I’m currently at the El Sistema conference in Los Angeles, an event jointly hosted by El Sistema USA, the LA Phil and the League of American Orchestras, and I was having a great time until the umpteenth person mentioned my blog in passing, thus making me feel very guilty about the dearth of recent updates. I’m somewhat shocked that anyone bothers to read anything I write (including my mother) but even if these attendees were only being polite, I thought I should make an effort. After an experience as monumental as that in Venezuela, it’s been difficult to find energy to put pen to paper, or rather, finger to keyboard. I say “energy”, not “cause” because there have been many things worth discussing, and frankly, many things discussed.
First and foremost of those is a document of most painful genesis and equally painful ongoing evolution, the “Fundamentals of El Sistema.” This paper, distributed to conference attendees, is an initial attempt led by Mark Churchill and El Sistema USA to articulate the common values and guiding philosophies of the work of the Fundación in Venezuela, and how it might inform the activities of the movement in North America and beyond. This was a major focus of the Fellows for the week before the conference, and the process of its creation was far more contentious and challenging than anyone expected. The discussion and debate resembled that of Saxe’s Six Wise Men of Hindustan, although I hasten to add that no Fellow has a vision impairment. It was fascinating how nine individuals of similar philosophical bent and 5 months of identical training could have very different experiences and come back with multiple disparate understandings of the functioning of the orchestra network in Venezuela. The situation in and of itself is indicative of the complex and dynamic nature of the work of the Fundación. Every núcleo tackles challenges differently, for the simple reason that many of the challenges are unique to the locale, whether those be staffing, facilities, musical materials, financing, or community. The end result of this supreme adaptability is a national initiative that, if summarization is essential, has to be described or defined in the most general, if not outright vague of terms. It’s perhaps for this reason that the Venezuelans have declined to undertake this task themselves, preferring to devote their time and energies to, oh let’s say, teaching music.
All snide remarks from my quarter aside, one of the major outcomes of a dinner hosted by El Sistema USA this evening was the sincerely stated need for more guidelines, and more specific, more concrete guidelines at that. I’m not certain how this can be accomplished, frankly. If Maestro Abreu himself has resisted the “systematization” of El Sistema as a fundamental element of the organization’s philosophy, we have to find some way to resolve this paradox. The whole thing is a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat, the idea of multiple states of being existing in simultaneous super-position until waveform collapse is effected through direct (i.e.: personal) observation.
Sorry. Maestro Abreu defines this more elegantly, as the idea of “ser no ser todavia” – or very roughly translated as “existing without ever concretizing.” Rodrigo Guerrero, the splendid International Affairs Coordinator, would be more succinct: “As soon as you can define something, it’s dead”, with the point being that the Fundación is very much alive.
There’s no answer to this, except to assume that the Fundamentals document will need to be as flexible, organic and adaptable as the organization that inspired it.
With apologies to Saxe, here’s a palate cleanser after the quantum mechanics.
And so these Fellows of Abreu
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
So oft in curricular wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about a “Sistema”
Not one of them has seen!