Review or advocacy? Kathryn Jourdan on “El Sistema”

[28/06/2015] After a run of positive reviews and endorsements of my book from the academic realm, finally a bad scholarly review has arrived – coincidentally, from a board member of Sistema Scotland. Whether the text is actually a review at all is a moot point, since the author’s aim is not to judge the book on its own merits but rather to assess it “in terms of how it might help us reflect on our practices in the Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise programmes and shape these for the future.” Since that’s not the book’s primary aim, it’s not clear why it should be judged in that light. In reality, the text represents a kind of hybrid-genre, the “advocacy-review,” which purports to be a book review but actually devotes most of its attention to advocating for the writer’s own interests.

Kathryn Jourdan is an intelligent, well-educated writer. However, unlike all the other academic reviewers of my book, who have drawn strongly positive conclusions, she writes from a position of bias, and it leads her astray. Things start to go wrong as early as the second page, where we read:

Baker judges El Sistema, and particularly the actions of its founder José Antonio Abreu, from the comfortable perspective of someone living in highly-developed social structures within stable, democratic settings, and shows little understanding of or sympathy for the deeply challenging political, economic and social circumstances in Venezuela.

In fact, as my book makes perfectly clear, I judge the actions of Abreu from the perspective of the dozens of Venezuelans whom I interviewed for the book, dozens more whom I’ve met or corresponded with since, and a number of Venezuelan journalists. If I had a comfortable perspective from afar, it was before I started working in Venezuela, when I too saw Abreu as the Gandhi-esque figure invented by the international media, rather than the complex and controversial figure that he really is.

As for showing little understanding or sympathy for Venezuela, this is an odd accusation from someone whose biography makes no mention of Latin America towards someone who has spent nearly 20 years studying the region (including 7 researching Venezuela), has made three visits totalling 15 months to Venezuela, and is deeply imbedded in Venezuelan social and professional networks. I would say that years of speaking to Venezuelans daily, following Venezuelan affairs on mainstream and social media, and reading academic and popular books and articles about the country has given me more than average understanding and sympathy for Venezuela. My house is full of Venezuelans as I write these words. I discuss Venezuela’s political, economic and social circumstances over the breakfast table, with Venezuelans. Jourdan’s sideswipe is confidently delivered but baseless.

Indeed, how much does Jourdan herself know about Venezuela? We can see that she is heavily involved and invested in Sistema Scotland, which is the prime topic of her article. What about Venezuela and its music education, which is the prime topic of my book? This is less clear. She has been to Venezuela, but for how long? Days, weeks, months? Does she speak Spanish? Did she do research there? Did she interview a wide range of experienced and knowledgeable figures both inside and outside El Sistema?

In fact, Jourdan acknowledges that she doesn’t know much about the Venezuelan Sistema:

I am not in a position to assess the validity of Baker’s claims as regards unhealthy structures or abuses within the Venezuelan programme.

In other words, she’s not in a position to assess the central element of my book. She then brings forth “Venezuelan author Carlos M. Añes” to suggest that my claims need treating with scepticism. Carlos M. Añez (not Añes) is actually a retired engineer and very occasional blogger who lives in Italy. He’s got some useful points to make, and is a reasonable guy who substantially changed his views after I publicly engaged with him on them. But his relevant credentials are being Venezuelan and, er, liking music. He’s not a professional musician or music educator; he’s not Sistema or ex-Sistema; he’s not a well-known authority on Venezuelan culture. Why he should be presented here as an “author” and an expert witness, commenting on the testimony of dozens of current and ex-Sistema musicians, is a mystery. It’s a disingenuous move by the reviewer, who no doubt assumes that most readers won’t bother to check who Añez actually is.

While Jourdan does not spell out the length of her Venezuela trip, her comments remind me of the tourist’s-eye view of those who go for short visits and do not dig beneath the surface. Everything appears just as it does in the promotional films. Where she does dig, she seems to dig shallower rather than deeper. For example:

Baker is critical of the scholarships or stipends which young people in nucleo [local El Sistema centre] youth orchestras are sometimes given, but Sistema staff explain these as aimed at increasing opportunities for students to attend conservatoire or university whilst remaining involved in orchestral playing.

