The Spectator, Music Matters, and LA Times

Things moved up a gear this week. First of all there was Damian Thompson’s hard-hitting article in The Spectator on sexual abuse in classical music education in Venezuela and the UK, entitled “Sex, lies and El Sistema.” The article drew on both my book and the work of Ian Pace, who has written a follow-up article that is a must-read for anyone interested in this issue.

The Spectator article has been met with absolute silence by El Sistema and its international advocates, but there has been some commentary online. It has fallen into three broad camps:

1) Baker is a liar/Marxist/Fascist/only in it for the money, etc.

2) Sure, there are lots of stories and rumours circulating about sexual shenanigans in El Sistema, but they’re just gossip and they shouldn’t distract us from the good work that the program’s doing.

3) Baker’s right and this article is actually only the tip of the iceberg.

1) and 3) require no further commentary, but 2) is worth pursuing. It confirms my findings in Venezuela: that stories and rumours of sexual abuse and/or dubious sexual goings-on (e.g. between teachers and students) are relatively widespread. Given that this is the case, there are really just two choices: (a) ignore or (b) investigate and put preventative measures in place.

The evidence from other countries, but particularly the UK, suggests that the chances of at least some of these stories and rumours being true are fairly high. This is why putting the UK and Venezuela together, as Thompson did, is so important. Rumours have been coming out of specialist music schools here for decades, and they were dismissed or ignored until a couple of years ago, when the suicide of musician Frances Andrade and subsequent conviction of choirmaster Michael Brewer forced the issue into the spotlight. When journalists and musicologist Ian Pace started to explore, they found that where there was smoke, there was fire – a whole bonfire in fact. Furthermore, the work of Pace and a few others points to structural and ideological aspects of classical music education that would help explain why this might be so.

So it seems completely irresponsible and immoral to dismiss the Sistema rumours as meaningless gossip. The only justifiable response is to say “we don’t know if this is true or not, but we’re going to investigate it and find out.” And if El Sistema fails to make any sort of public statement along these lines, then it’s maintaining a venerable classical music tradition of brushing the problem under the rug and putting the music above the musicians. Anyone who is remotely concerned about the welfare of Venezuelan children ought to ask what child protection measures are currently in place and whether they will be revised in the light of the amount of worrying information that is circulating.

The facts of the matter remain to be determined. This is unsurprising: claims of sexual abuse are notoriously hard to verify. But what is clear is that lots of people in or near El Sistema have suspicions. Someone has to take a lead if anything is ever going to be done about finding out if those suspicions are justified. I have taken a lead, and I’m going to be heavily criticized as a result. That doesn’t bother me. The only questions that interest me are: will this issue be investigated properly or not? Will appropriate measures be put in place or not? And it’s not for me to do either of those. I’ve put the ball in play, now it’s for others – more qualified, closer to the sources – to run with it.

***

Today, my debate with Eduardo Méndez, executive director of El Sistema, was aired on BBC Radio 3’s “Music Matters,” hosted by Tom Service. (I say debate – I wasn’t actually allowed to speak to him.)

I was expecting to have to sharpen my metaphorical pen and deconstruct the interview afterwards, but it was actually rather a damp squib. Méndez actually seemed rather unprepared, considering that he’s the CEO of a multinational organisation with global designs. I got the sense that this was the first time he’d been asked remotely probing questions in a public forum (which in itself says a lot about the international handling of El Sistema over the last 7-8 years). Of course, there were many issues from my book that were not broached, but Service pushed Méndez on the questions of evidence and statistics and found little resistance.

Méndez suggested that the question of whether El Sistema achieved its goals or not was a “matter of taste” or a “matter of opinion,” which, as Service was quick to point out, was a pretty bizarre statement about a 40-year-old program that receives lashings of state funding. When urged to provide evidence, he replied that many children had gone on to become professional musicians. This was a perplexing response, given the official insistence that El Sistema is not a musical program but a social program. It was also rather banal – if you train hundreds of thousands of children to be orchestral musicians, of course some of them will become professional orchestral musicians. How does this fact provide evidence of social change? Later in the interview, Méndez had to admit it: there is no statistical evidence of social change.

He was on firmer ground on the issue of numbers. There are 623,000 children in the program, he declared, based at 415 núcleos. This was interesting data, given that just over 2 months ago, as I posted on this blog, the Sistema website gave a figure of 500,000 children, and the number of núcleos was either 371 or 404 depending on which page one looked at, though there were in fact only 238 núcleos listed. Not quite such firm ground after all.

According to Méndez, the President has set them a target of 1 million students within two years. Something tells me we’re going to be hearing a lot about that number.

Service buttonholed Méndez on the dropout rate, and got the same answer that others have: they don’t know. The figures that they bandy about are allegedly the number of students that sign on at the start of the year, but since they don’t know how many leave, they don’t know how many students are currently in the program. Not knowing your dropout rate is a pretty serious admission for a voluntary educational program.

Despite the lack of evidence that El Sistema does any good, it is being expanded into schools, and retains its desire to spread to as many countries as possible around the world.

Roving Sistema ambassador Marshall Marcus must have gone a little green if he heard the interview. He’s been berating me for a lack of quantitative data. As this interview amply demonstrated, that’s a very dodgy position for a Sistema advocate to take up.

