Classic Ellis: Facing the Music, 2001

The world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival of the Connolly-Anderson documentary Facing the Music brought the enormous audience applauding to its feet, but in the speeches from the film’s makers and its principal players afterwards there was no sense of triumph, only anger at what they had seen and been through, which was a kind of slaughter, a massacre of ideals.

In it Ann Boyd the formidable Australian composer and Professor of Music at the University of Sydney tries to save her department from extinction when Canberra’s budget cuts and the economic rationalists in the university administration progressively squeeze, then abruptly halve, the money she has to work with, and she changes in personality from a reticent artist-academic into a placard-waving demonstrator on the picket lines at the university gates, and a smiling wooer of corporate dollars to carry on.

And all in vain. The choir goes first, then the opera studies, the Stravinsky studies, advanced counterpoint and harmony, the evening concerts, computer music, Japanese music, orchestration, and for a moment the costs of the piano tuning, and in the sorrow and the clamour she gets only ten days that year to work on her great song cycle Jesus Reassures His Mother From The Cross. Her associate professor, the wondrous, rotund, hobbit-like Winsome Evans, after thirty years in the department, has a heart attack. Both take on extra teaching, unpaid. In a remarkable scene Boyd shrieks in frustration at a mild young female pupil who then in tears rips up her own composition. And much good music is never written, and hearts are broken, and careers aborted, and the innocent suffer and grieve, and no good comes of any of it as the numbers are crunched and egos smashed and dreams sent wittering into the void. In the same week as the film came out Jodee Rich of One.Tel, a company he’d helped ruin, tried to tiptoe away with seven million dollars, enough to fund Boyd’s deficit a hundred times over. But his achievement, of course, was so much greater. He wooed a few Telstra customers to a rival hook-up that failed. She by contrast merely enlarged the feeling heart of humankind and passed on how to do it. She must therefore be punished with whips and scorpions and he enriched beyond the dreams of all who dance and revel around the Golden Calf. He is clearly the more deserving. And his is the doctrine that will prevail.

Facing The Music is among the finest documentaries lately made (surpassing easily the directors’ previous work, Rats In The Ranks), in part because it asks the fairly important question of what we are here on earth for, and how it can be measured. On the often beautiful faces of the absorbed young pupils, pounding away at keyboards and delicately fingering harp strings and sawing and plunking with swaying heads at violins and cellos, there’s no doubt of what the answer is. They are here to channel a kind of divinity, a divinity of sound, through human ears. They are here to show us with sound a kind of final mystery, how strange it is, as Shakespeare said, that mere cats’ guts can hale men’s souls out of their bodies. And how fine it is, J.B. Priestley said, that great music can show us the mountains and lakes and valleys of a better world, a world that never existed, a world we have never visited, and can only yearn for, as the music plays.

And the idea, the very idea, that this can be measured in dollars and cents is the principal ingredient of the dark heresy that is currently ruling and punishing the world. That the week Mozart took to compose his Requiem can be said with precision to be worth, say, two hundred dollars, though he died of the pain of its composition. Or the month Florey took to come up with penicillin was worth, what, one thousand dollars, not a penny more. Or Logie Baird, television, three thousand dollars I guess, what the hell, let’s be generous. On this reckoning Einstein would have been fired after two years from Princeton for not in that time having completed his Field Theory of the Universe. The faculty’s budget is limited, professor, and you have signally failed to deliver; pray pack up your three stubby pencils and your floppy notebook and be gone. We’ve no time for dawdlers and shirkers here at Princeton, a great efficient university. Or the time George Gershwin took - seven minutes - to write in the last week of his life ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’ was worth, let’s be lavish, fourteen dollars. ‘Don’t be silly,’ George said with a touch of avarice to a young man mortified by the swiftness of his composition, ‘it took thirty-seven years.’ And he died the next day, and with him a lot of music worth, I suppose, on current reckoning, tens of dollars more.

And the music unplayed, and the songs unsung, and the young faces untransported in their communion with the mighty force they serve, haunt this film as surely as do the radiant young faces we see and the angel sounds we hear, and so does the question what are we here on earth for? and what do we teach the young? and who should decide what is there to be found, and learned, and celebrated?

A university used to be the way of finding these things out. The very word implies a textured study of the universe, its variety and enormity. And to say this study should be measured and assessed and counted mile by mile (can Jupiter be shrunk to fit in our annual estimates? can we airbrush, this year, the rings from Saturn?) is entirely absurd, absurd as the unmarked grave Mozart lies in beside other beggars who ran out of luck like him, and government subsidy, and money to carry on. A university is part of the remedy for all that, a way of restoring justice to the talented, of penetrating the dark of Time with brief candles, finding what is there.

