Scripp, Mazzocchi, and an insider’s view of El Sistema

[04/12/2015] The publication of Larry Scripp’s report based on interviews with Venezuelan violinist Luigi Mazzocchi is a historic event. As far as I am aware, it is the first time since Gustavo Medina’s resignation letter in El Mundo in 1999 that a current or former senior participant has publicly criticized El Sistema under their own name, and the first time ever that such a detailed testimony has been published.

[the report can be accessed here or here]

On the relationship between Mazzocchi’s account and my book, there’s little to add to his words, which repeatedly confirm the accuracy of my research. It is worth mentioning, though, that I do not know Mazzocchi and I have never had any communication with him. This is an entirely independent testimony.

Rather than drawing out the many points of connection between our two accounts, which he has already done, I would like to focus on some larger issues. One concerns the changing nature of Mazzocchi’s memory and understanding of his own career. He makes it clear that reading my book catalysed both recollection and deeper analysis of his experiences. There are two noteworthy points here: one is that as a participant in El Sistema, he had an incomplete understanding of his own experience; the other concerns the potential value of ethnography.

One of the weaknesses of attempts to understand El Sistema has been an over-reliance on the opinions of leaders – people who have a vested interest in persuading researchers and observers that the program is wonderful. There is a shift now underway towards paying more attention to the experiences and opinions of ordinary participants. This shift can only be positive, yet it too has its drawbacks: one is that those who have negative experiences may simply leave Sistema programs, and therefore slip through researchers’ nets; the other is that, as Mazzocchi reveals, participants’ understanding may be incomplete, and they may regard quite troubling dynamics as normal, indeed they may not even be aware of them, if such dynamics are ever-present and regarded positively (or at least not criticized) by others.

With regard to ethnography, I have always believed that an ethnographer’s aim should not be to hold up a mirror to a particular group or community or institution, but to provide an analysis that goes beyond that group’s self-understanding and pushes it in new and productive directions, allowing people to understand their own experiences in new ways. This is what I find particularly interesting in Mazzocchi’s account. Of course it’s nice to be told that one is right, but plenty of Venezuelan musicians have done that already since the publication of my book. Mazzocchi goes one stage further and reveals a more dialogic relationship between the book and his self-understanding. What I see in his testimony is the potential of ethnography to generate new knowledge and thus stimulate progress.

This opens a window onto the more contentious issue of the reception of my book. On a superficial level, Mazzocchi’s account ought to make uncomfortable reading for those Sistema advocates and journalists who dismissed my work. Yet it also illustrates a contrast between progress and stasis. Mazzocchi has used my book to advance his own understanding of El Sistema and his vision of progressive music education outside Venezuela. The critics, in contrast, opted to indulge in shrill denunciations and mud-slinging, refused to see any value or usefulness in my book, and thus restricted its potential to serve as a stimulus for positive change.

The consequences of such an approach go far beyond trivial personal arguments and wounded egos. Holding back positive change is a serious matter for a movement that claims to put social justice at its heart. One of the many issues raised by my book that the Sistema sphere has failed to pursue is that of sexual harassment and abuse. Mazzocchi’s testimony supports my research, suggesting that this appears to be an endemic problem within El Sistema. On the same day that I read it, I heard independently from a musician I know in one of El Sistema’s showcase orchestras, who has claimed for some time that she is being sexually harassed by her teacher. Those who have dismissed the warnings in my book are complicit with the perpetuation of such dynamics, which will only change if there is external pressure to do so. Denials of reports of such injustices in Venezuela are a stain on those who claim to be pursuing social justice through music education in other countries.

Having said this, I feel a strange sense of empathy with my critics, for all that they have relentlessly attacked and tried to silence me. When I read Mazzocchi’s testimony, I felt a sense of relief. Why, I asked myself? My book draws on dozens of interviews, detailed published investigations, and in-depth observation in Venezuela, and many Venezuelan musicians have got in touch since its publication to confirm its veracity and add supporting testimony. Why did it matter that Mazzocchi described my book as “dead on” when many others had done the same? Why should I feel such relief at what is, in the final analysis, a drop in an ocean of evidence?

Because it’s hard to believe that the reality of El Sistema is so different from the myth. I can empathize with those who struggle to believe it, because I struggle with the same thing, despite the amount of evidence I have seen and heard. That’s why I feel relieved to be told, once again, that I’m on the right track.

Perhaps the biggest thing that I take away from Mazzocchi’s account is its constructiveness. He leaves the disparagement of informants and denial of evidence far behind, and grapples seriously with the implications of El Sistema’s realities for the program itself and for its international offshoots. His vision is one in which a bright future is very possible, but only if a grey past is admitted and understood.

One of the sticking points with my critics has been the issue of balance. I made my position – that I was not interested in balance, but rather balancing – crystal clear in my introduction:

Rather than dictating how these successes, failures, benefits, and costs should be weighed against each other—creating an arbitrarily balanced account—I provide a counter-weight to the official story that has dramatically skewed the scales and leave the reader to decide which has more substance.

The deniers refused to engage with this, as with almost everything else in the book. But Mazzocchi’s account illustrates the value of such rebalancing. He takes both sides of the story – the positives and negatives – and synthesizes them into a position that encourages others to move forwards but in full understanding of what lies behind. This is not the same, then, as saying that the truth lies between the two extremes: for Mazzocchi, as for many Venezuelan musicians I know, the truth is the two extremes, at the same time. It is only when they are both publicly available that there is any hope of understanding properly what El Sistema is and what it might be.