Australia's oldest community orchestra at MCEC

The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre has provided a COVIDsafe environment for rehearsals for the world premiere of No Friend but the Mountains: A Symphonic Song Cycle by Australian composer Luke Styles, also part of a new 2-part arts documentary, NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS – A VOYAGE THROUGH SONG, on ABC PLUS and iView.

There were 130 performers in the Melbourne Room at MCEC all socially distanced.

The program features interviews with leading figures in Australian classical music and the arts.

To create the Song Cycle, Luke Styles selected text from the multi award-winning book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which was written by Kurdish-Iranian Asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani on Manus Island.

He wrote it in his native Farsi and smuggled it out in thousands of WhatsApp messages. It was then translated and edited by Omid Tofighian.  

The world premiere of the Song Cycle was given by Zelman Symphony and Melbourne Bach Choir with Bass Baritone soloist Adrian Tamburini for whom the song cycle was composed.

Behrouz Boochani came to prominence through his journalism while detained on Manus Island under the then Australian Government’s Regional Offshore Processing scheme. A Kurdish-Iranian journalist, author and poet, Mr Boochani fled Iran in 2012 after the newspaper he co-founded was raided by the Iranian government.

As a refugee, he attempted to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia to seek asylum, but was intercepted by Australian Border Force and imprisoned on Manus Island for almost seven years. His book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is a vivid and lyrical account of his harrowing experience.

Mr Boochani’s book was secretly typed out on a mobile phone and sent to translator Omid Tofighian via thousands of WhatsApp messages – all in defiance of the system detaining him. It was dangerous work.

Moved and inspired by Mr Boochani’s traumatic account of life in detention, acclaimed Australian bass-baritone Adrian Tamburini brought the book to the attention of composer Luke Styles. Mr Styles subsequently created a symphonic song cycle using selected text from the book.

Despite multiple challenges and set-backs caused by COVID-19 restrictions, the dedicated team at Zelman Symphony led by George Deutsch remained committed to the project.

Presented in partnership with Australia’s oldest community orchestra, the Zelman Symphony, the concert successfully premiered.

The TV series, NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS – A VOYAGE THROUGH SONG, directed by Myles Conti, examines the political context, artistic process and the logistical and public health challenges behind the realisation of this incredible new work.

Creator and producer Ákos Armont, who is also writing and producing the feature film adaptation of Mr Boochani’s book said:

“It has been a privilege to help bring this staggering new concert work to the widest possible audience across Australia and internationally. Behrouz’s experiences in detention and the experiences of all those refugees prevented from ever entering Australia remain an unreconciled stain on the credentials of our multicultural society. If broad public sentiment against the treatment of individuals like Behrouz cannot sway political will to improve the systems of processing undocumented arrivals, perhaps works such as Behrouz’s book and Luke Styles' song cycle will at least keep the issue alive in the public consciousness.”

Director, Myles Conti, said:

“Making this 2-part documentary has been a wonderful and an eye-opening experience. Sharing in the creative process of such a talented and passionate group of artists was an absolute joy. Whilst gaining a deeper understanding of the barbaric conditions that those seeking refuge in our country have and continue to be forced to endure - the horrific truth that hides behind the headlines, is something that I believe all Australians need to be made aware of. My hope is that this documentary will add another layer of awareness, one that compliments Behrouz’s book and Luke’s Song Cycle, as a further form of creative expression to help bring about change.”

Composer, Luke Styles said:

"My song cycle is first and foremost an Australian story. I saw in Behrouz’s book striking similarities with stories and poetry of numerous immigrant journeys to Australia, from convicts, the Chinese drawn by the gold rush, through to the present day. Australia’s particular relationship to incarceration; of its people, those seeking refuge and the continent itself as an isolated island is also highlighted. I have made a musical work of these recurring Australian themes, rather than telling Behrouz’s story, which is not mine to tell. I am thrilled that this documentary will open up important facets of Australian identity to a new and wider audience."