El Sistema in the (social) media

[08/06/2015] I try to keep an eye on writing about El Sistema in the mainstream media, both in Venezuela and in the English-speaking world. The experience usually veers between the surreal and the frustrating, while rarely getting anywhere near enlightening. There is an awful lot of fantasy and misunderstanding out there.

There are exceptions: in the UK, journalists like Tom Service (BBC, The Guardian), Richard Morrison (The Times), and Damian Thompson (The Spectator) have grasped issues that others have missed or ignored. I have been interviewed by journalists in Holland, Sweden, and Switzerland who were willing to open their eyes. I have high hopes for Germany, where a long critical article on music and politics by Axel Brüggemann (in which Dudamel featured prominently) appeared recently in a major magazine, Cicero, and I’ve been approached to write articles (e.g. here). Even in Venezuela, where critical discussion of El Sistema is so constrained, journalists at the newspaper La Razón and the current affairs website El Cooperante have bitten the bullet in recent weeks.

Elsewhere, the picture is more mixed, particularly in the US – perhaps because this is where the Sistema industry is strongest. In a recent LA Times article, Mark Swed finally acknowledges that there are tensions around El Sistema, Venezuelan politics, and the role of his local hero, Gustavo Dudamel. He brings the dissenting views of pianist Gabriela Montero into the picture, though his personal sympathy for both musicians leads him to conclude with an unconvincing attempt to reconcile their contradictory positions. Still, this article is an improvement on Swed’s earlier efforts, and it does a valuable job in bringing to the surface issues that casual observers might be unaware of. But it’s indicative that he has only just caught up with a topic that has been generating commentary for years on social media – and a huge amount since February 2014. If you want the cutting edge, you need to look elsewhere.

Also, his article still has a fundamental flaw running through it, which is that it’s based on a fantasy version of El Sistema. Having become a card-carrying supporter after receiving the full red-carpet show in Caracas in 2012, he’s simply not willing to consider the evidence that there’s more to El Sistema than meets the eye during a meticulously planned showcase for foreign visitors. As long as that’s the case, whatever he writes on the topic is going to obscure as much as it reveals. Hopefully, though, his most recent article on Dudamel and Montero is the first step towards a more thoughtful position.

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A little while ago, a report in the Venezuelan press announced that El Sistema had reached an enrolment of 700,000 students, well on its way towards its stated goal of a million. Looking at the official figures over the previous months, one can see an increase of approximately one thousand students per day. Readers of this blog and/or my book will know that I have always been rather sceptical about such official figures, and this alleged rapid increase – in the middle of the academic year, and in the middle of an acute economic crisis in which there is a drastic shortage of basic consumer goods – is no exception. When I asked around Venezuelan musicians, I found similar scepticism. Here are the comments of one long-time Sistema teacher whom I emailed:

About the link you sent, yes, I had seen it before. And I laughed very hard at it. I mean, I’m sorry, but it’s amazing how they think we’re stupid and believe such an incredible amount of stories. There’s no way they can add 1000 students a day. They’re not doing it, that’s just another populist campaign for idiots who still believe what they say, and for people abroad, who think El Sistema is the ultimate wonder and blessing sent from heaven. There is no infrastructure for that amount of people, let alone instruments. There aren’t new instruments for the currently enrolled students.

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Here’s another piece that caught my attention a while back – this time, a press release from the University of California at Berkeley:

Berkeley RADICAL, a new initiative to promote artistic literacy among the millennial generation, is driving Cal Performances’ 2015-16 season, which starts with a weeklong residency by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

This year’s program focuses on three themes: “The Natural World,” which connects music and dance to global ecological concerns; “ReVisions,” which will add powerful visual components to traditional 20th-century concert experiences; and “ZellerBACH,” which will offer multiple perspectives on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

It will “change the DNA of Cal Performances,” said Executive and Artistic Director Matías Tarnopolsky at Monday’s announcement of the new season. “It’s about creating the new while also appreciating the old.”

An example of this DNA in action is Dudamel conducting the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra during a weeklong “inquiry into Beethoven and the equation of music, youth and community.”

I was a little bit puzzled about how the SBSO fits with the three themes.

(1) Ecological concerns: the SBSO (like the other Sistema show orchestras) has a huge carbon footprint, since it flies around the world with an outsize ensemble plus a huge cast of hangers-on.

