Report on “El Sistema and the Alternatives” conference

[01/05/2015] The recent conference “El Sistema and the Alternatives: Social Action through Music” brought together two-dozen speakers with relevant expertise and experience and a similarly qualified audience to engage in the first extended, public, critical debate about El Sistema and its spinoff projects around the world. Rather than writing a comprehensive review of the conference, I want simply to outline some of the themes and currents that ran through the papers and comments, and draw attention to some of the key concerns that were raised. This will hopefully contribute to setting an agenda for such debates in future. I will also add some remarks on a moment of drama at the end of the first day.

This post is only a shadow of the actual conference, since some of the most interesting discussions took place in private outside the formal sessions (as usually happens at such events), and for that reason, I can only write part of what I learnt and grasp a fraction of what went on. However, we plan to publish some of the papers in article form later this year. Watch this blog for further announcements.

Key issues included:

A contradiction between El Sistema’s claim to be a social project and its clear focus on music in practice

El Sistema began as a purely musical project, and – as several participants suggested – in its essence it continues to be predominantly focused on music. Evidence for putting the social above the musical is unconvincing.

A failure to conceptualize social justice fully

El Sistema’s extreme pragmatism and dependence on Abreu’s aphorisms means that the complexities around the issue of social justice are rarely recognized or explored. There is sometimes a sense of paying lip service to the idea of “social action through music” or using it as a marketing or funding strategy.

A contradiction between the ideas of social justice and cultural transmission

There are question marks over the extent to which a program designed primarily to deliver a curriculum based around classical music is compatible with contemporary ideas about social justice.

A tendency to ignore or downplay complex issues of race, gender, and class in the transmission of classical music

More careful ethnographic work and theoretical analysis are needed in order to understand the complicated and at times problematic processes at play beneath even the best-intentioned attempts to improve children’s lives through classical music.

Music education’s long history as a form of controlling particular social groups

The example of Canto Orfeônico – the musical disciplining of the masses under Brazil’s Estado Novo – was presented, but this history dates back at least 500 years. The centrality of discipline in El Sistema’s self-description invites further scrutiny of its relation to this aspect of music education.

A repetition of colonial processes and dynamics

El Sistema has distinct echoes of the “musical conquest” of Latin America in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Sistema offshoots in developing countries show connections with neocolonial processes (such as the search by multinationals for cheap, disciplined, semi-skilled labour).

Significant problems around the idea of the symphony orchestra as a vehicle for social change and model for society

Critiques by three current or former professional orchestral musicians, who are also working on or hold PhDs on music, drove home the point that El Sistema is based on an idealization of the orchestra; the dynamics of real orchestras are much more complicated and regularly produce various kinds of exclusion and coercion.

The existence of other, more effective models of social action through music

The UK’s National Foundation for Youth Music is just one existing alternative that is committed to cultural democracy and closely aligned with contemporary research on music education. It leaves El Sistema looking like an under-theorized relic of an earlier time.

A lack of evidence for claims of miraculous success in Venezuela, and mixed reports about Sistema-inspired programs

An expert in Latin American development economics at the conference confirmed the flimsiness of the IDB report used to justify the bank’s $150-million loan to El Sistema. This report, and the fact that so many advocates cited it for many years without actually reading or checking it, highlights the shaky foundations on which so much Sistema discourse is built. There has been much more evaluation of Sistema-inspired projects, but there is a need for further debate around methodologies and inquiry into the perceptions of students and teachers, which may not be captured effectively by simple surveys.

A deliberate slippage between the ideal and the material

As the keynote speaker deftly explored, a central pillar of El Sistema is the idea of a direct correspondence between ideal and material realms (e.g. harmony reduces poverty), yet explanation or evidence for this correspondence is conspicuously lacking. It is, then, a belief system.

A decidedly religious tone

Ideas of salvation and resurrection assume a prominent place in Sistema discourse, and while the reasons are clear (the program is built around its founder’s conservative Catholic ideology), the consequences need to be more fully considered, particularly as the program expands into different cultural and religious contexts.

The manipulative or propagandistic aspects of films about El Sistema

Documentaries and short films have been central to the global spread of El Sistema, yet they are frequently designed to persuade rather than simply report. They are far from a neutral window on reality, something that even academics – who are trained to be alert to such questions – seem to forget at times. Critical analysis of Sistema films has begun, but much work remains to be done.

Music education researchers and progressive Sistema figures are starting to recognize the problems

The Sistema and music education research fields have kept each other at arm’s length for some years, for differing reasons. Attempts are starting to be made to close this gap by established scholars but also by more progressive voices within the Sistema sphere. Although a few leading Sistema advocates are fighting a rear-guard action against research as it threatens their dominant position, others are grasping the nettle. This can only be a good thing. Many of the issues that arise in relation to El Sistema have been debated for years or even decades within music education research, and the lessons are there to be learnt by those willing to read, listen, and think. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and no excuse for pretending that it doesn’t exist.

The keynote and the response

Robert Fink, professor of musicology and former department chair at UCLA, presented the keynote talk, “Resurrection symphony: El Sistema as ideology in Venezuela (and Los Angeles),” which was intellectually rich, beautifully constructed, and funny to boot. This was no dry, dour discourse, but a masterful and engaging performance. Since we hope to publish this talk later this year, I will not go into its argument, beyond saying that it focused on the talent for “sleight of hand” that makes Abreu a master of publicity and propaganda. Like any good magician, Abreu needs an audience, and in Professor Fink’s talk, that audience was us – classical musicians, journalists, advocates, and the listening public in the global North.

The talk will live long in the memory on its own merits, but the impression is even more indelible because of what came next. When the speaker finished, the first hand to go up in the audience was that of the Argentinean ambassador to the UK. With a glowering expression, she announced that she had previously served a long stint as ambassador to Venezuela; she was personally close to Abreu and Dudamel; she had seen first-hand the transformation of the lives of thousands of poor Venezuelan children; the speaker had been laughing at these children; and therefore the talk was an insult to Venezuela. Like any good politician, she seized the opportunity to make her point at great length and would not be interrupted. The tension in the room was palpable.

It was a moment of pure theatre. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly the problems we face in stimulating critical dialogue on the topic of El Sistema. Even a speaker as eminent and skilled as Robert Fink was unable to make even the slightest dent in the preconceptions of a few audience members. The ambassador’s response, after an hour of clear and careful exposition, was representative of an unwillingness to listen to or attempt to understand critique that is all too common in discussions on this topic. It also illustrated how El Sistema, despite its constant invoking of the poor, actually rests on a dialogue among the powerful. It exemplified how outsiders so often project their beliefs onto the project’s participants, assuming that they know what thousands or tens of thousands of young musicians are thinking, and ignore evidence that comes from actually interviewing, listening to, and getting to know some of those people.

Robert Fink’s response was respectful but firm. As he pointed out, the critique and the humour were directed at the powerful (Abreu, Dudamel, Deborah Borda), not the weak (poor Venezuelan children), and primarily at the reception and reproduction of El Sistema in the global North rather than at Venezuela. One of the convenors, Owen Logan, was firmer still. He observed that the ambassador had missed the rest of the day’s papers and consequently the point of the conference, and was now dismissing the painstaking work of a host of professional researchers on the basis of limited experience and personal ties.

It is impossible to convey more than a fraction of the meanings and drama of this exchange, but the ambassador’s response did a big favour for those of us attempting to open up critical discussion. She displayed the obstacles to debate that have long been abundantly clear to those of us who work in the Sistema field but were perhaps less evident to audience members coming from elsewhere. She demonstrated quite clearly that it is critical thinkers who occupy the rational centre ground, and true believers (whose faith cannot be shaken by any amount of evidence or argument) who are the extremists. And through her very annoyance, she underlined the importance of humour as a tool for critiquing the powerful.

If the moment itself felt like a small victory for critical thinking, the larger picture is rather less rosy. Perhaps Abreu’s biggest stroke of genius was creating a story that people find easy to believe and want to believe. Once that story was spread and embellished around the world by the media, the battle was won. When people want to believe, the truth matters little; research and analysis are of little consequence. Believing is easier than critical thinking, giving it a huge advantage. And when the powerful back the powerful, even greater imbalance ensues. The academic world on its own doesn’t have enough clout. El Sistema’s secret weapon is the media, and unless more journalists twig that they’ve been hypnotized by a magician, significant change is unlikely.