A couple of months ago I came across an interview with the conductor Diego Matheuz, a product of El Sistema and one of the leading candidates for the role of “the new Dudamel,” published in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. I’m sure Matheuz is a lovely chap and a great musician, and he may well be an insightful person – it’s hard to know, though, as he doesn’t give much away in this interview. What comes across is less an impression of Matheuz than one of the System and benefactor that formed him.
To quote from the interview: “I would like the world and Venezuela to work like an orchestra. Ours is a wonderful country, but we’re polarized and we lack communication. Why do I state that the orchestra is a perfect society? Because if I play the violin and we’re going to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I’ve got to listen to the clarinet, the flute and the other instruments, just as they must follow me. A dialogue is established, not just aural but visual too, marked by respect and rapport. I can’t rehearse if I’m not prepared. The same is true of them. That gives rise to a sense of belonging that Maestro Abreu taught us from the first rehearsal. He said that ‘the orchestra should function like a Swiss watch: a perfect mechanism.’”
I’ve translated the word engranaje as “mechanism,” but it carries the meaning of cogs or gears. So what happened to the dialogue, rapport and warm fuzzy feelings just a few lines earlier? Orchestral music-making has gone from conversation to automation without skipping a beat, and the musicians have been transformed from sensitive listeners to cogs in a machine.
This paragraph captures many points that I develop in my book. Like so many Sistema declarations, it just doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it. It has a jarring contradiction at its heart: between the humanizing images that Matheuz evokes at first and the dehumanized ideal of the Swiss watch with which he concludes. I was fascinated to read Abreu’s aphorism, which I hadn’t heard before, because several young musicians in Venezuela had described themselves to me precisely as “cogs in a machine.” Apparently this was no aberrant finding, but rather the System working as intended. The Swiss watch metaphor conveys perfectly the systemic authoritarianism of the program, echoed by Abreu’s close associate, Chefi Borzacchini, who imagines a future Venezuela that is “perfectly in tune, with all its citizens joined in a single direction.” This is not an image of a democratic society.
“Many people say it’s a utopia,” claims Matheuz of El Sistema. Michel Foucault, however, in his famous book Discipline and Punish, distinguishes between utopia and “a military dream of society”: “its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature, but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine.” Here, then, is the root of the Swiss watch metaphor: a military dream of society. These are extraordinarily revealing words that Abreu utters (through Matheuz), ones that get to the heart of El Sistema’s character as a disciplinary institution (and may even shed some light on Abreu’s unlikely alliance with Chávez, a military man).
One can feel Abreu hovering figuratively over Matheuz’s shoulder, just as he does literally with his conducting protégés in rehearsal. The result is an interview that repeatedly reads like a conversation with Abreu channeled through a medium, rather than an insight into the mind of a young, up-and-coming conductor.
El Sistema’s cult of personality is palpable. Over and over, Matheuz name-checks or quotes Abreu (“El Maestro”):
“El Maestro says that in music you can’t have fear.”
“I remember that by 17 we already wanted to play Bruckner and El Maestro told us: ‘Guys, we’re not ready yet. Let’s start with Mahler.’”
Abreu’s hand is felt everywhere – taking decisions, sowing his famous aphorisms, dictating the program’s artistic direction.
“In El Sistema there’s a way of making music that has the stamp of Maestro Abreu.”
In his excellent new book, El cuerpo dócil de la cultura, Manuel Silva-Ferrer describes the communicational field under Chávez as a panopticon, in which wherever you looked, you always ended up looking towards the centre (p.204). He quotes the Venezuelan psychologist Colette Capriles, who argued that the country was a dictatorship because one could not stop thinking about Chávez for a second. The same is true of El Sistema: wherever you look, whoever is speaking, you see the shadow of Abreu.
“Maestro Abreu can trust that his work will outlive him,” says the interviewer. “It’s very hard to put yourself in the place of such a brilliant mind,” replies the conductor, his connection with the other world momentarily faltering.
At this point, interviewer and interviewee almost disappear, so hard are they trying to channel the thoughts of the absent Abreu.
I can’t help remembering the highly decorated musician who compared Abreu to Ronald Wilford, the shadowy maestro of maestros who pulls the strings of the classical music world in Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth.
“Any country that develops a system like ours can have the same success. That is the dream of El Maestro, that everyone should adopt and develop it.”
But what is Matheuz’s dream? It is hard to tell; this interview gives little sense of his own vision, of any original thoughts he might have; once the Sistema clichés and the bowing to the wisdom of Abreu and Dudamel are removed, there is little left. El Sistema is Abreu’s dream, and his alone.
Matheuz is an emblem of an educational system that is distinguished, as he says, by “work and discipline,” and values toeing the line over creativity or independence. No wonder a senior Venezuelan musician wrote publicly in a newspaper article that El Sistema was “a gigantic flattery machine designed to satisfy the interests of its founder José Antonio Abreu.” (Note to doubters – evidence in book.)
Finally, at the root of Abreu-Matheuz’s idea of the orchestra as a perfect society is the suggestion that the musical listening that takes place in a large ensemble translates into the social realm; that musicians who develop advanced ensemble skills will become more respectful and open-minded social beings; that coordinating your entry with the second trumpet makes you more likely to tolerate his views. This idea is absolutely fundamental to El Sistema’s philosophy, and it’s a lovely one, but is it anything more than romanticization or idealization?
People love to make high-sounding claims for their favourite activities, and it’s unsurprising that conductors like Abreu and Matheuz would try to justify their vocation by claiming various kinds of benefits for those under their baton (they’d hardly get away with saying “the orchestra is a model for an ideal society because I get to tell everyone what to do”). But I’d like to see some evidence for this. If such claims were true, then we might expect orchestral musicians to be above average in terms of professional and personal satisfaction, and orchestras to be bastions of enlightened social behaviour. And that’s not exactly what scholarly studies or anecdotal accounts show, to put it mildly (evidence in book). Perhaps, then, an orchestra is a metaphor rather than a catalyst for harmonious social interaction. If so, one of El Sistema’s cornerstones looks distinctly crumbly.