Making music: The Bread & Roses of Life

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Facing the Music is a cinema verité type documentary on the music department of Sydney University.  Shots of intense-looking students playing classical music. Passionate lectures on Beethoven. You might think that this is an odd kind of film for a radical paper to review.

But it’s not. Facing the Music shows in detail, which is painfully intense and all too familiar, the impact of economic rationalism on one creative workplace. In this case it’s the Music Department of Sydney University. In my own experience, it was the Humanities Department of a TAFE institution. What is it in yours?

For over a decade the music department of Sydney University has faced yearly, deepening cuts to its funding. What has been the impact on courses, on students and on staff? And on the quality of what it offers to the community?

Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, the acclaimed makers of the film Rats in the Ranks, a fly-on-the-wall view of political machinations in Leichhardt Council in Sydney, set out to answer these questions.

They spent a year filming the department, eight hours a day. The result is enraging, inspiring and profoundly moving.

We see the ongoing work of the department: the lectures, the individual sessions with students, the playing. But we also see the union meetings, the department meetings, the approaches to corporate sponsors in a desperate attempt to find other sources of funding.

We see the impact of a massively mounting workload as staff take on their shoulders the task of keeping up the high standards of a more generous era.

The main focus of the film is on Anne Boyd, the Professor. She  is an inspired teacher, a front rank composer, a dynamo of creative energy and a passionate advocate of music. Altogether, she is a deeply impressive woman.  

She is also, at first, both conservative and politically naive. An early scene shows her at a union meeting, angrily opposing the move to strike and soon after, crossing the picket line!

But don’t hate her! What she experiences gives her at least part of  the political education she needs. We see her making inexpert appeals for corporate funding — and applaud, while we grieve over her innocent belief that everyone, including bankers, must understand the value of music.  She tries to juggle staff to avoid the inevitable course and staff cuts, she takes on an impossible teaching load herself.

But  this “conservative” woman has radical potential. Her desperate attempts to solve her problems by more work and self-sacrifice don’t work — so she joins the picket line! It’s a splendid sight to see her using her teacher’s powers of persuasion to turn back the tradesmen who are about to cross it.

She has the courage to speak out about what she sees is wrong with the university system. The immediate result is the humiliation of a dressing down by the vice chancellor in front of her colleagues.

We see what price is paid by courageous people fighting against the degradation of their work, the tears, the breakdowns, the lashings out at colleagues. The bleak end note tells us that Anne herself had to stand down from her position because of ill health. Her spirit might withstand the massive workload and the unproductive stress, but  her body could not.

This film shows us what we’re fighting against. It also shows us how one group of people are doing it. It is an in-depth observation of Anne’s uneven and incomplete journey towards political enlightenment. It’s important for activists, because it helps us to understand how complex and often contradictory our political decisions are.

But for me the real glory of the film was how transcendently it shows the value of what Anne Boyd and her colleagues were defending. It’s there in each soaring note of music, each lecture, each image of dedicated, joyful people working to produce these marvels. The film is a joy to the ear and to the mind.

The film is enraging because it shows the familiar attacks on working people’s conditions, the extraordinary energy we have to put into defending them and how destructive and undermining  this process can be.

But it is moving and inspiring because it shows us the wonder of what working people create. It reminds us that we are not just “wage slaves,” propelling the galley to a destination not of our choosing. It is our work that provides what is of real value.  

The drive of capitalism is to produce profit. Exploiting workers is an inevitable part of this. But devaluing what is produced is also an inevitable part of this drive.

Part of our struggle is the struggle to resist that drive, to ensure that what is produced is the essential nourishment for the body and the spirit. McDonald’s is not good enough! We provide for each other both the bread and the roses of life.

Of that struggle, Anne Boyd is a heroine.

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