A day out in Liverpool

At the risk of disappointing my two-and-a-quarter regular readers, I have to report that I had a good Sistema day out last Friday, when I was invited to talk at a small workshop as part of the fourth birthday celebrations of In Harmony Liverpool (IHL). I’m not used to being invited to Sistema events: most seem more interested in people who are on message, even if they don’t actually know very much about El Sistema. But the Liverpool event showed that the IHL people were up for some real discussion, and that was one of several positive signs from the day.

What struck me most were the differences between the Venezuelan núcleos I know and IHL, and the way that those differences were potentially a source of strength rather than weakness – though I need to underline that my knowledge of IHL is still very superficial and therefore my views here are much more tentative than usual. I’m all too aware of the kinds of idealistic assumptions that people jump to after brief exposure to El Sistema in Venezuela. But… between the fact that IHL is in-school rather than after-school, its universal coverage (everyone takes part, rather than only those who present themselves), its involvement of staff as well as pupils in learning, and its institution of termly discussions about strengths and weaknesses involving all staff, I was left wondering what the similarities with El Sistema actually were.

The concert, too, was so different: in terms not so much of what happened on stage (though the fact the orchestra sang too was a surprise), but of the way that the concert was presented by the pupils themselves, who spoke on short video interludes between pieces and had put together the physical programme. To me, these small touches pointed to a space for creativity and a sense of a project in which the children were really involved, rather than being pawns in an adult game.

What I sensed was a willingness to reflect on and change established practices, something that is the exception rather than the rule in Venezuela. There are still issues to address, of course, and there always will be in any educational program, but a willingness to take this on board is the vital first step.

Now, back in my more familiar garb, one thing that struck me in the discussions was how the slogan about El Sistema being a social project, not a musical one, has become a mantra. Aside from its dubious historical accuracy (the program started out in a conservatoire, with music students), there are two points that concern me: (1) this slogan bears no relationship to the perceptions of the many participants I spoke to in Venezuela, who – unlike their counterparts in the UK – absolutely saw what they were doing in musical rather than social terms; (2) what are the implications of constantly banishing music from the centre of a music education program?

With regard to the first point, I can certainly accept that the program has social effects (what activity doesn’t?) and that these effects may not be noticeable to participants, but I find the insistence that it is not a music program as frankly taking the whole “we have to emphasize the social otherwise we won’t get any funding” thing too far. Also, the risk is that, with music valued only for its social effects in these discussions, the music-ness of music gets jettisoned. Music may have inherent value and bring benefits that cannot be easily quantified in social terms, and the risk of arguing for it along utilitarian lines, as Winner and Cooper point out in their 2001 study “Mute Those Claims: No Evidence (Yet) for a Causal Link between Arts Study and Academic Achievement,” is that it makes music education particularly vulnerable: if claims cannot be proven or are not borne out, as Winner and Cooper’s study suggested, then the justification for music education disappears – something that they emphatically did not want to happen.

What also gets sidelined are musical forms that fit less well with this specific social action discourse – hip hop that encourages people to get angry with the Tory-led status quo, for example. What seems to happen as a result is that a new kind of stratification takes place, one that grants certain musical activities more value (and provides them with more funding) than others. And, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, that new stratification produces a rather old picture, one with large-scale classical music in pole position. Somehow, whether aesthetic or social criteria are used, classical music comes out on top. If we’re seriously interested in these issues, then we might want to ask why. Does the problem lie with non-classical musics, which simply have less value however you look at them; or does it lie with the ways the different musical forms are being assessed?

I would argue (and I’m drawing on a recent thesis by Gustavo Borchert as well as my own work) that classical music wins out in the “music as social action” game because in its symphonic guise and in the discursive sphere of funding applications, it is the genre that is best placed to (claim to) support the status quo and produce docile, disciplined, productive subjects for capitalism. In other words, there is a curious kind of social inaction at the heart of such proposals.

I’m aware that the classic Adornian view would be the precise opposite, but I really don’t think that Adorno would have found anything revolutionary in El Sistema, indeed I think he would have recognized it as an example of the culture industry of which he was so wary. And I’m aware that there is a possible distinction between classical music and symphonic music, though I would argue that the symphony orchestra retains most of the cultural capital of classical music, even when it plays some popular repertoire. So I don’t think my argument is seamless. But I do think that the music as social action discourse does two things that are potentially risky over the long term: firstly, downgrade the importance of music; and secondly, downgrade the importance of particular kinds of music.

2 thoughts on “A day out in Liverpool

  1. Three-and-a-quarter readers Geoff!! This is Javier from the States ( We had a long conversation after you presentation about El Sistema) I’m sorry that took me long to write here, but this week i will be writing if you want in your blog about the New Orleans presentation and the variety of characters that jumped against your topic..haha. let me know!!

    my e-mail is: jluengog@student.umass.edu

  2. Four-and-a-quarter regular readers (as well a link to you from my blog)! Geoff, what are you thinking of when you say music may have inherent value or benefits that are not easily quantified? If I think about what music brings to a culture, the effects may be psychological, biological, social, emotional… all there, all entwined and perhaps we don’t have suitable language for describing this or making sense of it. To me, participation in music – whether it be in an orchestral situation, a community choir, a music class, collaborative composing – has benefits in all these areas threaded through the experience, and that is a good thing, something to celebrate and use for advocacy. When arguments get put forward about ‘music for music’s sake’ I feel concerned that it is a return to a way of thinking that sees all of us as inherently flawed, needing to be ‘saved’ or made virtuous through the discipline and purity of the musical arts. Which leads us ever more certainly towards the stratification of different musics, with Western classical music firmly positioned at the top.

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