MMM’s Clare Cooper talks to Marshall Marcus, previously Head of Music at Southbank Centre about his new role as special project advisor for Southbank Centre’s El Sistema project and director of the Simon Bolivar Music Foundation’s Venezuelan Baroque music programme and its relevance to re.think.
“Originally, art was by a minority for the minority, then it became art by the minority for the majority, and now we are beginning a new era where art is an enterprise by the majority for the majority.”
Maestro José Antonio Abreu
Can you describe what your new role will be and what the goal of this new initiative is?
There are three distinct strands to the work that I will be doing as part of my Sistema projects. The strand most clearly connected with Southbank Centre is to investigate and then help to put together a programme for an El Sistema Centre at Southbank Centre. The idea, the essence of this, is that it builds on the really successful residences we have already with the Sistema orchestras and musicians. The question we are asking is, how can the work El Sistema does be spread out, in the cultural context of the UK, even more than it is already by their concerts and residences. How can a place like Southbank Centre with its range of work and aspiration, move onto the next level of making the Sistema work a real relationship rather than just a concert giving relationship and how can Southbank Centre complement the quite significant El Sistema projects already underway in England and Scotland; In Harmony and Big Noise.
This strand is going to begin with me doing some research to see what’s possible, which will then inform discussion within Southbank
Centre to see what that might lead to.
The second strand to my new role is that I have been asked by Maestro Abreu to start a Baroque Orchestra within El Sistema in Venezuela, so part of the time I will be based there. I guess it is not only about creating a Baroque Orchestra, but also beginning to introduce the Baroque idea and their instruments into El Sistema in Venezuela.
It is typical of El Sistema that they look outwards all the time in all sorts of ways. It is how they grow. They have a huge hunger for anything new connected to music and classical music, anything they have not had contact with before. For a long time they had a huge interest in their own folk music which is a very strong tradition in Venezuela. There is a Latin Caribbean group for example that started up, and the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble and there are now people who specialise in working with orchestras in prisons. I am sure in the future another area that will open up is that of composition.
The third and last strand relates to the Caracas Social Action Music Centre, a huge new centre in Caracas that El Sistema officially opened in 2011, (altho’ it has really been in operation for a couple of years already), which is a complex of concert halls, rehearsal halls and recording facilities. This is part of a plan which the Venezuelans have to establish seven national music centres throughout the country, building on their ‘nucleos’, community music centres, of which there are hundreds throughout the country. This new Centre will be the next kind of vehicle for the development of Sistema in Venezuela and I will be advising them on its development which will include curating staffing exchanges between El Sistema and Southbank Centre, a venue model they are very interested in.
El Sistema is highly revered and has huge global reach now, what would you say the primary impacts of the programme have been thus far?
The thing El Sistema set out to do is a form of social development and music is a vehicle. I think that is something you always have to remember. As you sit in a concert hall somewhere in the world and are amazed by the playing of one of their orchestras, you can be seduced into the idea that the end is these orchestras, but it is not. The end is, (and it’s an extraordinarily powerful driver for Abreu and the whole of El Sistema) to produce and to help give the opportunity for making good people, particularly giving opportunity to those from under privileged communities. So that is the driver and the test is not ‘are they a great orchestra?’ the test is ‘what impact have they had on social development?’. I have been absolutely staggered by the kind of people who inhabit all of their orchestras, both on tour and in Venezuela. There is such a spirit of cooperation, of working together, of helping each other. They have a wonderful system there of teaching which is, if you are a teacher you teach, but if you are a player you teach as well. Almost as soon as you have learnt to do anything with your instrument you may end up in an informal way teaching those below you and who are coming up through the system. There are more than a million kids who have been through El Sistema now and there is a very deep sense of what a community should be, what social policy should be. They have done certain studies which show, as indeed all the studies everywhere in the world show when these kinds of social action music projects occur, that children have increased focus, they are in trouble less, there is less truancy, they get involved in drugs less. I think there is absolutely no doubt it works. And along the way, they bring music making imbued with the deepest joy, passion and commitment you can imagine. Hundreds of thousands of them.