Sistema staff are very good at giving nice explanations to foreign visitors, but as I explain in the book, spending longer in Venezuela allowed me to see that Venezuelan musicians – including recipients themselves – were often critical of the stipends, which they saw as unbalancing or even corrupting the classical music world. They saw something quite wrong about students earning more than their teachers or their parents. Also, it became clear that a significant barrier to attending university while remaining involved in orchestral playing was erected by El Sistema itself, in the form of a five- or six-day-a-week rehearsal schedule that obliged many students to drop out of the orchestra in order not to compromise their studies (or vice versa). All this is explained at length in the book, so Jourdan’s take on it is a kind of reverse-ethnography: a retreat from a more complex picture derived from the voices of participants towards a simplistic official narrative.

There is some criticism that is simply sloppy. For example, Jourdan claims that

Baker puts forward no evidence to support his view that Sistema-inspired initiatives around the world have a ‘markedly commercial slant’.

This is not my view and I don’t say it. I wrote: “El Sistema is a project with a markedly commercial slant.” (Indeed, Jourdan actually quotes this sentence on the previous page of her review.) There is no mention of Sistema-inspired initiatives around the world either in the quote or in the surrounding sentences. It’s hard to take criticism seriously when it’s so slapdash.

Jourdan is in her element in the discussion of Sistema Scotland and its evaluations, yet more confusion ensues, again due to misreading or misinterpreting. Although the criticism around the “faith” question is rather hard to unpick, it seems to revolve around the reviewer’s decision to take the word “faith” in a religious sense when I actually meant it in a vision sense. This misinterpretation is used to paint my simple statement as something more devious, and suddenly it becomes proof of a lack of academic rigour in my book as a whole. It’s quite extraordinary that Jourdan makes such a damning, all-encompassing accusation on the basis that a single word in a frankly peripheral paragraph might be understood in two different ways, and she took it in the way that I didn’t mean. It’s the flimsiest of evidence for such a major charge, and a good sign that her intention is to discredit my book, not review it.

(That said, if I had meant faith in a religious sense, the point would still stand. Both Venezuelan and Scottish programs – led by profoundly religious or post-religious figures – might usefully be analysed as the sublimation of religion into art. I wish I’d thought this when I wrote the original text.)

Jourdan continues:

I have yet to trace where Baker found the ‘streak of paternalism and exclusion behind the trumpeting of social inclusion’ (p.307) in Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise programme.

If she looked again at Allan et al’s study, she might see that one concern that came up was over engagement with other actors who might have an interest in the project, whether music education specialists or members of the local community. In organizing one meeting, the researchers had “protracted discussions with Sistema Scotland about what constituted a ‘stakeholder’. Sistema Scotland was keen to use the opportunity to bring together only its immediate stakeholders, in order that they could focus specifically on how to support the project. The researchers, not sharing this objective, preferred a wider definition of stakeholder which would include anyone who saw themselves as having a stake in the project, such as those in the wider music education field” (342). Among the many tensions the researchers noted within the project itself was “wanting the community ‘on board’; but also wanting to keep parents at arms length, with controlled access to information and publicity, until the programme is established” (344). The researchers noted a “missionary stance” in Sistema Scotland’s dealings with the local community and summed up the differences of opinion between themselves and the Sistema leaders as “reflective versus audacious planning; top-down versus bottom-up decision-making” (344). Certainly, a “streak of paternalism and exclusion” is a very brief summary of this more complex picture – unfortunately, the detail had to go under pressure of word count – but it’s hardly a stretch to describe top-down decision-making as paternalism and keeping music educators and parents away as exclusion.

Should I have gone and done ethnography in Scotland in order to write two paragraphs of my book? I don’t think so, particularly since proper ethnography takes months at least. I drew on a published article by multiple authors (Allan et al.), a masters dissertation (Borchert), an unpublished chapter (Logan), the official Sistema Scotland evaluation, and the detailed, written testimony of a very perceptive individual who had visited Big Noise. I think that’s plenty for half a page of text. It’s certainly enough to see that Jourdan’s portrait of Sistema Scotland tells only half the story (the half that a board member would tell). She treats the Sistema Scotland evaluation like a gospel, rather than a text to be examined critically like any other. I hope that one day the project will open its doors to proper ethnographic study – a year of unfettered access, say – as I’m sure that PhD students would be queuing at the door. Not me, though; my specialism is Latin America.

The middle section of the review is more useful and nuanced, possibly because this is where Jourdan’s professional and academic expertise comes more into play. It’s mainly about Scotland rather than Venezuela, and therefore mainly about her work rather than mine, but she did signal this clearly at the start. In the third section, though, we head back into rocky territory, namely Venezuela.