(2) Visual components: the jackets and the dancing certainly caused a stir back in 2007, but as the youth orchestra has transformed into the adult SBSO, it has moved away from such flamboyant practices and now usually offers a conventional concert experience.

(3) The music of Bach: not exactly a specialism of the SBSO, which focuses on the symphonic canon.

As for RADICAL… the SBSO could not choose a less radical programme if it tried: not because Beethoven symphonies are not radical, but because they are the most staple of staple diets for this orchestra, which can play this repertoire in its sleep (and indeed sometimes does). It is quite simply the safest offering the SBSO could provide, bar none.

Conservatism with a radical veneer: the perfect combination for the classical music industry.

***

It’s tempting to think that print media would be more reliable than social media, yet the most informative and insightful analyses I’ve read on El Sistema have been on the latter. The mainstream Venezuelan media has, with occasional exceptions, been mindlessly adulatory, for reasons that I explain in my book. Overseas, discussion is dominated by classical music critics – generalists who don’t have detailed knowledge of Venezuela or its music education. Some have good instincts and get it right; a lot don’t and don’t. (Investigative journalism is a different matter; where journalists have actually gone out and done the legwork themselves – like Roger Santodomingo or Rafael Rivero, quoted in Chapter 1 of my book – the results have been fascinating, but no UK or US journalist has done this.)

On social media, however, you can find lots of people who are perhaps less accomplished writers but who really know what’s going on. In his hatchet job on my book, Swed was dismissive about bloggers, yet the ones I quote know far more about El Sistema than he will ever do. Much more illuminating than the latest flattery-by-numbers in the LA Times or El Universal are articles on sites like Aporrea, Noticiero Digital, and La Otra Cara del Sistema. I wonder whether people who have criticized me for using such sources have actually read – or are even capable of reading – these sources themselves.

I could give dozens of examples, and have done so throughout this blog and my book, but here’s a recent one: a report on a small academic event discussing coloniality and musical knowledge. It’s a modest piece but it raises a big question that the mainstream media avoids: what are the implications of El Sistema’s historical focus on European classical music? And almost every day I read something on Facebook – even if it’s just a short comment – that shows more insight than the majority of press articles.

Of course you have to be careful with social media, but you have to be careful with everything you read and hear. Most people forget that you also have to be careful with the official statements emanating from the press office of a large organization, and with the stories that (non-investigative) journalists build on the back of them. Most journalists just don’t get El Sistema – or if they do, they won’t say so. They may speak with an air of authority – that’s what they’re paid to do – but since they don’t have specialist knowledge of this topic, their opinions are hit and miss and should be treated with caution.

If there’s a lot of rubbish on the internet, it’s actually not that hard to spot. Take this recent article that appeared on a Venezuelan blog. There is no indication that it’s informed by either original research or personal experience. Rather, from its loud trumpeting of the official narrative, and from the list of sources at the end, it seems to be based on a skim of a few newspaper articles and websites. Most notably, it’s also underpinned by conspiracy theories. According to the author, not only do I have a “hidden agenda,” but it’s apparently one backed by the “political interests of international groups,” so the author addresses himself to Baker “and those who are behind him.” The author thinks that I’m part of a movement against peace and other ethical values. It’s not hard to work out that this article should go straight in the nearest bin. The only thing worth attention is the fact that it was praised by a couple of loud voices in the global Sistema industry, for whom no negative opinion of my work is too bizarre or ill considered to be embraced.

If you know El Sistema well, you can quickly spot the people who are talking sense and those who are not. If you then apply further filters – is there corroborating evidence, from interviews or published sources? What do reliable informants (e.g. current or former members of El Sistema) think about it? Who is the writer, where do their opinions and information come from, and what are their motivations? – you can end up with some very valuable material. Indeed, if you’re NOT doing this, and only getting your information from the mainstream media, then you’re missing a lot of the picture. Without a shadow of doubt, the best material on El Sistema on social media is far more informative than the best material in the mainstream media. But if you’re reading these words, then you’re probably already aware of the importance of dipping into this richer world.

I’m going to finish with a plea – for someone to tilt the scales back a little. A skilful, experienced investigative journalist could go and research this subject for themselves in Venezuela, and could knock the socks off all the writing currently out there – both the journalism and the blogging. Will someone please do this?

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