11 March 2021
No Friend But The Mountains: A Symphonic Song Cycle
© Hoda Afshar & Ashley Mar
Luke Styles writes about working with Behrouz Boochani's words from the award-winning autobiographical book No Friend But the Mountains. The premiere of the new song cycle will take place at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on 21 March, featuring the Zelman Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Bach Choir, bass baritone soloist Adrian Tamburini and conductor Rick Prakhoff.
I work a lot with text. I have been fortunate enough to explore operas, song cycles, choral works and theatre with spoken text in great detail over the last 10 years. The relationship between text and music is an immediate one for me. The moment I read a text I hear music. If I don't then it's not the right text for me to set to music.
This immediacy has a number of different ramifications for my compositional process. It can mean that, when working with text, the composing is rapid. It can also mean that building large-form structures arises primarily from the selection and arrangement of the text in a work.
Creating a musical structure from the book No Friend But The Mountains was one of the first steps and relationships to Behrouz Boochani's text. The book is long, rich in poetry, narrative, and it encompasses many stories and ideas. It is a personal and moving account of incarceration and seeking refuge. The question for me, when starting with such a text, is what strands to pull out to make a musical work? What is the musical journey I want to create from this text? Where is the connection with my own story and artistic voice?
In reading the book I started to see and hear an Australian story. A recurring Australian story. Of an ocean journey. Traveling in an unfamiliar part of the world. Encountering the beauty of the (new) landscapes, flora and fauna. Seeking refuge or being displaced. Incarceration. Glimpses of a people, carefree and playing on a beach. These were the characteristics I would bring together.
The more I delved into the book with this perspective, I started to see and hear resonances with literature, songs, poetry by or about many different people coming to Australia - such as the Vietnamese, Italian, Greek and Lebanese. With early convict poetry, by people such as Francis MacNamara. And even the poetry of Dorothea Mackellar. I started to see Behrouz's book as the latest iteration of a familiar, recurring Australian story.
Isolation and incarceration were also powerful themes that I began to hear through an Australian lens. The country is an isolated one, and, in this sense, it is a type of rich and beautiful prison for its inhabitants. It has also been quite literally a prison. A penal colony. And the descendants of those prisoners are now the gaolers. Is there something in the Australian mitochondrial DNA that perpetuates the incarceration of new arrivals in this land? I'm interested in what this proposition might do in shaping my composition of a new work, using Behrouz's text.
The cycle consists of 12 songs, a prelude and two orchestral interludes. It is scored for a large symphony orchestra, a chorus and a bass-baritone soloist. With my perspective clear on how to transform Behrouz's book into a new and different work for these forces, this is how the text was shaped. The prelude opens with the incredible way in which the book was written: thumbed on a phone, smuggled out, thousands of text messages. Also the prelude is sung by the chorus - we have to wait for our soloist until song 1. This first song is about water and a journey. It could be any ocean-going journey, from Odysseus to Laura Dekker. Then Interlude 1, which elaborates these themes in music alone. Songs 2-7 are all about the difficulties of this journey, coming close to death and being rescued. In song 7, we also catch a glimpse of a carefree Australian child, and, with that, hopefully a snippet of explicit Australian identity for the audience. Interlude 2 comes next, and this acts as a musical transition from rescue to prison.
Songs 8 and 9 are about the prison. The work moves from describing the prison where Behrouz was kept to a more open depiction of a prison enclosed by nature, with walls of water. These could be heard as a description of Australia itself or a convict prison such as Port Arthur or Norfolk Island. Song 9 also calls on flora and fauna, and thus opens up light and beauty in the work. It makes reference to the Chauka bird, the native bird of Manus Island and the bird whose call is embedded in the music. Song 10 expands the focus on the Chauka bird, with metaphors for freedom and struggles against hunger. Song 11 becomes more philosophic with musings on the nature of freedom itself and the arbitrary nature of life.
The final song, 12, goes deeper into themes of nature, the Chauka bird, the struggle for freedom, and it is full of musical stimulus from chants, screams, symphonies and lamentations. This is one of the clearest moments of the intense musicality of the text. A musicality which I found throughout the book, and which I have aimed at bringing to the fore in this song cycle.
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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