And universities haven’t done too badly over the years. In the last millennium, on less money than humans have spent in toto on Coca Cola, they gave us the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Darwinian hypothesis, agnosticism, existentialism, the quark, linguistics, quantum physics, the structure of DNA and the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Marlowe, Milton, Newton, Voltaire, Byron, Tennyson, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Russell, Wylde, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Principia Mathematica, The Lord of the Rings, the polio vaccine, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkein, Richard Burton, Isaiah Berlin, Kingsley Amis, Phillip Larkin, Jean Paul Sartre, Mick Jagger, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Noam Chomsky, Woody Allen and, on one university campus in one half decade, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Les Murray, Michael Kirby, Mary Gaudron, Germaine Greer, John Bell, John Gaden, Bruce Beresford, Geoffrey Robertson, Arthur Dignam, Richard Wherrett, Richard Walsh, Richard Butler, Richard Brennan, Richard Bradshaw, Mungo McCallum, Laurie Oakes, Henri Szeps, Hall Greenland and me. The campus was Sydney and the half decade 1959-64 and if its budget then had been cut in the way it’s lately been cut we’d be most of us driving buses now or dead or drunk or teaching English in Yokahama or running a whorehouse in Bolivia, or worse.

And uncertain what we’re here on earth for - to be ourselves, to do our thing, to awake the unplayed symphonies within us, the unsung songs of joy, or merely to scutter like soldier crabs by moonlight in disciplined multiple silent panic towards the engulfing sea. Economic rationalism has made such fugitive crabs of us all, and all our comings and goings a jostling rush towards death, and all now young who are scared of what is to come in a world where golden parachutes for fools who stuff up a company merger can be fourteen million dollars (its interest earning them thirteen thousand dollars a week) and Winsome Evans, teaching the loud clear language of angels, can die for want of the five thousand dollars cost for a part-time tutor for fifty hours a year in a university whose track record of talent fostered and genius realised rivals Oxford at its best.

It’s rational, we’re told, to cut money to such a place, and so stifle the next Stravinsky, or excise the study of music from the university altogether, bare ruined choirs where no birds sing, and merge it with the Conservatorium, where everyone learns how, but never why. It’s rational to torture Boyd, a musical genius, with the consequences of her generous heart and her joyous desire to teach, to increase the civilisation of humankind, the pleasure there to be had in the night at its darkest when the music plays and we know we are part of an enormity that can be told in no other language but this, the language of the feeling heart in touch with the universe, the totality we share.

For the want of seventy thousand dollars certain lunatics would end all this, while paying seven hundred thousand a year to Dame Leonie Kramer for her part, a big part, in its ending.

And everywhere this is happening, in faculties around the nation, the world, in history, social ecology, English, the ancient languages. Slowly, quickly, decisively, in panic, in revenge, with reluctance, with pleasure, they are choking, smothering, ending all memory of the world. Facing The Music is only a parable, a miniature, of what is happening everywhere, to the human spirit and the human soul.

Prove that I lie.

  1. Bob, this is your writing at its best.. I’m wiping tears from my eyes as I key one small note in response.

    Bob, this is your writing at its best.. I’m wiping tears from my eyes as I key one small note in response.

    When three years ago I joined a group dedicated to stopping to the destruction of a beautiful and iconic theatre, Union Hall, on the grounds of the University of Adelaide, I became increasingly aware of how the universities around the world have changed, in the decades since we were there in the fifties and sixties. We failed, by the way. Union Hall was destroyed and another science laboratory is now in its place.

    In Australia, and due in large part to the great expansion of tertiary education in the seventies, thanks to the Whitlam government, academic staffs found themselves inundated with clerical tasks and sorely in need of help. They started hiring administrators and office staff and in a few years these people, often aligned to the business world, started rising through the ranks, increasing their salaries, calling themselves Faculty Deans and generally taking over the universities and turning them into financial corporations. In correspondence I refer to the University of Adelaide as The University of Adelaide Financial Corporation.

    This corporatisation is a world-wide phenomenon, apparently, except for Germany, where the universities are still what they were and still should be. But what is to be done? Mammon rules everywhere.academic staffs found themselves inundated with clerical task and sorely in need of

  2. Excellent article Bob

    To Will : I don’t agree that the decline in Universities can be put down to Gough’s opening them up to those who were academically capable but financially challenged.

    Think instead about the bean counters who fought tooth and nail to pare Gough’s reforms back. First Fraser, and then the accord driven Labor of the 1980s, followed up by the anti-intellectual Howard regime.

    Give credit(?) where it is due.

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