Searching for complexity

I’ve been remiss and failed to write a blog post for a long time. Unfortunately my job title of Reader doesn’t mean that I spend my whole time reading – it’s the quirky UK equivalent of an Associate Professor in the US, and teaching and administrative duties have been keeping me quiet. Still, I know from my good old WordPress stats (and from the occasional private communication) that my earlier efforts have been read around the world and there is a certain appetite for critical thinking on El Sistema, so I think it’s worth continuing where I left off.

This post is a response to a recent one by Jonathan Govias entitled “Searching for simplicity,” and while my title might suggest that I take a diametrically opposed position, this is far from the truth. I agree with almost everything that Govias says, and he again shows that he is the most astute commentator writing on El Sistema in English. His article raised interesting questions about the issue of simplicity and complexity. However, its key phrase rang alarm bells, though not so much for what Govias means by it as for how it might be taken by others, and how it could deepen a common problem in Sistema World:

Sistema needs to find its E = mc2.

I started this blog because I felt that there needed to be more public, critical dialogue about El Sistema in English (there is such dialogue in Spanish in Venezuela but few people outside the country are aware of it) – hence this public response to Govias’s post.

I’m well aware that Govias calls for simplicity not simplification (and criticizes the latter), but given the ease with which one slips into the other, his is a risky call in a field in which simplification is commonplace. To continue with the Einstein example, simplicity is a good thing if it results from rigorous research and manages to encapsulate more complex ideas that have been fully explored. It is less good if it comes before proper research, in the hope that one day someone might show it to be true. Einstein passed through complexity to arrive at simplicity. To think that we can find such a simple formula for the Venezuelan Sistema before the program has been subject to rigorous scrutiny (both quantitative and qualitative) is highly optimistic.

El Sistema already has more than enough sound-bites and celebrity quotes; what it lacks is the facts to back them up. Simplicity without substance is simply a marketing slogan. At this stage in the process of trying to understand El Sistema (a process that is very new, for all that the program itself has been going for nearly 40 years), what is needed is a search for complexity.

Once El Sistema has been thoroughly studied and debated, then it may become clear whether it has a simple formula at its core. Right now, “simply the best music education possible” has the same validity as Gillette’s “the best a man can get.”

Take José Antonio Abreu’s idea that “the huge spiritual world that music produces in itself… ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor.” As a general principle this is clearly nonsense, as even a passing acquaintance with the long history of impoverished musicians will show. What are needed most urgently are critical responses to this kind of simplification – or to the idea that the orchestra is a universal answer to every social problem, anywhere in the world – rather than more simplicity. Perhaps something can be rescued from the ashes of this aphorism, but only through discarding its illogical simplicity and grappling with the complexity of music’s effects.

A mixture of simplification and mythification also mars even the best attempts to capture El Sistema’s history and ideology. In his article in The Strad, Govias writes about “Abreu’s idea,” which appears to be “the idea that music can transform people cognitively, emotionally, even spiritually.” This notion has been part of the mainstream of Western thinking on music and education since the time of the Ancient Greeks; Abreu has been an astute and successful adopter and marketer of this idea, but he can hardly be said to own it. We also read that “Abreu has granted music educators the liberty to explore this idea unfettered by preconception or tradition,” which conjures up images of a bethroned Abreu bestowing favours on the humble music education profession below. Abreu is compared to the mathematician Pierre de Fermat, who discovered but failed to share a key mathematical proof: “Like Fermat, Abreu has offered us a hint.” Again, Abreu is presented as some kind of omniscient being, both holding and withholding answers that no one else has. He is clearly an exceptional individual, but this kind of heroic (and at times implausible) narrative – a bedrock of English-language writing on El Sistema – obscures its central character.

El Sistema has done a good job of putting a trademark on the idea of social action through music, but while the phrase itself has become common currency, crucial questions in understanding the idea and its wider applicability – for example, where it came from and when it emerged – have been glossed over or answers simply invented. The result is a simplified, mythical history that constrains rather than advances understanding of the program. This official narrative has already been retold many times; what is needed now is a teasing out of the complexities that have been elided in constructing it.

(It is precisely such exploring of complexity that usually makes Govias’s contributions so valuable. And I take my hat off to him for taking the long route rather than the shortcut to course design – a perfect example of searching for complexity rather than heeding the siren call of simplicity.)

Clearly marketing slogans are important for those invested in advocating for El Sistema, who are selling an idea (or to be more precise, a brand, since the idea itself isn’t new or unique to El Sistema). But they should be less of a priority for those whose prime interest is to understand the program. Furthermore, the risk of grasping for an equivalent to E = mc2 at this stage, on the basis of hunches and with so little information to hand, is that not just El Sistema but the whole complex and fascinating exploration of music education and social change may be compromised by discovering that a simple formula, proclaimed too quickly and too loudly, actually doesn’t work.

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