Critiquing El Sistema

El Sistema’s burgeoning international grapevine was humming last month after some distinctly trenchant criticisms of both the theory and the practice of El Sistema appeared in an article published in the respected UK music industry magazine Classical Music. The writer in question, Igor Torony-Lalic, had also earlier criticised both the Venezuelan Sistema and one of its major UK versions as part of a review of a concert by Gustavo Dudamel and the Símon Bólivar Symphony Orchestra. And further critical scrutiny of El Sistema was on show on his Twitter stream.

I was quite intrigued when I saw this intensely articulated rush of information, because Toronyi-Lalic is quite an unusual type of critic. He recently celebrated John Cage’s anniversary by performing 4’33” on a piano in a London railway station, he published a provocative study on public art in the UK earlier this year, he’s well read and written, a main stay on the award winning Artsdesk online review site, and he regularly puts his fingers into the middle of a number of pies of arts humbug, and clearly loves controversy. In the end, any open society needs its awkward squad and in this respect he fills an important space on a regular basis. Stuffy he isn’t.

Collectively these articles and comments constitute the most sustained condemnation of El Sistema that I can ever remember seeing, enough, you might argue, to claim the attention of the Sistema movement worldwide. I say this particularly because of something that Toronyi-Lalic himself refers to, and that is the massive support and almost hysterical enthusiasm, almost exaltation, that can be seen at many El Sistema concerts and events, a sign of the huge and increasing bedrock of adulation and reverence that El Sistema increasingly enjoys worldwide. It is surely precisely when a set of ideas become so universally supported, so glorified and praised, that we need to start interrogating these ideas to make sure that there is something here that we are not missing, and that we have not ended up in ‘glorification city’, getting a bit too clap happy on a kind of emotionally charged joy ride that turns out to be no more than a view of the world through our old friend Kant’s rose tinted glasses. Of which more anon.

But there is a problem. The problem is that whilst Toronyi-Lalic raises justifiable questions, and comes with insight, intelligence and wit, his various pieces on El Sistema seem facile, intemperate and uninformed. It would be easy to react defensively in such a situation. But here’s the thing: their tone should not stop us from looking seriously at the points he makes.

Summarising the areas that Toronyi-Lalic raises questions about one can see issues relating to proof, financial value, funding-skew, dogmatism, politicising, instrumentalism, and over popularity.

The fundamental challenge postulated is: if doing art really makes better people, prove it. Where is the really hard evidence that El Sistema’s social programme actually works? And, if El Sistema is aimed at social benefit, is it good enough value? In the UK at least, it does not come on the cheap side. Torony-Lalic quotes a figure of £750,000 per year in Scotland (approximately $1.2 million) which, if he is accurate, works out in my estimation at more than £1,500 a child per year (heading towards $2,500). In Harmony Sistema England is performing at a similar cost, depending on how you calculate the figures, although other Sistema like projects in England such as the Bridge appear to have a lower level of costs. The recent Los Angeles Sistema conference in January 2012 quoted a figure of about $1,500 per child per year for US Sistemas in comparison. In Venezuela it works out considerably cheaper.

But even if El Sistema is an affordable social programme, Toronyi-Lalic continues, isn’t it just provoking government and other funders to increasingly fund art only where arts organisations are able to demonstrate positive social outcomes (itself part of a larger charge that El Sistema leads to a devaluation of ‘art for its own sake’)? And then a more general question: doesn’t EI Sistema’s approach discourage scepticism and disagreement, and isn’t it too dogmatic? In Venezuela doesn’t it too overtly support the government. And lastly, surely it’s unhealthy to be so utterly fervent about the performances by the young Venezuelans?

Now that all sounds like a pretty reasonably stated set of questions. So what do I mean by saying his writing appears facile, intemperate and uninformed? In answering that, I am going to look at Torony-Lalic’s views in three separate areas: firstly, in this current blog, at his views on Venezuela and of El Sistema within that country (warning: this is a much longer piece of writing than my usual blogs …); then on a future occasion, his views about the Sistema method as it travels outside of Venezuela (Toronyi-Lalic confines himself pretty well to England and Scotland, but it will be worthwhile going further afield in this part of the discussion); and finally, and in some ways most interestingly of all, his views about a debate that has been raging for some time in the fields of art, culture and society – and which you can bet will continue to rage for quite a while to come – and that is the instrumental versus intrinsic debate, the question about whether art is justified simply by its own existence and our pure experience of it, or by what it does or could do to us in the process.