As for his accommodation with the government of Hugo Chávez, it is easy to be judgemental from the comfortable vantage point of a mature democracy, but has Baker really thought through the choices available to Abreu?

Again, Jourdan makes it sound as though I came up my views while sitting in a London Starbucks, rather than through ethnography in Venezuela and years of reading and discussion with Venezuelans. Being plugged into Venezuela for a long time has allowed me to watch a growing tide of dissatisfaction with Abreu and Dudamel for their accommodation with the government, and with foreign Sistema sympathisers for their rose-tinted vision from the comfortable vantage point of a mature democracy. Astute and informed Venezuelans know that Abreu has ALWAYS accommodated with those in power, and has been handsomely rewarded for it.

It is the long-term relationship of Big Noise musician and participant through which social transformation can happen, through which a ‘utopian space’ (Jorgensen, 2004, p.8, cited by Baker) can open up. This was the overriding impression from my recent Venezuelan trip: of tender, compassionate practice by additional educational needs teachers, for instance, which calls into question some of the highly professionalised caring familiar to us in the United Kingdom. Perhaps Baker’s structural, critical approach doesn’t have the tools to examine such practices at the face- to-face level—where it might be argued much of the social benefit of Sistema-inspired projects occurs—where a quasi- improvisatory ethical orientation in the practitioner must respond attentively and responsibly to the child or young person before them.

My structural, critical approach is only half the story, though. As Jourdan is well aware, I also did extensive “face-to-face” work on the ground in Venezuela, and thus have far more to go on than her superficial impressions from a brief trip. Of course good teachers will produce social benefits, even in the worst institutional context, but this doesn’t make institutional critique redundant. Also, this is a program built on a bedrock of discipline, and thus any utopian spaces will need to be carved out of Abreu’s “military dream of society” (to use Foucault’s phrase).

Baker remains blind, however, to ethical practices within the orchestral model he rejects, the moment-by-moment experiences and skills honed within the orchestra: for instance the ability to yield to others, play within the sound of another, to lead gently, to contribute strongly whilst being sensitive and alert to players around you. These aspects require sensitivity and a deep sense of teamwork, but sit better within an ethical rather than the emancipatory discourse favoured by Baker. The role of the conductor is being re-imagined too. I am struck by the practice of the conductor I work alongside, who invites players into the process, to find together the shape of a musical work during the week of rehearsal, and who resists expectations of bringing a hermetically-sealed interpretation to be efficiently imposed from the podium.

Without signalling it clearly, Jourdan shifts here from realities in Venezuela to her experience in the UK. I would suggest that it is she who is blinded to the former by the latter. It’s lovely that the role of the conductor is being re-imagined in the UK – but it isn’t in Venezuela, which is what my book is about. This section segues into the conclusion, a several-page hymn of praise to Sistema Scotland, which is really its principal aim.

The author points the finger at my excoriating responses to criticism. She’s right: I can’t stand poor-quality criticism from people who don’t understand El Sistema, and I can’t stand seeing really serious problems (e.g. sexual abuse, corruption, physical injuries) being obscured as a result. My responses have been excoriating because the overall quality of the criticism has been appalling. Good criticism, though, is great – I love it. My favourite review of my first book was the most critical, because the author was a genuine expert and had really read the book and really thought about it. The same cannot be said about most of the negative commentary on my current book. However, I recently received criticism from an eminent Latin American scholar that was absolutely spot on; not only did I thank my critic for it, we’re now planning to work together. I will embrace any criticism that will allow me to see the subject or my own work in a new light. I will reject any criticism that obscures rather than reveals the subject and that is driven by a desire to protect the critic’s own interests rather than promote deeper understanding.

No doubt this response will serve as Exhibit A when I’m tried for a lack of graciousness. So be it. The Sistema sphere already has grace in spades; what it needs is more honesty and straight talking. Too many people are hiding information and views behind politically expedient discourse, whether driven by ambition or fear. If readers dismiss fundamental problems because of the tone in which they are reported, then their interest in El Sistema is not serious.

In some ways I do wish I could skewer dodgy reviews with wit and grace rather than a heavy hand. It would persuade more people and make me more friends. But I don’t have that skill, and anyway, what I’ve discovered in Venezuela isn’t funny. I could just respond with nothing more than: “oh, a negative review by a Sistema advocate, what a surprise… next!” But I believe in promoting properly informed and carefully argued discussion of El Sistema and its offshoots around the world, and that means taking reviews and responses seriously. So I (like my detractors) focus on the bad reviews and all but ignore the good ones. That’s how knowledge advances.