Professionalization or rescuing the poor? The origins of El Sistema (in Abreu’s own words)

[01/03/2017] Venezuela Sinfónica has just published a long interview with José Antonio Abreu dating from 1978, three years after the creation of the National Youth Orchestra that served as El Sistema’s foundation. This is a fascinating document, because while we have heard much from the mouth of Abreu over the last decade, contemporary accounts of El Sistema’s first years are much harder to come by.

In recent years, Abreu has recounted the origin story of El Sistema to many interviewers from the global North. For example, in 2012 the British journalist Clemency Burton-Hill reported that Abreu’s “visionary philosophy has, since 1975, been based on the notion that a free, immersive classical music education for the poorest of the poor might positively influence the social problems plaguing the country.” Abreu told her that he began with a conviction of the possibility of social transformation: “I told those first 11 members of the orchestra that we were creating the beginning of a network that would eventually turn Venezuela into a musical power by rescuing children from low-income families.”

Such a vision has been purveyed widely by those seeking to sell the El Sistema story overseas. “From the very beginning, the Sistema has been dedicated to realizing the simple but radical idea of its founder—that music can save lives, can rescue children, and can in fact be a potent vehicle for social reform and the fight against the perils of childhood poverty,” writes Tricia Tunstall (2012, x). Deutsche Grammophon’s publicity about the project’s origins claims: “It is all the vision of one man. José Antonio Abreu, qualified economist, organist and politician, resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country 30 years ago.”

Yet in this lengthy interview about the orchestra in 1978, Abreu made no mention of rescuing children from low-income families; he stated that the program’s aim was “to put down a foundation for a total transformation of the art of music in the country, opening up a path for a whole generation of young Venezuelan musicians via the orchestra; to provide them with instruments and teachers, to teach and train them,” and to lead them to become professional musicians. Almost immediately, he restated that the program’s aim is “to provide for the generation of young musicians in the country.”

Abreu’s key focus was on professionalization and expanding classical music training to the provinces. Words such as “poor,” “poverty,” “save”, “rescue,” and “social” – now central to Abreu’s vocabulary – are notable by their absence. Nor was there any mention of rescuing the poor or social change in El Sistema’s first constitution, produced in 1979. It appears as though Abreu has projected backwards in time an aspect of the project that appeared much later, aided by journalist-devotees who presented his self-mythologisation as fact.

There follows a passage in which Abreu described the innate musical talent of Venezuelan children, their ear for melodies and above all complex, irregular rhythms. As a result, young Venezuelans were often keen to learn to play an instrument. “Of course, if the instrument they have to hand is a cuatro, a harp, or some maracas, that’s what they’ll play; but if you give them a possibility of a violin, a viola, a ‘cello, a flute, a trumpet, a horn, a young Venezuelan will also study and show talent for that.” He continued by talking passionately about the oboe. Abreu’s hierarchy of musical value was implicit but apparent in his words, as was his project to divert young musicians away from complex traditional rhythms and the instruments that play them, and to put them to work on Mozart and Beethoven.

There are now 80 oboe students, says Abreu proudly. “What are we going to do in Venezuela with 80 oboists?” asks one of the interviewers. We’re going to create orchestras for them, responds Abreu. He admired how even small cities in Europe had orchestras; that was his goal for Venezuela.

This passage is revealing: not only was the primacy of musical goals apparent again – something that would later be denied as part of the program’s official rhetoric, which claimed that it was really a social project – but also it is clear that El Sistema is supply-driven. He did not train 80 oboists because Venezuela needed 80 oboists; he trained 80 oboists because he wanted oboists (and orchestras) everywhere. The consequences of this approach can be seen today, when classical musicians are leaving Venezuela in droves, since supply vastly outstrips the number of decently remunerated jobs.

Again, professionalization was central to Abreu’s vision. He imagined the moment 5 or 10 years down the line when the regional youth orchestras would turn professional (as indeed happened). The stated aim was to train musicians and create orchestras, nothing more. There was nothing about forming citizens or any other such social goal.

Abreu looked forward to the following February 12, when he planned to bring together some 4000 students to perform as a vast orchestra. “That will be a way of showing clearly to the whole country the magnitude of our enterprise.” Abreu’s fondness for the spectacular was already in evidence.

The interview ends on a note that appears amusing in hindsight. One interviewer asked Abreu about criticism or resentment of his project. Abreu replied by quoting Arturo Úslar Pietri: “if I had started to respond to the attacks that have been made on me, I wouldn’t have written even half a page in my life.” He went on that “mud” directed at idealistic projects simply “confirms the greatness of the institution.” Criticism had been “minimal and insignificant.”

Abreu’s words resonate because he became known for his zero-tolerance attitude to criticism – described in detail, for example, by his former close associate Gustavo Medina. Judging by words like “mud” and “insignificant,” Abreu does not seem to have embraced the idea of criticism as potentially constructive and worth considering in order to improve. And they are amusing because responding to attacks was one of his hallmarks. To quote the relevant section of my book, which draws on Rafael Rivero’s 1994 article about Abreu:

A third cause célèbre erupted in late 1979, when the exiled Argentinean theater director and music critic Gustavo Tambascio dared to criticize Abreu’s youth orchestra in his column in El Nacional, describing a recent concert as “orchestral chaos,” and comparing the event to the raucous finale of a children’s party. Abreu responded in print the next day, unleashing a merciless attack on the critic, but he did not stop there: “He [Tambascio] should know that in Venezuela there are many legal means to hit back hard in every sphere against those who try to insult or denigrate the country.” The threats continued: “we will make any gatecrasher respect us . . . his article will not go un- punished.” Abreu’s heavy-handed, almost xenophobic response took the exchange beyond the usual skirmishes of the cultural sphere. Like the pyramid scheme, this incident, seen as emblematic of Abreu’s vengeful character and intolerance of criticism, is still clearly remembered over three decades later.

Abreu’s media fixation soon comes to the fore. The former head of publicity at CONAC describes Abreu as “obsessed as far as the media are concerned . . . more than capable of calling me at 3 am about a small detail of an information leaflet.” Rivero describes Abreu’s abhorrence of a publicity vacuum—some- what typical in politicians—and also points to its darker side: he claims that El Nacional critic Enrique Moya’s negative report of an Abreu-sponsored event saw the author given his marching orders, and alludes to a practice of cultural institutions defanging journalistic reports. An attempt at revolution by a group of journalists, fed up with constant interference, fizzled out after a number of signatories to a mordant open letter mysteriously withdrew their support; coincidentally, almost all of them were subsequently given jobs as cultural advisors to CONAC.

According to Rivero, Abreu’s micro-control of the media extended into the provinces, where journalists who published critical opinions in local newspapers were instantly reprimanded or their employers urged to take punitive action. Those who dared question his management of CONAC put their careers at risk. The governor of a distant state received a phone call urging him to fire an advisor who had criticized Abreu. The governor not only refused, but gave Abreu a public lesson in democracy, stating: “Dr. Abreu, you must learn that criticism is necessary.”

Reading this interview nearly four decades on is highly illuminating, as it reveals the gaps between what Abreu has told interviewers in recent years and what he told them in 1978, and between what Abreu claimed then and what he subsequently went on to do. It also allows a glimpse of aspects of Abreu and his project that were to flourish over the following decades. For those interested in the real history of El Sistema – not the fake history purveyed by the likes of Tunstall – this is a valuable document. I cannot help but wonder if there was a slightly mischievous intent behind its republication, given that it adds nothing to the official narrative of El Sistema, but does take several things away.