Enchantment and disenchantment

Yana Stainova’s thought-provoking blog post on enchantment and El Sistema has been running through my mind for a while, but the questions it raises came into sharper focus more recently with Jonathan Govias’s public statement of apostasy and the James Levine scandal.

Stainova’s starting point chimed with me: like her, I was initially enchanted by El Sistema, and this enchantment launched me down the path of researching the program, as I recounted on the opening page of my book. When I lecture to undergraduates who know nothing about El Sistema, I start with a video of the SBYO playing “Mambo” at the 2007 Proms concert that I attended. I want them to feel the enchantment that I felt then – and that I still do when I watch that video, despite everything that has happened since. I want them to understand how it is both moving and deceptive (at the time, we were told that these musicians had been “rescued from the slums,” and we didn’t know the ensemble’s nickname was the Venezuelan Slave Orchestra). I want to “keep both enchantment and disillusionment in our sight at the same time,” as Stainova puts it.

Further down the first page of my book, I begin a second anecdote, about my tour of the Montalbán núcleo in Caracas three years later. Here, too, I was enchanted – but I was also more aware that I was being enchanted. It was starting to dawn on me that what I was feeling was in part an institutional strategy. El Sistema, too, has a “methodology of enchantment,” as Stainova christens her approach. The “Disney Tour,” as one prominent Venezuelan musician calls it, is calculated to have this effect. As Bolivia Bottome, head of Institutional Development and International Relations at FESNOJIV, stated: “In Venezuela, we don’t show numbers—we do a lot of large showcase demonstrations to fundraise. We sit people down and make them listen to a huge orchestra of children playing Mahler 2 and then they fund us.” Musical enchantment is complex; it can be a source of great joy but also – and at the same time – a means to various kinds of ends.

Stainova writes eloquently about enchantment, and makes a nice etymological link: “the root of the word, chante, in French, means song. In a sense, then, enchantment means ‘to surround with song and sound.’” Yet in Middle English enchant also meant “to put under a spell” and “to delude.” What has become increasingly clear over the decade since I attended the Proms concert is the extent to which El Sistema has both put the world under a spell and deluded it. Take the idea that it was created as a social program, or that it caters largely to the poor, or that its effectiveness is proven. What, then, is the role of the researcher? Is it to maintain the spell or to break it? Is the enchanted researcher one who has connected more deeply with their subjects, or one who has been put under a spell or deluded, or both at once?

The fact that something is enchanting doesn’t necessarily mean we need or even ought to be enchanted by it. Think about advertising. If I go to the cinema, I’m easily enchanted by the adverts, but I’m also aware that I’m being manipulated and that behind the captivating surface lie the more sobering realities of consumer culture. Or take Owen Logan’s image of the “veil of culture,” which captures neatly the way that the arts can be used to cover up rather than tackle social problems.

El Sistema’s enchantment also needs to be understood as a political tool of the Venezuelan government. When President Maduro assigned $9 million USD to overseas tours by El Sistema’s top professional ensembles earlier this year, in mid-economic crisis, his reasoning was that they “amaze and enamour the world.” In other words, they serve as a form of political advertising. Enchantment looks less innocent in this light.

Indeed, and particularly in the light of the James Levine scandal, we need to recognize that enchantment can be positively dangerous. Sexual abuse in music education and the music profession often rests on the power of charismatic artists and teachers to cast a spell on students and aspiring professionals. Prioritizing musical enchantment has led many in the classical music world to put artistry above morality, with costs that become clearer all the time. And journalists who prioritized musical enchantment over investigation of known problems are now being held responsible – in some cases, by themselves – for the perpetuation of those problems. The risk of complicity hangs over the enchanted researcher.


The binary that underpins Stainova’s post is enchantment versus cynicism. Yet if there is cynicism here, is it on the part of the person who spots an institutional strategy or the institution that instrumentalizes enchantment? Furthermore, Govias’s more recent post – which I’m tempted to call a manifesto of disenchantment – questions this dichotomy. His post caps a steady process of disillusionment with El Sistema over a period of years, yet far from leading him to cynicism, this process has spurred him into more thoughtful action and to embracing change. It has been highly productive.

