It’s colourful, intense, condensed, chaotic, and full of ideas, so the banner above (click for the full image) stands as an accurate representation of the conversation held during the el Sistema session on the stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on June 25th. It was remarkable, if not slightly distracting, watching the team of artists bring the large white canvas to life with words and images while the participants were speaking.
In many ways, the canvas is better than a transcript because like the very topic it illustrates, it rewards multiple examinations from different angles, emphasizing highlights without sacrificing the subtlety, capturing the energy of the conversation in a way that bald text in courier 12pt font double spaced never could. When Marshall Marcus posed the question to the panel: “What is in the DNA of el Sistema?” the responses were visceral, instant – and very different. My personal favourite was Nicola Killean’s answer, delivered with a knowing smile. “Ridiculous ambition,” she said, and as soon as the words were out of her mouth I realized how right she was. Changing a system, changing models, changing lives is an act of tremendous confidence, perhaps even arrogance, but most of all one of massive, ridiculous ambition. It’s a near-impossible task of unceasing labour – all that and it pays terribly, too.
And yet so many more musicians and social activists are being drawn to it. Etienne Abelin stood up to present the start-up scenario for the fledgling Superar Suisse and receive what Marshall dubbed “the wisdom of the council of Elders.” The responses are summarized in the bottom right corner of the visualization, but once again Nicola’s unhesitating contribution comes to mind: “START EVALUATING NOW.” In other words, know your specific social objective(s), know your resources, find the actions that connect the two and ensure those actions deliver the results you want, as per the Logic Model. Without a clear understanding of the specific mechanics of social change through music, the default model becomes an advanced business process known as “hoping for the best,” which is an invitation for the scorn and derision of the general public.
For that matter, much has been made of late in the Sistema community of a British critic who in a backhandedly complimentary review of the Símon Bolívar concert of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony dismissed the social effect of music as “voodoo.” It’s unfortunate he didn’t condescend to grace the summit with his presence, as many leaders from all areas of art and culture gave concrete example after example of positive social impact. As for Mr. Toronyi-Lalic himself, I find his position puzzling, if not illogical for someone in his profession. If music has no social effect, then it has no social value – which renders those who make their living critiquing the art the most worthless of all.
My very sincere thanks to Marshall Marcus, Sistema Guru and event host, and to Fi Cunnigham of Southbank Centre for the invitation to be a part of a very informative and uncommonly pragmatic day in London on June 25th.