Here, first of all, is a summary of the way Torony-Lalic articulates the aspects specifically to do with Venezuela itself:

In the first two paragraphs of his concert review he asserts that Gustavo Dudamel and the Símon Bólivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela live in a communist state; that El Sistema imposes the classical canon on street kids; that he doesn’t support El Sistema for the same reason that he doesn’t support Voodoo; that there is no evidence that classical music is an effective agent for social transformation, or that it makes you better, wiser, richer, or more emotionally intelligent; that the bolstering of the current Venezuelan President (President Chávez) by El Sistema’s worldwide success has made Venezuelan’s lives worse; and that a significant writer like John Carey has shown that the only way that music has transformed the world in the past is to have made it worse.

In the Classical Music article Toronyi-Lalic additionally accuses El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu of having an unhealthy relationship with Chávez; Gustavo Dudamel of championing Venezuelan authoritarianism; all of us for failing to notice that the Venezuelans play in their national colours; and that El Sistema commits the offence of encouraging us to think that the arts should have instrumentalist aims as its goal. Elsewhere he calls El Sistema a “scam”; says that the fact that so much of the music establishment “buys” Abreu’s “propaganda” proves how worthless music education is to making you smart; That El Sistema doesn’t realise that music doesn’t and shouldn’t need social goals to justify its existence, and finally, calls Abreu a ‘Chávez arse-licker’.

Hmn. A moment, perhaps, to get your breath.

Now let me do a bit of weeding; let’s just be charitable and forget the “arse-licker”, “voodoo”, “propaganda”, “scam” and “communism” comments. It’s not just that their tone makes them unworthy of being part of a worthwhile conversation, or that they manage to trump effective polemic with mere provocation, it’s more that they are just non questions, worthy only of being proposed by a fool, and certainly not by someone of Toronyi-Lalic’s intelligence. So let’s not be detained by them any further.

However the notion that El Sistema imposes the classical canon on anyone, or forces classical music, high art and the like onto ‘street kids’ in Venezuela to whom it is somehow alien, is worth alighting on. From my experience of Venezuela, to assert this is to show a lack of understanding – and experience – of Latin America, Venezuelans and El Sistema practice throughout Venezuela.

You can see where the idea for such an accusation comes from. In the west there is a notion in some quarters that do-gooders(short hand here for the left wing arts establishment) often want to force ‘good’ (i.e. high) culture on working class people to whom it is alien, as a patronising attempt to help them ‘improve’. In the case of Western Europe or North America such a view is a matter for argument. I don’t completely agree with it, but it’s a respectable point to argue. But not I’m afraid in the case of Venezuela.

The fact is that Venezuelans have remarkably little natural predisposition against classical music, and certainly none of the inherited prejudice against it that so characterises the UK, even where the people are little acquainted with it. In thirty three years experience of classical music making in Venezuela, from the Andes to the Orinoco delta and from the Caribbean to the Brazilian rainforest border, in Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, Cumana, Merida and dozens of other towns large and small, I have never once come across the kind of, ‘oh that’s for rich kids, that’s not for the likes of me’ or worse, ‘classical music, what could be less cool’, that is present in so much UK culture, and I imagine also in many other parts of the apparently cultured West. The usual reaction to classical music from people who don’t know about it in Venezuela is either a natural fascination or a lack of view one way or the other, and that’s from people who had nothing to do with El Sistema and also from the days when El Sistema was hardly known by most Venezuelans.

The one story I know of any violent attitude towards classical musicians from any disadvantaged person was a lower income music student who set his bassoon on fire after an audition because he said that Venezuelans weren’t able to get jobs in orchestras due to the lack of orchestras in Venezuela and the profusion of foreigners in the few that did exist. It’s often mentioned as being one of the spurs to the starting of El Sistema; not that disadvantaged people don’t want classical music in Venezuela, but on the contrary that they did, but that they lacked opportunity.

