Edinburgh International Festival 2014 interview: Jonathan Mills on his Sandakan Threnody

This article is from 2014


credit: Seamus McGarvey

The outgoing artistic director of the festival discusses his WWII memorial piece

In his final year as artistic director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills will present one of his own compositions, a tribute to the death of thousands of Australian soldiers in Borneo during World War II. Claire Sawers finds out about a very personal performance

Back in March, Jonathan Mills announced the theme for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. He wanted the programme to look at the relationship between conflict and culture – how war and political unrest leave their mark on art. It probably wasn’t obvious then just how personal Mills’ contribution would be. He’s a few weeks away from stepping down as director of the EIF after eight years in charge, and he’s joked that he’s fully prepared for ‘being the rooster who becomes a feather duster’.

Mills will be bowing out with a performance of one of his own compositions, Sandakan Threnody, which, as the EIF website blurb explains, is an oratorio that he wrote ‘to honour the 2500 British and Australian prisoners of war who lost their lives in the death marches in North Borneo during the Second World War.’ What the website doesn’t go into is his dad’s role in all of it.

Frank Harland Mills was an Australian officer captured in Singapore during WWII, and sent to a PoW work camp in Sandakan, Malaysia. Servicemen were put to work constructing an aerodrome. When it started costing too much money, the Japanese decided to change tack, and withdrew the officers, including Mills’ dad Frank, transporting them to another camp nearby. The remaining soldiers were moved to Ranau, inland. Those journeys – a series of death marches through thick equatorial rainforest and insect-infected jungle, often climbing uphill while weighing less than a third of their normal bodyweight – wiped out almost all the soldiers. Some men who collapsed were bayonetted to death on the path. Nearly 2500 soldiers marched; only six survived. The marches have since been labelled the worst atrocity against Australian soldiers during WWII.

‘My father never initiated a conversation about the war,’ says Mills, whose father died in 2008 at the age of 98. ‘But he was also never reticent if you asked him to talk about it. He knew his experience had been different to the other PoWs. What happened was a disgraceful wartime extinction, against every convention possible, but my father’s views on it were complex. He took his honeymoon in Japan, for example – he loved the place.’

Mills and his father attended a Sandakan memorial service in the 90s, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney, attended by war veterans and the Australian prime minister. ‘That was very special. Those men had seen more rawness and more horror than most. They talked among themselves, quietly, some crying, but calmly going over their shared torture and ordeal.’

A few years later in 1998, Mills was reminded of the men when he arrived in the UK, jetlagged, and switched on his TV, the night before a state visit to Downing Street from the Japanese emperor Akihito.

‘I was channel surfing and stopped on one of those news panel shows – they had on British PoWs, a fair age by that point. They were explaining how they planned to protest against the visit. When the emperor walked past, they would turn their back on him, and bow their heads – an incredibly disrespectful gesture in Japanese culture.’

Their peaceful protest moved Mills, and was the catalyst for him writing Sandakan Threnody. ‘They weren’t screaming or shouting; they just wore their medals, they made their point.’

Mills set out to compose a tribute, ‘not to critique the Japanese’ as he’s keen to point out, but instead as ‘an ode of grieving’. The word ‘threnody’, explains Mills, with his trademark rigour and passionate precision, derives from the ancient Greek threnoidia, an amalgamation of threnos, meaning grieving or wailing, and ode.

‘Every page of the EIF programme is a tribute, really,’ says Mills. ‘A tribute to the people who’ve suffered unimaginable horrors, but also to those things that endure beyond the horror. How artists react to and deal with these monumental themes.’

Mills is particularly inspired by Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who endured five concentration camps before eventually escaping during a death march. Pisar added his own narration to Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, and will perform it with the RSNO in Edinburgh.

‘I first met Sam at a dinner party in Paris,’ says Mills. ‘I was intrigued by this man who was the centre of attention, and speaking French, Polish and English, then he turned to me and said, “G’day.” We’ve gone on to form a close bond.’ After Pisar escaped the Nazis, he was sent to recuperate with relatives in Australia, and remains grateful to Australia for all they did.

‘He’s a truly incredible man, someone who feels that if you survive, you have an obligation to be a force for good. After his subhuman treatment, Sam still remains an optimist – someone who gets excited by life, who remains engaged with it. That’s what I wanted this festival to be about – not doom and gloom, but finding glimmers of hope. That’s where the real powerful moments are to be found.’

Sandakan Threnody, by Jonathan Mills, performed by the BBC SSO, with Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Usher Hall, 30 Aug, 8pm, £12–£44.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Guest conductor Ilan Volkov leads the orchestra through Jonathan Mills' Sandakan Threnody and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass.