Introduction to “El Sistema and the Alternatives” conference

[29/04/2015] This is an edited version of my opening remarks at the start of the conference “El Sistema and the Alternatives: Social Action through Music in Critical Perspective,” held on Friday 24 & Saturday 25 April 2015 at Senate House, University of London.

This is a historic and symbolic occasion – the first conference devoted to critical thinking about El Sistema. It’s very revealing that it has taken 40 years for such an event to take place; that it’s happening outside Venezuela; and that no representative of the program is here to present. El Sistema doesn’t embrace critical debate. Its ethos is one of extreme pragmatism: its motto is “to play and to fight.” Its practice is based on its founder’s beautifully constructed aphorisms, rather than consultation and dialogue. Yet education and social justice cannot be pursued seriously and effectively without critical thinking and discussion, so if El Sistema will not engage with the scholarly world, we have to engage with it.

It’s also high time that the scholarly community responded to the mythical story disseminated by the media. Public discourse on El Sistema is dominated by journalists with limited knowledge, and in some cases a vested interest in obscuring the truth. The creators of the myth cannot be relied upon to demystify it, so this task falls to us. We need to become “Sistemologists,” seeking out the truth behind the PR façade. Yet this is not to extol academic writing over journalistic. Simplistic outpourings in the media have been used to support equally ill-informed academic publications. The Sistema sphere as a whole is intellectually impoverished: propaganda is taken as evidence; problems are brushed aside rather than investigated; arguments are ignored rather than countered. There are exceptions, in both journalistic and academic spheres, but not many.

For example, there is a tendency to regard music as a miraculous resource. According to Sistema mythology, once music touches your life, you are no longer poor. A more rigorous approach would be to regard it as an ambivalent resource. This is an idea that Anna Bull embraces in her recent PhD on youth orchestras and choirs, but it has deep historical roots, as Belfiore and Bennett explore in their book The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History. For most of the history of Western civilization, music and the arts more generally have been viewed ambivalently; there are both positive and negative traditions, going back nearly 2500 years. The negative tradition sees the arts as a source of corruption and distraction, and as having potentially damaging effects on individuals and society. But ambivalence has been almost entirely displaced by the positive tradition since the 1980s as the need to argue for arts subsidy in terms of social and economic benefits has increased dramatically. Invoking the negative tradition today is near heresy. Nevertheless, its 2500-year history reminds us that music is not an unconditional good, and educational and/or development projects centred on music are not necessarily or wholly beneficial. Indeed, music education has been used as a form of social control for at least the last 500 years. Advocates often claim that the extra-musical benefits of music programs are “obvious,” but if this word weren’t warning enough, such a claim has little basis from a historical perspective.

This conference is an invitation to think more deeply about the kinds of social action – both positive and negative – associated with music. It is also an invitation to think about priorities, and about rhetoric. El Sistema was created as an attempt to strengthen the classical music profession in Venezuela. Today, it is said to be primarily a social project. At what point did this change occur, and on what level? What are the implications of putting the social first? As John Sloboda argues in a forthcoming essay, if social justice is our primary goal, then we have to be willing to consider abandoning music altogether. If the primary goal is to counter poverty and violence, the use of music is only justified by evidence that it is more effective than direct anti-poverty and anti-crime initiatives, and better than other educational and cultural interventions. If we’re not willing to countenance abandoning music, then our goals are primarily musical. And if we’re not willing to countenance abandoning classical music, then our goal is primarily the perpetuation of a particular musical style. There is nothing wrong with putting music first – but we should be honest about it, and about the rhetorical strategies that now mask it.

Honesty and openness is a key issue for the Sistema sphere. In nearly 20 years in the academic world, including an extensive period studying politically sensitive music in Cuba, I’ve never come across such secrecy, evasiveness, distortion, and calculation. No one is telling the whole story, and the silences tell us as much about El Sistema as the utterances. Indeed, some leading voices in the global field are more interested in silencing than debating. After seven years studying El Sistema, I’m still amazed that something as apparently innocuous as a music education program can constrain the free flow of ideas to this extent. Perhaps it’s not so innocuous after all. This fear and secrecy is both an example of the gulf between the image and the reality of El Sistema, and a cause of that gulf. This conference aims to close this gap a little and to loosen the self-censorship by creating a public platform outside the sphere of influence of El Sistema and its most fanatical advocates.

The good news, however, is that there is actually plenty of critical thinking going on, if mainly in private. Lots of Venezuelan musicians and cultural observers have interesting critical takes on El Sistema, it’s just that few people have asked them and fewer still have made those views public. At the recent Research in Music Education conference, music education scholars embraced the debate. In the public discussion, a Brazilian scholar passionately denounced El Sistema as a continuation of centuries of colonisation, and a North American scholar told the audience about “Sistema refugees” in the US who are too afraid to speak out about their experiences. (In fact, as I’ve discovered, there are Sistema refugees around the world.) Our conference isn’t really about creating critical debate, then, as much as unblocking it.

The three convenors – Owen Logan, Gustavo Borchert, and myself – come from different countries, and different life and academic experiences, yet we came together because we had independently developed profound concerns about El Sistema. Alongside our Brazilian convenor, Gustavo, we will be joined by five other Latin American scholars. Contrary to some claims, critique of El Sistema is neither a projection of European concerns onto Latin America, nor the global North speaking at the South. Indeed, one of our presenters, Emilio Mendoza, has been inspired to organise his own mirror event at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas on May 6.

This conference is not just about El Sistema, but also about the alternatives. Key ideas behind El Sistema emerged in Chile a decade before the creation of the Venezuelan program, and were transported across by Chilean musicians. Abreu’s first orchestra was actually founded by conservatoire director Ángel Sauce, and it appeared five years after the creation of the Orquesta Experimental at the José Angel Lamas Conservatoire, where Abreu had studied. Meanwhile, the slogan “social action through music” appears to have been borrowed from a Brazilian foundation in the mid-1990s. In other words, thinking about youth orchestras and social action through music does not lead us automatically to El Sistema.

If our conference examines existing alternatives, it’s also underpinned by an implicit search for better alternatives in the future. Critical does not therefore equate to negative or depressing. What’s depressing is watching individuals who claim to be interested in music and social justice ignoring arguments about social injustice, shrugging their shoulders at evidence of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, and showering praise on the powerful, the conservative, and the corrupt.

Ambivalence is a constructive mindset. We cannot maximize the positive effects of music without examining its negative side. The risk comes from an excessively rosy view of music’s power. For example, to claim (as Abreu does) that “when you train musicians you train better citizens” is actually to curb the potential of music education for citizenship formation, since it absolves educators of any responsibility beyond technical instruction. Also, critical thinking is liberating. A former principal chair of the Simón Bolívar orchestra, now an internationally successful musician, insisted on phoning me at some length, not just because he agreed heartily with my analysis of El Sistema but also because it left him feeling “inspired.” He went into his conservatoire the following week and told his students, “we’re doing things differently now.” Some European and North American advocates may have missed the point, but this illustrious Venezuelan musician and Sistema graduate understood that underneath my book lay a search for better and more socially just music education. The same is true of this conference.