El Sistema blog: the last post

I’m going to close down my El Sistema blog. But this will be a transformation rather than an ending. With the new book that I’m finishing, my new role at Agrigento, the AHRC project, SIMM, and so on, the focus of my work these days is social action through music (SATM) writ large, rather than just El Sistema. So it makes sense to broaden out and convert my El Sistema blog into a SATM blog.

This also feels like the right time for a change. 2020 was a tumultuous year for most of us; it also coincided with the first significant shift in my working life for 15 years and a big birthday. Of greater relevance to the blog, El Sistema and SATM look quite different from when I began it back in 2012. Then, El Sistema was at the peak of its powers and influence, and there was no scrutiny of the program in English. It was the first glimmer, an article by Igor Toronyi-Lalic in Classical Music, and above all the responses to the article from the El Sistema-inspired world, that provoked me to start this blog. There was plenty of advocacy writing but it felt like it was high time for a space for critical reflection, one (as I wrote at the time) “intended to promote deeper understanding of El Sistema and more debate about a number of questions that the program raises.”

Eight years on, there is a wide array of published critiques that interested readers can consult, and El Sistema’s fortunes have declined significantly. Its name still carries considerable weight, above all among funders, but it has disappeared off international concert stages and no informed observer could seriously consider it to be a vanguard music education program in terms of its practice. The ISME Special Interest Group has dropped El Sistema from its title. Behind the public reverence, even some redoubts of the El Sistema-inspired field are moving on. Some of the ideas that I raised in 2014 have now become more mainstream in this field. So there is less need for a critical space such as this blog. I have the distinct feeling that anyone who is interested in thinking critically about El Sistema now has plenty to work with, and anyone who isn’t won’t be persuaded by more blog posts.

I cannot avoid the temptation to return briefly to Toronyi-Lalic’s article, where this blog began. He outraged El Sistema’s advocates, but his arguments have largely stood the test of time. Considering how little he knew about El Sistema, it’s amazing how much he got right. This suggests that the problems were actually quite obvious, but many in the classical music and music education sectors didn’t want to see them.

Of relevance to me personally, two years after the article’s publication, turned out to be Toronyi-Lalic’s point about the media delivering “the kind of unthinking whitewashing of El Sistema that is usually reserved for the Daily Mail’s treatment of the Queen Mum.” He went on: “Only blind devotion is permitted. Scepticism and inquiry, even of a musical sort, is forbidden.” His point was amply borne out in some media reviews of my book.

“Scam, voodoo, or the future of music?”, I asked in my first blog post, reflecting on the positions of Toronyi-Lalic, Simon Rattle, and others. It clearly was not the third; Rattle called that one wrong. In fact, it should have been obvious at the time that it was the past in light disguise. But perhaps it was none of the three. Maybe it was José Antonio Abreu’s associate Joaquín López Mujica who came closest, in Roger Santodomingo’s 1990 investigative report. Homing in on Abreu’s fixation with spectacle, López Mujica described El Sistema as “an illusion.”

What of the last eight years and over 100 blog posts on this website? On the plus side, the statistics show that they have been read by far more people in far more countries than I ever expected. It has also proven to be a useful space for me to try out ideas in writing, some of which have made their way into presentations and articles. In those senses, it has been a success. On the minus side, I hoped to create a small space of debate within the field, and in that I failed. There were a few responses to the first few posts, and then silence suddenly fell. (I imagine that simultaneity of the withdrawals was not coincidental.) I don’t take this personally; I have seen a similar disengagement on Jonathan Govias’s El Sistema blog, which has regularly raised issues that are eminently worthy of discussion. It just seems that this field does not have public critical debate in its genes – one of Abreu’s many infelicitous legacies.

There is a critical conversation. I hear it in conferences, seminars, and meetings in Latin America. I pursue it myself in live presentations in various countries, where responses and dialogue are guaranteed. There are people who are keen to have these conversations, who are “Rethinking social action through music,” as my new book is entitled; it just seems that blogs are not the place.

As I noted in my 2018 article with Ana Lucía Frega, several interviewees in Eva Estrada’s 1997 evaluation ended up defining themselves against El Sistema rather than identifying with it. One concluded that El Sistema “served me as a model of what not to do.”

I can identify with this sentiment. A decade exploring the less-than-miraculous realities of “the Venezuelan musical miracle” have led me towards musicians and researchers who are trying to improve this model or simply to pursue quite different musical routes to social action. I can’t deny that there have been some frustrations and disappointments since I began this blog, but between the signs of change and the opportunities opened up by my role at Agrigento, I can’t help but feel some of the excitement that first drew me to El Sistema back in 2007. This time, though, the excitement stems from something more substantial than institutional propaganda and media myths.

If anything tumultuous happens in the El Sistema world, I may post about it under my new blog. Otherwise, I will focus mainly on other developments. I hope to see you over there. And don’t forget, comments are welcome…