Enchantment is rather less so, indeed it’s conducive to stasis. Just look at the global fascination with El Sistema over the last decade: it has served as a brake on evolution.

Neither blog post is black and white. Stainova rows back somewhat from her methodology of enchantment to acknowledge “frustration, sadness, disappointment, disillusionment,” and to evoke “‘pockets of enchantment’ in the midst of landscapes of widespread disillusionment.” And Govias ultimately decides that he’s not an apostate after all, but rather still professes a faith. Perhaps after years of working on and with an institution as maddening as El Sistema, they’re not so far apart from each other – or indeed from me, since I can still be enchanted by the SBYO’s “Mambo” while criticizing the institutional dynamics that produced it.

But there is a key difference, beyond the prioritizing of enchantment or disenchantment. Stainova’s conclusion is inward-looking – a reflection on writing practice. Govias looks outward to think about the practices of music education. I would be the last person to suggest that reflection is less important than practice, since I see the two as absolutely entwined. But I do think that a huge, dysfunctional, failing, yet globally influential music program demands more than contemplation on how to write.

Underneath, I see two different perspectives: anthropology and music education. I admire both disciplines, and I have drawn from both in my own research. Trying to understand El Sistema through the eyes of Venezuelan musicians is an essential undertaking. But this also means taking their criticisms seriously, and when there are serious problems in evidence, then I find that music education has the upper hand. It offers something that Stainova’s anthropological methodology of enchantment does not: a willingness to take a political and ethical stance, and above all, a clear concern with improving music education.

We are now in the era of #MeToo: a time for calling out injustices and reflecting deeply on what has allowed them to persist for so long. Being enchanted by a program described by one illustrious alumnus as fostering a “culture of fear and retribution” looks like a rather inadequate response. It is too close to replicating the “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude that El Sistema has inculcated in Venezuela, which has allowed problems to be reproduced rather than tackled. If there are serious problems, researchers have a responsibility to flag them up, to suggest what to do about them, and to take action when possible. As Allsup and Shieh argue, the starting point for social justice is noticing and responding to injustice: “At the heart of teaching others is the moral imperative to care. It is the imperative to perceive and act.”

In his powerful article on Levine, Ben Miller proposes:

In order to make and hear music in healthy ways […], we must destroy and replace the insular star system and the dysfunctional and unjust accumulations of power it enables.

Right now, such calls for action are coming from all sides. #MeToo has put institutional change at the top of the agenda. There are urgent social and political issues facing classical music, including El Sistema, and a methodology of enchantment does not get us very far in addressing them.

As Jennifer Johnston argues: “We need sweeping cultural change.” She identifies the heart of the problem: “The cult of the maestro has long been endemic in classical music. A maestro is not necessarily a conductor; it can be any distinguished and authoritative figure who commands great respect, whether he – and it is almost invariably a man – be soloist, director or teacher.” Anyone with even a passing knowledge of El Sistema will identify José Antonio Abreu – widely known in Venezuela simply as El Maestro – as a prime example. More and more people today are recognizing the spell cast by a charismatic maestro as central to classical music’s problems, yet in El Sistema the production line of conductors, the idolization of maestros, and the reproduction of the highly unequal star system continue unabated.

Stainova’s argument is interesting and deserves attention. Enchantment is a fascinating topic, and entering into it is a worthwhile project. Personally, I would love to know more about the enchantment that leads many Sistema musicians in Venezuela and Sistema followers around the world to turn a blind eye to problems, injustices, and inconvenient truths. But what the music world needs right now is less enchantment, not more.

Enchantment is the problem, not the solution. Enchantment with El Sistema has led to fundamental misunderstandings about what it is, the reproduction of myths, a failure to correct or renew the program in Venezuela, and a counter-revolution in music education around the world. It has infected the media, public opinion, and even academia, where basic errors are now commonplace in published research. If there is one thing that scholars can usefully do in such a scenario, it is to try, against all the odds, to break the spells and banish the delusions.