As one of the more successful early blog writers on all things relating to El Sistema, I was frequently urged by friends and colleagues to collect my thoughts into a book on the topic. My standard response at that time was that every man and his dog were writing a book on Sistema, but flippancy aside, there was a more serious reason in mind. If my book were not to be yet another extension of the official narratives, it would require a degree of legwork that I simply didn’t have the resources to execute. It would require going off the extremely well-beaten track, sifting through pages and pages of forgotten print media and delving deeply into Venezuelan political and economic history, seeking out the other side of the tale.
This is what Geoff Baker, Associate Professor at the University of London Royal Holloway, has done in his book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Meticulously researched and written, the book is a frank, unflinching look at Venezuela’s national youth orchestra network. It exhaustively traces the origins and subsequent evolution of the program, its public messaging and its founder, José Antonio Abreu through media reports and countless personal interviews with program participants or faculty. But despite the depth of its research, it also feels surprisingly incomplete.
The work’s sense of deficiency doesn’t derive from Baker’s understandable reticence to put names to those making the most troubling criticisms or allegations. For the most part, Baker has done his homework. In his analysis of the history and popular/political reception of the program over its four decades of activity he has managed to unearth many surprising yet verifiable sources. The cover of the book, a caricature of Abreu as maestro, conducting an adoring media circus, might be a literal and figurative red flag to Sistema’s many supporters, but it originally appeared with a 1990s article investigating Abreu’s tenure as Minister of Culture. Those sources that remain unnamed are restricted to the most troubling claims, and it’s immediately understandable why the comments were offered under the strict condition of anonymity. The many allegations of endemic emotional, physical and even sexual abuse are deeply disturbing.
Baker’s insights or analyses are rarely faulty in and of themselves: their weakness is that often they don’t dig deeply enough. His deconstruction of the orchestra as a flawed medium for social change is well argued, but in his blanket condemnation he fails to identify any positive connection between the program’s international success and its choice of medium and genre. (For a broader discussion of this issue and a defense of the orchestra, see my previous entry, written before I had access to the book.) Similarly, much copy is given to condemning the repetitive, authoritative nature of the teaching in Venezuela but very little page space is expended on why the instruction has so evolved. Baker initially makes the reasonable argument that teachers “teach the way they were taught.” Later in the book he states that “El Sistema’s aesthetic and professional norms are determined by Europe, with the Berlin Philharmonic the ultimate benchmark. Workshops and masterclasses with members of the Berlin Phil are considered the pinnacle of instruction.” And further down the same page: “the gold standard for performance and teaching is still European.”(p.290.) If these statements from different chapters are reconciled, then the root of the problem is not Venezuela’s vision of music education, but that of the Western European pedagogical tradition. As Baker’s citations amply demonstrate, the latter is troubled enough: how dare the Venezuelans do what we’ve been doing for centuries?
Baker devotes a substantial portion of a chapter to issues of sexual misconduct within Sistema (Chapter 10) and separately to the concept of “peer teaching” (p.141) but again falls short of identifying and investigating a potential connection between the two. Under a formalized peer teaching model it is entirely possible that your boyfriend/girlfriend may be your stand partner on Monday, and your student as of Tuesday, thus manufacturing overnight a grey area at best, an ethical minefield at worst. This certainly doesn’t justify any alleged sexual misconduct, but there is a lesson here for programs mindlessly rushing to place children in positions of authority over other children (calling them “mentors” or worse, “teachers”) that is entirely missed. Baker uses the example of the Chetham scandal to illustrate the perils of the intimate yet dangerously imbalanced relationship between music student and teacher, but no recognition is given to the fact that responding to allegations of sexual abuse remains an extremely complex, challenging task for even sophisticated western $1.5 Billion (thousand million) USD operations like the University of Virginia. The level of challenge doesn’t obviate the responsibility, but if a major public US institution struggles with this issue beyond claiming “zero tolerance”, a loosely organized Latin-American cultural division probably doesn’t stand a chance at enacting an enforceable policy.
It is this simplification of cause and effect, the incompleteness of reasoning, the unwillingness to explore the complexity behind some of the harshest criticisms that remains a disappointing element of what is otherwise a very valuable book. Baker might argue that his responsibility was solely to the what but I would strongly disagree: without looking to why, the idea of what becomes simplistic or meaningless. A prime example of this is Baker’s implication of Abreu’s complicity in accounting irregularities (p.275). While alleging multiple instances of fiscal mismanagement, Baker stops short of identifying any kind of motive, even admitting that Abreu lives like a pauper, leaving readers wondering why a man apparently so disinterested in personal wealth would actively aid and abet others in its accumulation.
There is no question that despite Baker’s protestations to the contrary, and his lengthy explanation of his own motives in the foreword, the book is heavily slanted. The most egregious example of this inherent bias may be Baker’s insinuation that Abreu was involved in outright fraud or embezzlement (p.31); even as he acknowledges there is zero evidence to support this assertion, by simply associating the ideas Baker speaks new existence into decade-old rumors. This stroke has a touch of Schadenfreude to it, if not a willful malice. It is unfortunate because the pervasive sense of partiality detracts significantly from the many penetrating insights Baker has to offer and the tough questions that, in asking about the practice within Sistema, he ultimately – if perhaps inadvertently- asks about our own work as music educators.
In reading the book, and the extremely polarized internet commentary Baker’s Op-ed in the Guardian produced, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some European colleagues over the films of the American documentary maker Michael Moore. My friends lauded Bowling for Columbine, a film on gun control in America, but expressed significant distaste for Fahrenheit 911, saying its condemnation of the George W. Bush administration and presidency was so biased as to render it unbelievable. Having moved to the US at the same time as the film’s release, I was particularly conscious of the intention of the latter film to offer a counterweight to the propagandist distortions of the American news media machine: without the requisite immersion in the current popular narratives the opposing perspective naturally felt imbalanced.
If I were to investigate the why, to ask myself what motivated Baker to take his particular approach to the topic, I might have a similar answer. To date Sistema discourse has largely been dominated by accounts that are extensions of the official narrative, works that are largely fictionalized, and one particular volume generously described by a senior Fundación official as “complete gibberish.” Like Moore, Baker places his contribution firmly in opposition to current narratives, and in so doing, defines the critical spectrum. Where then does the truth lie? Exactly where one might expect: somewhere in the middle. For those who can keep that in mind, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth is essential reading.