***

Just when I was starting to think that the journalistic profession now got it (I was on a run of two!), along came Mark Swed’s article for the LA Times. By complete coincidence, this negative appraisal came from someone whom I criticized – albeit pretty lightly – in the book. (Note to self: do not criticize music journalists for failing to do proper research. They will have their revenge, in spades.)

(As another aside, I wonder whether the fact that Thompson and Service “got” my book has anything to do with the fact that they both have PhDs in relevant areas.)

In my book, I wrote of my surprise that Swed managed to draw highly positive conclusions about the program despite describing, to use his words, “lock-step learning” in “endless daily rehearsals” that “hammer in” Abreu’s message, and despite admitting that “the fostering of individual creativity is simply not, for Abreu, a goal.” Well, neither this nor the more general point about journalists failing to do their homework went down very well, by the sounds of things.

He does give my arguments quite a lot of space, to be fair, if only in order to try and knock them down. But the way he does so involves distorting what those arguments rest on (whether deliberately or through not having read the book properly, I’m not sure). He frames the book as though it consisted entirely of my personal likes and dislikes, and therefore ignores (a) the testimony of the scores of Venezuelan musicians and experts whose opinions shaped mine, and (b) the huge range of academic sources that underpin my arguments (you might have thought that an 18-page bibliography would be a clue, even if he missed the copious in-text references).

(Another aside: OUP actually asked me to remove some of the references, because they said that the amount of supporting evidence from academic sources that I had included was overkill. I obliged.)

For example:

“Baker is uneasy with the style of teaching that Sistema uses, the traditional music-education process of endless rehearsal and rote learning.”

[Er, yes, Baker and about three-quarters of the world’s music education specialists, at a conservative estimate]

“He has problems with the very notion of the orchestra as a patriarchal institution, where the essence is to obey the will of the conductor.”

[Er, yes, Baker and just about everyone who’s thought about the orchestra for more than 5 minutes]

Anyway, he then admits: “There are systematic problems with Sistema. That has long been recognized.”

[Er, no, it hasn’t, that’s the whole blooming point. Please show me where it has long been recognized and by whom. The reality is that the program has been hyped to the rafters by journalists and advocates]

I could go through Swed’s whole long shtick about Dudamel and show why it’s totally irrelevant to what I was arguing in the book, but I can’t be bothered. As I explain clearly, my book is an ethnography of El Sistema in Venezuela; what Dudamel gets up to in Beverly Hills is of minimal interest to me unless it’s of interest to musicians in my study (hence the focus on the Rolex Man story). Swed thinks that I should have spent less time focusing on the voices of the marginalised in Venezuela and more talking about what a great guy Dudamel is and all the things he’s doing in LA. That’s Swed’s job, as an LA-based journalist, not mine, as a Venezuela-based ethnographer. I’ll let others, more qualified than me, assess Swed’s claim that the Dude is “today’s single most adventurous and chance-taking major conductor.”

“Abreu is clearly no saint. But accusing him of promoting empty spectacle is gross oversimplification.”

[OK, that’s a LOT of Venezuelan cultural journalists, experts and musicians put in their place! It seems that Swed must have read Chapter 1 rather, er, quickly]

“Abreu is certainly not above using hocus pocus to get what he needs from the government. Moreover, he is more than willing to serve whomever is in power for what he believes to be the greater good. This involves a moral calculus more complex than Baker addresses.”

[Swed devotes all of three short sentences to the topic of power and politics, make an utterly banal point, and then tells ME that I’ve over-simplified it in my 400-page book?]

He’s particularly weak when it comes to my methodology, about which he simply invents a story: “Again and again he was approached by mostly former members of Sistema.” I don’t say that anywhere, for the simple reason that it’s not true. A good half of my informants were current members, and I approached them. The rest of his comments on methodology are equally off-target. He says I was “not up to penetrating Sistema’s secrecy” – coming from a journalist who showed no signs previously of even being aware that there were any secrets (for the record, the only one who did was Dan Wakin of the NYT). “For sources, Baker makes little distinction between relevant or dated reports, academic papers or even questionable bloggers.” That’s simply rubbish: although there may be a couple of lapses in a 400-page book (I say “may” because I don’t know and I’m not going to go through every quote to check), in the vast majority of cases, at the very least, it’s perfectly clear who’s being quoted and when it dates from. Do you think that OUP and three academic peer-reviewers would have let the book through to publication if it wasn’t properly referenced?

Perhaps the most problematic line is this (taking us back to the first part of my post): “That there are charges of sexual abuse, for instance, is disturbing. But what is being done about this is anyone’s guess.” Why is it anyone’s guess? Why haven’t journalists like Swed gone and found out? Isn’t that what journalists are for – to sniff out and investigate untold stories, rather than further burnish the already over-hyped Dudamel’s image?

***

This week’s conclusions: (1) the further away from El Sistema journalists are, the more they’re willing to grasp my book, because the less compromised they are by their profession’s (or indeed their own) failure to get to grips with the topic. (2) I’ve got a whole lot of new enemies (like I needed that…).

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