The mission of El Sistema is very congruent with the mission of MMM’s re.thinkprogramme – a global platform designed to activate and support all those working with art and culture to make the world more liveable. Do you share our view that arts and culture are integral to the process of evolutionary change we need to go through if we are to survive well on this planet and that its powerful role is currently insufficiently understood and insufficiently harnessed in this regard? Also, do you think music has a greater transformative role than other art forms?
I do agree hugely with this idea that that arts and culture have a big role to play in social transformation. For centuries, the church and religion functioned as a place where values were forged and where people found meaning. We live in a more secular age now and I think what is clear to me is that arts and culture in their broadest sense offer people ways of making different kinds of meaning at a time when we all know there are many problems in how we organise our society. The arts are limitless powerful reservoirs of important feeling and so I think that if you want to look positively at how our communities can develop, how the arts contribute to that is hugely important.
Whether music has an especially important role in human development going forward is interesting to consider. I would not start off with the idea that within the arts there was something primary only about music. However, I’ve spent all my life in and with orchestras playing, managing, contracting, listening, programming and I do feel there is something particularly special about the concept of an orchestra because it has a particular sense of coming together to do something. Orchestras contain huge area of expertise. Take a big classical orchestra for example, over a hundred people together co-operating on a stage. I often ask myself the question, ‘where else does that happen with those numbers and that level of complexity and co-operation?’ So I think the orchestra, the classical music orchestra does actually offer something rather extraordinary which is this coming together of complexity, co-operation and value. And I think that that makes it something very important. You know we don’t have novels written by a hundred people, which is not to say in any sense that makes the orchestra superior. But it offers something in the way of a group activity at a high level. The nearest thing is a choir, but I think that that is different. But the bottom line is that all of the arts are fundamentally important. The basic headline is that culture civilises. That is what I feel most strongly.
Do you think that civilising influence, in the best way that we can interpret that word, is something that is better understood in Venezuela than it is in the UK?
I wouldn’t say it is better understood but I would say that the culture of Latin America means that it happens in a different way. I do feel it would be interesting for Europe to just pick up a little bit of that. One of the characteristics of El Sistema is the way that they plan and I think that their planning is their doing. Their thinking is the doing, and the doing is the thinking and the planning. In Europe we often do those activities in more separated ways.
A good example of that was when Maestro Abreu asked me about this Baroque project. A few days after he had asked me and I had thought about it and said yes, I went back to him with the draft of a five year plan of what could be achieved and how and what I thought some of the important steps would be. A few months later I went to meet him to talk about this plan and he looked at it and he had read it and he put it down and said, ‘I would like you to come and start an orchestra’.
And I think that was his way, that is the Latin way. You jut get on and do it. We are extraordinarily sophisticated at organising in the UK, but for me, one of my passions for working with the Venezuelans is the immediacy of their doing. And as I say, it is this doing which ends up being the plan. All of us in Europe are used to the experience of a Kafka-esque kind of universe where one can end up being a prisoner of bureaucracy. It is just the way our culture has developed. And I enjoy, (maybe it is the rebel in me) just kind of pushing things a bit to the point where you just get on with it and you just do it.
I think another of the great characteristics the Venezuelans have is that they don’t have a fear of failure, if you don’t get it right immediately well that is fine. It’s no great disaster. You can get it right tomorrow. This manifests itself in how they manage their orchestras. They get hundreds of young kids together and hold concerts after a matter of months of playing without worrying about the fact they may not have played long enough. I can quote you so many kinds of stories and examples I have seen of that.
re.think is proposing that in order to make the leap to a liveable world, we need to find means of activating and strengthening values that will help speed up the systemic innovation we need. The important values to prioritise are intrinsic or self-transcending – values that are associated with concern for bigger-than-self problems and with the behaviours needed to help address these problems. They include: .
• empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises
• concern for future generations and
• recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world.
We want to prove, through re.think’s work, that engaging with art and culture offers a powerful and democratic means of expressing, sharing and shaping values. Can you see evidence of that already in El Sistema’s work?
I think we need to be really clear about what we mean when we talk about intrinsic and extrinsic values.
Reflecting on the Venezuelan and El Sistema experience, I would say that when you have successful development, it is because both extrinsic and intrinsic developments are at play together. The Western model of an individual growing up, learning their own instrument on their own to get to a very high standard and then play together, what I would describe as an intrinsic – internal to oneself – approach has been completely turned on its head in the Venezuelan, El Sistema model where the skill that you learn is the skill of playing together and you learn your instruments alongside of that. I would describe their approach as more extrinsic, ‘positive extrinsic’ if you like, but nevertheless extrinsic activity of great value.
So I think one of the things that might be interesting is to kind of calibrate the balance of the extrinsic and the intrinsic and see how they work both in positive or negative ways and how to push both of them into the positive side. David Selbourne’s book, ‘The Concept of Duty’ dwelt on the notion that since the renaissance in Western Europe there has been a massive focus on the development of the individual. And obviously when we look at cultures like China you see how completely different their focus is immediately. We are way out of balance in the West as a result of our relentless focus on the individual. We have spent hundreds of years cultivating the notion of individual personal development maybe at the expense of the notion of community and maybe what we need to do now is to redress that balance. And for me using culture, using arts, using music is a way to help redress that balance but only if we do it in such a way that we take care of ourselves as communities, not as individuals.
What do you think the professional arts and cultural community in the UK can learn and incorporate into its own practice from the success of the El Sistema initiative?
I think one of the things we can learn is to be less segmented and walled off in our activities. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing the children of Lambeth, 5,6,7,8, year olds, joining together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), one of the resident orchestras at the Southbank Centre, through the In Harmony project. Amateur and professional, young and older together in performance. I think we have to increasingly learn not to rely on the artificial separations between us and other people in other organisations and other activities. Separations we have tended to end up with because we are so efficient at building these great structures.
I think a second thing I would say is that we need to spend more time on building and valuing our relationships. I remember at a very early MMM session Chris Smith gave a talk. And one of the things he said in that talk, which I have never forgotten, he said ‘Leadership can and should’, I am paraphrasing him, ‘exist in every part of your organisation’. The notion of liberating everybody within an organisation to lead is very characteristic of El Sistema. I remember one occasion, in the middle of Venezuela, someone pointed out a young teenage boy and said and said ‘when he gets to 18 we are going to give him a nucleo to be the director of’. And indeed so they did and he became the director of an extremely tough nucleo in the middle of Caracas. We tend not to do that in this country. We tend not to say to young people, right you lead, take it, you obviously have that capability because I think our culture is very hierarchical. So I think taking down partitions between subjects and areas, spending more time on our relationships, allowing more leadership to show itself around an organisation and encouraging young people, are just a few of the things I would encourage.
And I think the third thing I would say is let’s just get on and do some of these projects.
Anything else you would like to say?
Yes there is. I think that as Sistemas spring up in different parts of the world, one of the things everybody is learning is that you don’t simply take a Venezuelan El Sistema and plonk it down in another country. The Venezuelans haven’t tried to do that. They are very encouraging, but the really important question and point they try to make is what is the translation of the Venezuelan El Sistema idea in your own culture? If you try to make it work in any country without going through that translation process, you get into trouble. If you look at the USA for example, which is probably further ahead than most other countries in its embracing of El Sistema with well over 50 different El Sistemas across the country; this is exactly what they have done. Each of them has taken a slightly different route and all of them have taken different routes from the Venezuelans, yet with those differences, all the programmes share the same core values; personal development through working together, high quality opportunities for the less privileged, and unalloyed joy in music making. At a time when we clearly need to develop our communal skills, here is a music project that not just promises to help us work together, but is achieving this aim trans globally with staggering results.