The week before the end of term at NEC I was working on a project for El Sistema USA, the national network, involving the creation of a mechanism for profiling start-up el Sistema nucleos outside of Venezuela. It required a modest amount of thought to find a way to capture succinctly the data that would allow reasonable measurement or comparisons, but as part of that process I toyed briefly with attempting to understand what would constitute “the norms” of a nucleo. I couldn’t – and I doubt that anyone else could, for that matter, for the simple reason that what constitutes el Sistema exactly hasn’t been defined, least of all by the Venezuelans. As we often hear, the only “sistema” is that there is no “sistema“.
I hasten to add at this point that as far as I can tell, there is no immediate intent to define “the norms”, and rightly so. Some parameters may eventually be prescribed, but more for quantitative than qualitative purposes. The reason for this is simple: as we’ve delved further and further into el Sistema, we’ve uncovered more and more manifestations extant around the globe, each with unique features and emphases. If there is a unifying thread to the myriad incarnations, it’s that they all employ ensemble music as much for the social benefit and growth as the artistic. We’ve yet to see one genre, instrumental group or “method” claim primacy, although the western European tradition is frequently employed – as a point of departure, or as representative of larger national cultural heritage, and not as a destination unto itself.
It’s been wonderful witnessing the proliferation of music for social change, and also appropriately and necessarily humbling. There’s been plenty of media attention over the Abreu Fellows program, but we’re only ten people, while there are dozens, if not hundreds of individuals who have been active in the field for a year, a few years, even over a decade in some cases, people who may be better described as being “in fellowship with Jose Antonio Abreu.” It would be hubris to call ourselves “the tip of the iceberg”, as ignominious as that would be in reality, when at this moment we more closely resemble some of the water freezing around the periphery. As for the title “Abreu Fellow”, we have the privilege and burden of making it an honourable and worthy distinction, because right now it is meaningless, with its value to be determined by the merit and impact of work that is to come.
And that is my reminder – and thus my resolution – to myself for the year and years ahead.