I grant you there was and can be snobbery. In the rich apartments of Caracas areas like La Castellana and Altamira of a quarter of a century ago and more, wealthily attired hostesses who probably had more interest in the dollar exchange rate of the art on their walls than the meaning of the music being performed in front of it, would entertain with chamber music. You know the sort of thing. But in general ordinary people had no problem with it. No problem, and no hang up.

It’s also a falsehood to imply that young disadvantaged people in Venezuela face a simple binary choice of either being left to play their own music or being forced to learn someone else’s classical music. That’s simply not the way Venezuelans look at music. There is far less categorisation of different music genres as distinct ghettos in the way we are used to in countries in Europe and North America, and which allows the misguided idea in the first place that classical music is not for ‘certain’ people.

Within El Sistema that means that folk music is automatically taught and played in every nucleo in Venezuela alongside classical music. Children start with Llanero (plains) folk music, national songs, often using folk harps, bandolas, quatros, and maracas as well as singing, because that is what they have as their inherited culture. And when they play Mozart or Tchaikovsky, it’s not different ‘stuff’ to them, but just more music.

Many in fact choose to go on with non classical as much as classical music, like the A Capella Folk Music quartet in Barquisimeto, the Guárico State Folk Music Orchestra, the Latin Caribbean Orchestra, the Símon Bólivar Jazz orchestra, the Merida Caribbean Drumming Group, the arrangers of Aldemaro Romero’s Fuga con Pajarillo, the young Sistema luthiere classes in Caricuao for the study of the making and repairing of folk instruments that occupy the same rooms as classical instruments, or the Sistema students who have decided to catalogue the national music of Venezuela. Every one of them a Sistema project. In Venezuela music is music, not a game of class and money.

Go to any of the 280 Venezuelan nucleos, or to any of the regular concerts, and you will immediately see that the idea that these are people are having a type of culture forced onto them is nonsense. I was at a typical concert in Caracas last night and I saw a full hall composed of the type of socially and age diverse audience that western halls would weep for, and at the end of the concert the enthusiasm from players and audience alike betokened enjoyment of the classical music being played, not people being ‘forced’ into anything.

Similarly, I think of the opening of the recital at Hacienda La Vega I was at this morning by violinist Carlos Vegas, who hails from the Caracas barrio of San Agostin (a place you wouldn’t think of venturing into unaccompanied by Sistema people or locals) and whose non Sistema peers are likely to be wondering around on this Sunday with more practical problems than the opening of Mozart’s sonata K.304 on their minds. Fact: El Sistema and the classical music that Carlos has studied have opened up artistic, spiritual, social and financial possibilities for him as an individual that are simply impossible to conceive of for his non Sistema friends in San Agostin. The audience combined everything from wealthy and aged ex-pat Middle Europeans to young Sistema musicians from a variety of barrios. I listen to the haunting delicacy of the way that Carlos negotiates the opening upward E minor triad of the Mozart, and later in the programme energetically embraces the intensity of Grieg’s C minor sonata and the virtuosity of Sarasate and Ravel’s gypsy music, and try to understand what form of misguided cultural imperialism it is that thinks that this is a club that he should not be entering into.

Look at Venezuela: hundreds of thousands of kids of all ages throughout the country playing out of joy, wanting to play more, even wanting to practice, asking questions, curious. There are Sistema lessons six days a week and some ask to come in to the nucleo on Sundays as well. Look at Christian Delgado or any of his fifty or so colleagues in the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble, and you will see the same natural unforced musical enthusiasm whether they are pumping salsa in the Brass Ensemble or playing as members of the Símon Bólivar Orchestra in the Strauss Alpine Symphony performance that Toronyi-Lalic enthusiastically reviewed last month. And the violinists I was teaching earlier this year in Barquisimeto, who sometimes simply can’t be got out of the room. Stopping them – not starting them – is the problem.

If you asked any of the young musicians I have so far referred to if they were not insulted to have to play classical music rather than their ‘own’ music they would look at you as if you were a being from outer space. