochani’s work. Within the rich velvet of Tamburini’s voice is a special timbre of pathos eminently suited to convey the emotional intensity of Boochani’s travails, and the expressive shifts of mood in Styles’ music. Even some hard-pressed, forceful upper notes were in tune with the extremities of the situation.
A Prelude for Chorus and orchestra established the context for creating Boochani’s powerful story: “Thumbed on a phone / Smuggled out / Thousands of text messages”. Two orchestral Interludes and twelve sections for baritone continued the emotional rollercoaster. Glimmers of hopeful light appeared in rescue craft and the form of a little blond girl bathing on the shores of Christmas Island when the rescue tug arrived at the pier. Dreams of freedom – escape from the horrors of the engulfing waves and from the “zoo of cruelty” – music and the wonders of natural beauty also provided consolation, but Boochani and Omid Tofighian, his translator and collaborator have painted a horrifyingly bleak picture.
Styles’ orchestration ensured that all sections of Zelman Symphony Orchestra were given opportunities to shine, which they did under Rick Prakhoff’s attentive baton. Having Wilma Smith as concert master was not only an assurance of the finest music-making, but also a welcome connection with New Zealand. She also led the small ensemble that accompanied Farhad Bandesh. This was challenging music and it was a huge credit to the mainly amateur musicians and choristers, who comprise the orchestra and the choir. The music is quite complex and demanding at times in its atonality and rapid shifting moods. Amplification and huge screens heightened the power of the experience and provided a certain degree of intimacy for members of the audience seated in their COVID corrals on the lawns.
There would have been many refugees in the audience, some with similar experiences, happy that their situation has been brought to public attention in this way, and glad of the support that so many people have given to bring this project to fruition. It is, as Luke Styles said, an important, current Australian story.
Heather Leviston reviewed Luke Styles’ Symphonic Song Cycle “No Friend but the Mountains” performed by Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Bach Choir at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on March 21, 2021.