Response to Hewett review

The first review of my book has just come out in the Telegraph, written by Ivan Hewett. It could have been worse. I’ve been expecting a bumpy ride from music journalists in the UK and US, since I criticize them for having fallen for the Sistema propaganda hook, line and sinker. And I didn’t think that the conservative press would have much sympathy for my overarching critique of El Sistema as a conservative program in progressive clothing.

Hewett is decent enough to summarize my arguments over four paragraphs, so I’m certainly allowed to speak. He also puts his and my cards on the table: “Baker rightly points the finger at journalists (including myself) who were too easily seduced by the official narrative.” So there’s no hidden agenda here, and including that word “rightly” is noble. His criticisms, though, deserve a response.

He quotes my line: “classical music has emancipatory potential and an important part to play in music education, if taught in ethically and educatively sound ways,” and then asks: “‘ethically and educatively sound’ by whose criteria? Baker objects to the drilling and discipline of El Sistema, but the uncomfortable truth is that classical music, particularly orchestral music, has always relied on these things.”

As I explain throughout the book, ethically and educatively sound by the criteria of critical music education researchers around the world.

Of course I’m aware that classical music, particularly orchestral music, has often relied on these things. I’ve just published an article linking El Sistema to music education programs dating back to the 16th century. But the point is: El Sistema is supposed to be different. Hewett has forgotten the slogan that El Sistema and its advocates repeat ad nauseum: it’s not a classical music project, it’s a social project. And it’s not just any old social project, but – to use the Guardian’s catchphrase – a “revolutionary social project.” If that’s the case, then saying “well, classical music has always been this way” is no defence at all – it just underlines my point that El SIstema is very old wine in new bottles.

There’s been a lot of similar BTL commentary over the last couple of weeks along the same lines – words to the effect of “Baker doesn’t seem to realize that discipline and authoritarianism is/has always been the best way to train orchestral/classical musicians.” Of course I realize this. But if El Sistema claims to be a social project, all such appeals to musical tradition are out, unless it is claimed that discipline and authoritarianism are also the best way to produce social subjects.

“Like many music academics, Baker is embarrassed by the historical realities of classical music. He’d seemingly like to clean it up and make it fit for polite company, by stressing the aspects of freedom and creativity. But much of the world takes a different view. The reason classical music is booming in China is surely that it offers a top-down model of social cohesion. This may be unpalatable to Western liberal academics, but unfortunately it reflects something very real in classical music itself.”

I don’t quite get Hewett’s argument here: is it that we have to forget about freedom and creativity just because that’s what the Chinese (allegedly) do? Also, I don’t see why the fact that something is very real in classical music – particularly if it’s “unfortunate,” as Hewett admits – means that it shouldn’t be criticized. Gender inequalities and sexual abuse are also very real in classical music. Is criticizing these also a sign of being a fussy Western liberal? Should we just accept them?

Anyway, this is not a “Western liberal” thing. I attended a huge music education conference in Brazil in the summer, and researchers from around the world contributed to this kind of discussion. There is actually more critical debate in Brazilian academic circles about Sistema-style initiatives than there is in the UK.

“Another thing which bothers Baker is that classical music is an alien import. ‘Venezuela’s devotion of huge resources to a musical culture implanted by colonialism cannot continue to be brushed under the carpet,’ he says in another finger-wagging moment. Again one has to ask – says who? Is this a genuine worry of Venezuelans, or is it Dr Baker bringing his own post-colonial guilt into the picture?”

Again, Hewett seems to have difficulty in imagining anyone other than a Western liberal academic having critical perspectives. Is it so hard to conceive of post-colonial critique coming from post-colonial subjects? There are plenty of examples in my book, particularly in Chapter 12.

“My impression of visiting a nucleo is that the kids enjoyed playing Bizet every bit as much as playing arrangements of Venezuelan pop songs. But Baker is suspicious of such enjoyment, comparing it to the pleasure of eating junk food.”

This is a conflation and distortion of two separate points, one that changes their meaning. What I actually wrote was:

“the fact that children are enjoying themselves does not necessarily mean that they are receiving a good education, any more than enjoying fast food means that it is nutritious. The Third Wave, an educational experiment in a California school, demonstrated that children enjoyed studying in a fascist environment, yet few adults would regard this as a validation of such methods.”

So nothing about playing Bizet being like eating junk food.

Hewett continues: “The most revealing moment in Baker’s book comes early on, in this sentence: ‘El Sistema has produced some impressive achievements, but the question remains: could it have achieved more had it adopted a more inclusive, forward-looking organisational philosophy, and had it not been defined so closely by Abreu’s personality and preferences?’ What Baker seems to be saying is: if only El Sistema had been born in a nice social democracy like Denmark. But it wasn’t. It was born in Venezuela.”

This is OK as far as it goes, but it’s not 1975 any more, and El Sistema is being imitated in dozens of countries – including nice social democracies in Europe – and has publicly stated that it aims to expand to every country in the world. At which point, saying “yes, well, of course El Sistema is authoritarian and conservative, it’s old and Venezuelan” becomes a rather less defensible answer. It’s being held up as a global music education paradigm, which means it must be compared to the latest ideas on music education coming out of nice social democracies – and that comparison does it few favours.

Hewett finishes: “If the organisation is to move in a more liberal, enlightened direction, it can only be because Venezuelans (all of them, not just the disgruntled ex-members of El Sistema) actually want it to change in that way. Trying to wish it on the organisation from outside is simply colonialism in a different guise.”

Except, as I make clear, and as Hewett even acknowledges further up the page, my project is driven by a year of interviews and conversations with Venezuelans, the majority of them members of El Sistema. This is not wishing something on the organization from the outside; it’s voicing the criticisms and desires of Venezuelans – many of them on the inside of the program – who can’t speak publicly for themselves.

Other than that, I liked it.

2 thoughts on “Response to Hewett review

  1. This is a really excellent response to some misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

    It’s very easy for some to fall into the ‘liberal and democratic values are little more than a Western conceit, and to argue for them outside of the Western world is imperialist’ trap; actually, it is that attitude which is most patronising and imperialist. Respecting other people, cultures and social systems is not the same thing as respecting the actions of governments and institutions that claim to act in those people’s name, often without any real democratic mandate. Nationalists like to equate people with undemocratic governments (and fetishise some aspects of various nations’ history which were really all about the interests of the ruling classes in those nations). Aijaz Ahmad is very good on this in the face of the most silly of cultural relativists.

    What you show is that Abreu and the El Sistema publicity machine by no means necessarily speak for many of the participants in the El Sistema project. And show that through listening to what the latter have to say.

  2. Great stuff – looking forward to getting my hands on the book. I’m researching far less formal music education against violence in Colombia, using “traditional” local music, and will be interested to compare.

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