I did a video interview on Wednesday for the proposed documentary on el Sistema and the Abreu Fellows program, hence another deliberately misspelled posting title. These media encounters are always mortifying, the equivalent of hearing your own voice on someone’s answering machine, times one hundred thousand. Aside from having the original “face for radio”, I also tend to babble incoherently when put on the spot with a camera thrust in front of me. It didn’t help that the interviewer was none other than Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard. Her father was surely one of the most naturally gifted, eloquent speakers my profession has known, so invidious comparisons must inevitably have been drawn.
Jamie asked good, difficult questions, all of which could be summarized into “What’s the point?” Of course she didn’t ask so curtly, being consummately professional – but she would have been right to. We know and understand that el Sistema represents some form of opportunity in North America or the rest of the world, but no one is certain exactly what that opportunity is. Musician and non-musician together understand the program instinctively as a good thing, even if they don’t understand it empirically, rationally, or sociologically, etc. Part of the process of the year will inevitably be some degree of academic dissection, and this in itself reflects one major cultural difference between the north and south Americas: the northern NEED FOR DATA (in stentorian tone). In a way it’s ironic, given that we know this program best through its artistic ambassadors such as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Yes, it’s important to be able to speak to different constituencies in an advocacy role, and there is a place for empiricism and sociological investigation, but el Sistema has won international renown because it speaks emotively, first and foremost, and we would fail abjectly in our efforts if we forgot or neglected the importance of the art. We’ve seen no balance sheets for the program, no standardized curricula or testing, just wonderfully moving performances. And this is why, in the absence of almost all data, we can all agree “This must be good.”
I wish that conclusion could pass as an answer to Jamie’s questions, but it doesn’t. Simply put, none of us expect to transplant what was achieved in Venezuela wholesale to foreign soil and duplicate its results exactly. El Sistema is not some vast panacea for the problems that classical music faces in the developed world, it cannot be packaged up, institutionalized and franchised globally into some horrid McSistema monster. What el Sistema represents, right now, is just a window, a window on potential solutions, new avenues of arts advocacy, or new models of community engagement. When we look through that window, we see that the most beautiful aspect of el Sistema is that it has fundamentally repositioned music and its role within a society. Music is no longer an embellishment of the lives of the hundreds of thousands of program participants, it is a condition. El Sistema rejects the unidirectional disseminative musical model (we play, you listen) of the so-called developed world in favour of creating a culture of participation. It returns music to its place as a social activity, and this is why it has social impact.
So what’s the point?
We’re opening the window.