Sistemology

[10/04/2015] I grew up during the Cold War and the Soviet Union loomed large in my imagination. I became sufficiently interested to study Russian and visit Moscow twice. A term I remember well from this period is “Kremlinology.” As Wikipedia puts it,

Kremlinology is the study and analysis of the politics and policies of Communist states, and especially of the former Soviet Union. […] In popular culture, the term is sometimes used to mean any attempt to understand a secretive organization or process, such as plans for upcoming products or events, by interpreting indirect clues.

Studying El Sistema is so similar that I feel moved to coin the term “Sistemology” for the activities of those of us who are genuinely interested in understanding (as opposed to eulogizing) the Venezuelan program.

El Sistema itself issues a constant stream of official statements and PR material, but as with any large corporation, these are designed to persuade and even obscure rather than reveal. With very rare exceptions, the Venezuelan media is equally obfuscatory, preferring to act as an extension of El Sistema’s PR activities rather than investigating or reflecting critically. (Readers of my book will have a pretty good idea why this is the case.) In order to try to understand current events in the Sistema sphere, then, one has to dig around beneath the public discourse to find out what is really going on, and then interpret that information in order to try to grasp the bigger picture. Like Kremlinology, Sistemology is an inexact science, but a necessary one and the best one available in the face of deliberate opacity.

So if we turn to the Venezuelan press over the last few days, it appears that the big Sistema story at the moment is Dudamel’s debut at the Vienna Opera next season. All but invisible in the media is the topic that is of far more importance and interest to most Sistema musicians right now: the big steps forward in the politicization of the program. I have already blogged about the “Venezuela is hope” video, accompanied by a Sistema orchestra (which appears to be the Caracas Youth Orchestra), and the reports emerging that musicians are being pressurized into signing the government’s anti-Obama petition.

Yesterday, another political bombshell dropped: Diosdado Cabello, the Venezuelan vice-president, suggested on TV that El Sistema had been insignificant until Hugo Chávez arrived in power, and that it was thanks to Chávez that the program had become so big and successful. True or not, this is the kind of statement guaranteed to enrage many current and former Sistema musicians: both those that oppose the government, and those who received their formation during the first 25 years of El Sistema – a pretty large constituency, in other words. Cabello went on to throw the figure of 680,000 young musicians in Obama’s face, his militaristic imagery just underlining that El Sistema is now a tool of Venezuelan government “soft power.” (Sistemologists will also notice that the figure he quoted is 57,000 higher than the one that El Sistema itself has been bandying around recently. The inflation of the program’s numbers is a topic for Sistemological research in itself.)

As usual, then, the mainstream media is ignoring what really matters, preferring just to churn out the usual PR stories. But Sistema musicians, unsurprisingly, are not talking about Dudamel and the Vienna Opera: they’re talking about politics, about the pressures they’re under, about the risks of non-compliance with orders from above. There are reports of musicians being obliged to take part in political events, but also of musicians refusing to sign the anti-Obama petition and fearful of the consequences. There also seems to be (unsurprisingly) an intensification of the problems and dissatisfactions that I discovered during my research in Venezuela: teachers not being paid their meagre salary, lessons being suspended, musicians even in the top touring orchestras leaving or wanting out.

The current moment appears to be a time of rapid politicization and, consequently, of rising disquiet and instability within El Sistema. Why now? Why this concentration of controversial developments in such a short space of time?

Certainly, they may be seen as an inevitable consequence of the longstanding pact between Abreu and Chávez. El Sistema became a tool of government long ago, and it has been paraded at key political moments on a number of occasions in recent years (such as the closure of RCTV) and roundly criticized for doing so. But there is a sense of escalation right now, and it is surely not a coincidence that it has taken place at the precise time that Abreu has relinquished day-to-day control of El Sistema through illness. It is hard to imagine Cabello dismissing the first 25 years of El Sistema as insignificant while Abreu was at the height of his powers.

There is, in effect, a power vacuum at the top of El Sistema at the moment. That is not to say that it does not have leaders: familiar faces like Eduardo Méndez, Victor Rojas, Valdemar Rodríguez, but also figures like Andrés González who have become more prominent. Yet none of these leaders has Abreu’s charisma, influence, contacts – in essence, his power. Also, many Sistema musicians hold them in much lower regard than they do Abreu. These leading figures do not command the same unquestioning and unquestionable loyalty that El Maestro does among so many of his followers. The result is a power vacuum – one that the government seems to have moved swiftly to fill.

Recent events may then indicate the problems that El Sistema faces in moving forward without Abreu firmly at the helm. They may point up just how important Abreu has been to maintaining the uneasy compromise between art and politics in recent years, and how much the program’s fortunes have depended on this unique individual. For this precise reason, some leading musicians whom I interviewed in Venezuela believed that El Sistema was unsustainable over the longer term. The issue of succession had been identified as problematic since the 1990s, yet it has never been satisfactorily resolved: Abreu retained absolute control until very recently, and a convincing successor is yet to appear.

Certainly, El Sistema is far from weak at the moment – however disgruntled and poorly paid they may be, the vast majority of its musicians have no alternative form of income or employment, and so they are unlikely to jeopardize their position in the middle of an intense economic crisis. But for the first time since I began studying El Sistema, I have the sense that dissatisfaction may be reaching a tipping point. But this is Sistemology – so nothing is certain.

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