Tricia Tunstall’s Alternative Facts

[04/03/2017] Reading the Sistema newsletter The Ensemble is like visiting Breitbart News or reading the Daily Mail – worth doing occasionally in order to know how a conservative fantasist thinks, but definitely something to be done in small and infrequent doses, as it’s not good for one’s blood pressure.

With considerable misgivings, I clicked on the link today and was met on page one by a Tricia Tunstall classic:

from the very beginning, the Sistema put great emphasis on creating new orchestral music infused with the lifeblood of native folk and popular music. Did you know that?

No, I didn’t. If we go to “the very beginning” and look at the program of Abreu’s first national youth orchestra concert, we find Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Vivaldi. Not much sign of native folk and popular music there. More recently, Sistema orchestras have rarely ventured beyond Antonio Estévez’s Cantata criolla, Inocente Carreño’s Glosa sinfónica margariteña, and Alma Llanera, all of which date from well before El Sistema.

Nor apparently did the author of a recent article in El Nacional newspaper, entitled “The Forgotten Notes of Venezuelan Composers.” Diana Arismendi, an established composer and Director of Culture at the Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), told the author: “We composers are forgotten artists in Venezuelan musical society […]. Millions of bolívares have been spent on music and investment in composition is zero.” Just a couple of weeks ago, Arismendi again complained about the position of contemporary music in the country.

Among the several composers cited in the El Nacional article lamenting the conditions for composers in Venezuela is Paul Desenne. Which is interesting, because Tunstall’s whole column is based on her reading of an essay by Desenne (she provides no link, so I don’t know what the essay is, where it was published, or what it actually says). On the basis of this single essay, she characterizes the whole history of the program:

El Sistema was never simply about teaching kids to play Western classics. Much more ambitiously, it was about adapting the instruments and conventions of the Western symphony orchestra to Latin American culture.

Leaving aside Tunstall’s apparent obliviousness to the previous four centuries of transculturation, the two recent articles in the Venezuelan press suggest that Tunstall’s argument is at best a one-sided simplification. (Does Tunstall know about them, I wonder? Does she follow Spanish-language sites and read Spanish-language sources?). At the very least, some more research and evidence would be required before making such sweeping statements.

Fortunately, some such research has been done. The composer and USB professor Emilio Mendoza published an article entitled “La Composición En Venezuela: ¿Profesión En Peligro de Extinción?” (Composition in Venezuela: A profession at risk of extinction?) He cites a thesis in which the proportion of Venezuelan repertoire in a representative sample of the country’s symphony orchestras was calculated as 13%, with Carreño’s Glosa sinfónica margariteña taking up most of this figure. “Only recently have a few Venezuelan pieces been incorporated into the regular repertoire,” he states.

The most thorough study, however, is one carried out by the eminent Argentinean music education scholar Ana Lucía Frega, who was hired as an external consultant by the Inter-American Development Bank and presented her results in 1997. They have never been published. However, I have a copy of the report, and it includes an exhaustive and extremely detailed study of the music played by the national youth and children’s orchestras at that time – and as her pages and pages of lists show, and her analysis underlines, El Sistema had a conservative approach to repertoire, with most of the music coming from a small corpus of European masterworks. The Simón Bolívar orchestra’s repertoire was repetitive, with little contemporary music, and the children’s orchestra’s repertoire even more so, being described by Frega as “walking in circles.” At the halfway point of El Sistema’s history, then, we find nothing to support Tunstall’s claims, and no sign of the “great emphasis on creating new orchestral music” that she imagines to have been taking place since 1975.

Tunstall’s writings come in two main varieties: those that smell suspect immediately, and those that appear convincing until you actually do a bit of research. This column falls into the latter category, and is all the more pernicious for that, since most of her readers will not read my post and will therefore remain unaware of the large holes in her argument. If she were an academic researcher, she would (in theory, at least) have to contend with the counter-evidence; since she isn’t, she can write whatever she likes and ignore whatever she likes, and worry less about what is true than what she and her readers would like to be true.

Immediately below the column is one of the newsletter’s least attractive features – its reverent “sayings of the guru” banner, usually filled with some dubious statement by Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu that his followers regard as a blinding insight. This month we read:

The rich have a duty to the poor which they will never pay financially. But they can pay it socially: to deprive the poor of the beauty of the highest art is a terrible form of oppression.

A casual dismissal of the idea of economic justice from the mouth of a lifelong neoliberal, held aloft by devotees who probably imagine themselves to be progressive… you can’t have any money, but you can have some Beethoven… that’s enough The Ensemble for 2017.