What is the role of music in the age of Trump and Maduro?

[21/02/2017] Every day, I’m bombarded with depressing political news from Venezuela and the US. Many have already noted the parallels between the authoritarian populists in Miraflores and the White House. What I want to consider here is the potential response of musicians to these political realities.

These are not problems that are distant to me. I am a musician, though not a professional one; but more pertinently, I am an academic who asks the same question on a daily basis, only with the word “scholarship” replacing “music.” What is the role of critical thinking in an age in which someone who says the following can become president of the United States?

You know what uranium is, right? It’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Like lots of things are done with uranium. Including some bad things.

How can academics have an influence in a world in which complex or competing truths can be simply dismissed or ignored, and messages that are not media-friendly are unlikely to be heard by more than a handful?

The music dilemma is one that Alex Ross recently addressed in the New Yorker. “Do you carry on as before, nobly defying the ruination of public discourse? Or do you seize on a new mission, abandoning the illusion of aesthetic autonomy?” The former course of action might entail adhering – consciously or not – to Leonard Bernstein’s maxim: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

In contrast, there are “those who believe that, in a time of crisis, the ordinary rituals of making art must cease.” Ross cites Gwendolyn Brook’s 1949 poem “First Fight. Then Fiddle”:

. . . Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

This article was fresh in my mind when I read Gabriela Montero’s recent post about Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López, already imprisoned for 3 years and his 14-year sentence just upheld by the Supreme Court. She wrote:

I urge every musician in Venezuela to down their instruments, to plunge Venezuela into musical silence, to resist playing another note of music that has lost all meaning as long as Leopoldo López – and fellow political prisoners – are confined to a jail cell and subjected to beatings and torture. Venezuela does not deserve Mahler or Beethoven, and the outside world should no longer tolerate the hollow sound of moral vacuity. Its claims to the civility it so wickedly extols via the cynical optics of its flag-wearing orchestras are entirely fraudulent.

While there are various parallels between Maduro and Trump, there is a major difference between the classical music spheres in their respective countries. The intensifying politicization of El Sistema over the last two decades has seen the program expand enormously in size and power in return for giving up any pretence of independence and serving as a tool of government. The photo that accompanied the recent announcement of the latest tranche of funding for El Sistema speaks volumes: Maduro hunched over a double bass, flanked by Tareck El Aissami, the vice-president who has just been blacklisted by the US as a suspected drug trafficker, and two men in military fatigues.

This reality inevitably inflects any response from the classical musical sphere to Venezuela’s crisis. Gustavo Dudamel’s decision is to play on. Unlike Leonard Bernstein, he claims to be apolitical off the podium as well as on it. Yet in the context of El Sistema’s intense politicization, there is no such thing as apolitical: there is only compliance or resistance. To be apolitical just means to play the tune called by the piper who pays. To play on, then, means to play along.

Dudamel takes refuge in beauty. Yet Ross evokes

a dark historical reality: not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s renditions of Beethoven during the last years of the Nazi regime attained a fury of expression that few performances have matched. The conductor’s apologists argue that these recordings convey an unspoken resistance to the Nazi regime. But they could have served—indeed, almost certainly did serve—to bolster a sense of national fortitude in the face of an advancing enemy.

These are pointed words for those of us who follow El Sistema closely, because Furtwängler and the Nazis is precisely the analogy that appears over and over again in critical debates on Dudamel and his political stance.

The very politicization of El Sistema opens up an alternative to Dudamel’s approach, the one that Montero suggests. If orchestral musicians downed tools en masse in the US, the chances of real political impact would be minimal. It might impress many people – but, by and large, they would be intractable enemies of Trump anyway. Few minds would be changed.

In Venezuela, however, orchestral musicians are a PR tool of the government, a means of projection of soft power. Why else would Maduro have just assigned $9 million USD to overseas tours by El Sistema’s top professional ensembles? There isn’t even any pretence that this money is being spent on social inclusion or helping the poor in the midst of a chronic economic crisis – it’s going on burnishing Venezuela’s image in the global North. No matter that the money could be used well elsewhere (Venezuela has just dropped below Haiti to become the poorest country in the hemisphere). The government’s political reputation overseas has sunk precipitously since the death of Chávez; its orchestras are just about the only thing that garners positive headlines. The money for touring reflects the orchestras’ value to the government. Therefore, if Venezuela’s orchestras downed tools, the impact at home and particularly abroad would be significant.

But it’s not going to happen. Not because Venezuela’s classical musicians support the government, but because many are impoverished, dependent on El Sistema, and (legitimately) afraid of what would happen if they acted. Because all the political manoeuvring has left musicians’ interests aligned with the government’s; they may express virulently oppositional views on Facebook, but they want to play, and the government wants them to play.

Also, look at El Sistema’s core values: discipline, respect, following orders. Its musicians therefore respond well when under the thumb of an authoritarian leader, but many do not know how to go it alone. They have no union, no experience of genuinely collective action (as opposed to following a conductor). Those few who have tried recently to organise their colleagues have found it impossible to convert private gripes into public action. Venezuela’s orchestral musicians may be able to play in unison, but they cannot act in unison – and this is by structural design, not through individual failings.

As Ross concludes: “Art becomes a model for the concerted action that can only happen outside its sphere.” What El Sistema inculcates is subservience, dependence, competition; it does not and has never been intended to serve as a model for concerted action outside its sphere. It is designed to serve leaders: in the memorable words of Gustavo Medina, the predecessor of Gustavo Dudamel, it is “a gigantic flattery machine designed to satisfy the interests of its founder José Antonio Abreu.” This, of course, is why Chávez and Maduro love it too, despite their utter lack of interest in classical music.

We don’t need to look into a crystal ball. We don’t need to speculate about the responses of El Sistema’s musicians to the crisis; we simply need to observe them. They are leaving. The program’s rhetoric is all about unity and solidarity and teamwork, and when things are flowing well in a rehearsal or concert, that’s indeed what it looks like. But when things turn bad, as they have now, many musicians are going solo, rather than acting in concert – slipping out of the country one by one, in search of better opportunities. Who could blame them? But the fantasy of collectivity that El Sistema has sold to the world, and that has been enthusiastically bought by naïve foreigners, is being revealed as just that – a fantasy.