Searching for simplicity

Strad Magazine January 2014

Update February 3, 2014: Geoff Baker, Reader at the University of London, has offered an alternately complementary and contrasting perspective to this entry in a response on his personal blog here. I consider it well worth reading.

The January 2014 issue of Strad Magazine is on newstands, and if you’ll turn to page 33 you’ll find my opinion piece on the prospects of el Sistema in the United Kingdom. Late last year an article was published in which I was not so much misquoted as misrepresented, and Strad offered me an equivalent word count in this current issue in order to apply the previously-omitted context to my comments. The full text is available online for free directly via the Strad site here.

I have tremendous respect for the editorial team of the Strad (The earlier article, like the majority of their content, was written by a freelancer) but they made one decision in this piece that I do regret. They trimmed just a few sentences in my paragraph devoted to the analogy of Fermat’s Last Theorem, excising the name of the British mathematician who finally solved a puzzle that had vexed, if not utterly stymied, generations of mathematicians before him. It was a monumental achievement on the part of Andrew Wiles, and even in a classical music magazine a modicum of recognition might have been warranted.

Strad, like the few remaining print publications left in the world, is compelled to make editorial decisions based on page space, so no criticism of them should be inferred. They cut out what they felt was the element least relevant to their readership, but it had the effect of making me the feel the article had been, for lack of a better phrase, unnecessarily “dumbed down.” How simple do things need to be for musicians?

Not too simple, as perhaps my blog would demonstrate. I’ve kept my promise and reduced my references to quantum mechanics – I haven’t mentioned Erwin Schrödinger nor his infamous feline reductio ad absurdum for quite some time now, and restricted myself to one reference to the Higgs Bosun boson – but these entries have remained some of the most popular on the site, and among the most searched-for by visitors. Granted, my references to these concepts remains fairly simple and admittedly “dumbed down”, since I lack the knowledge (or rather, capacity) to understand fully the extraordinary thinking behind them, but they still interest me and clearly many others at a conceptual level.

In a world of “Middlebrow, Megachurch Infotainment” TED Talks, and internet links promising to change my life, lower my taxes, improve my gas mileage etc. “with this one simple/weird/easy trick!” it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m constantly asked by programs for the key elements they should emphasize to be more Sistema-like, under the belief that there’s some quick and easy checklist. Sistema programs or people in the US have done little to dispel this idea, with at least two entities using the word “recipe” in the last few years to imply that once a few ingredients are thrown into a mix, you’ll automatically create Social Action through Music. Oversimplifications abound, to the detriment of all. Got a paper orchestra? You’re Sistema. Have ensemble music after school? You’re Sistema. Ensemble music IN school? Sistema. It’s “The Age of the Radicant,” as one of the smartest Sistema people in North America once told me, in reference to the apparent prioritization of breadth over any kind of depth. And I’m guilty too, with an article titled The Five Fundamentals, that by its very name suggests you can hit precisely one handful of basic targets and consider the work done.

This isn’t a remastication of the much-chewed “What is Sistema?” cud, nor a plea for regulation. It’s the search for a conceptual simplicity that yields rich complexity of effective practice. My chapter in the recent publication from the UK Association for Music Education was an attempt to distill and describe this essence, and I knew even at the time of submission that I had fallen short of that goal.

I’m going to break my pledge and make another reference to physics, for which I hope you’ll forgive me, but this challenge calls to mind Einstein and his most famous theorem, E = mc2. Energy is equal to mass multiplied by the squared speed of light. This formula is now so commonplace, so popularized that it has ceased to create any kind of wonder – but it says something remarkable about this world in which we live. In the absence of Einstein, if we were asked to speculate upon the relationship between Energy and Mass, we might have presumed it to be an incredibly complex idea to articulate mathematically, yet Einstein determined that it requires only three letters and a power to express. Ultimately the relation is incredibly – perhaps even offensively – simple, but it is the tip of the iceberg (to reference the piece in Strad), the starting point for a vast field of relativistic study of mind-boggling complexity.

Sistema needs to find its E = mc2. If the idea of social action through music is to work effectively, it will have a simple idea at its heart, even if the perfect practice thereof is unattainable. If it is just group music, then in-school music programs would produce pro-social change, rendering Sistema redundant. It cannot be the old warhorse of “passion” or some interpolation thereof, because there are plenty of music educators in schools who are incredibly committed to their work and brilliant at it. I keep returning to Richard Hallam’s statement that Sistema is (to paraphrase) “simply the best music education possible.” Richard’s statement doesn’t provide the equation, but it wisely leaves tremendous scope for what “the best” may represent, even acknowledging that what may in actuality be “the best” may be something completely different from what we consider to be “the best” now.

My take: in my closing remarks in Manchester at the book launch, I made a statement to the effect that the conversations always seems to revolve around teaching – and that the moment we start talking about learning instead, we might actually get somewhere. Much to my surprise the statement was roundly and loudly applauded – it didn’t feel all that original or profound, but just common sense. You talk about teaching, you talk about teachers. You talk about learning, you talk about students. And this is where the search for simplicity should start.





6 thoughts on “Searching for simplicity

  1. Hi, Jonathan. Getting back to quantum physics, should you wish an engrossing read about same with links to society, art, and human existence, past and future, check into Neil Turok’s The Universe Within—a compilation of his 2012 CBC Massey Lectures. Eminently readable though not in the least dumbed down.

    Claire Marshall, LNF Ottawa

  2. I thought the Strad article above was an outstanding glimpse of the truth of El Sistema. You invite us to see the real El Sistema universe by dispelling rhetoric and recipe. I suspect there is no empirical formula – the elusive E=MC2 of El Sistema – but I think we can learn hugely by its imprint.

    I think another analogy from physics is called for (astrophysics to be more precise) – dark matter and dark energy. There are so many theories about this dark stuff. Many, I think seem to fit your Sistema triptych model – conventional system, fantasy, or something deeper of value, but yet “simple”. But it is through the simple that I think they will eventually find its real ’cause’. In the meantime we can see but an imprint.

    Maybe we really need to use Occam’s Razor on El Sistema theory? 😉

    Thanks Jonathan for AGAIN turning my mind upside down and shaking it up! 🙂

  3. The Higgs particle is a boson, NOT a “bosun”. A bosun is a sailor, correctly spelled “boatswain”, although pronounced as bosun.

    1. You are quite correct. Apparently my autocorrect encompasses nautical terms but not subatomic particles.

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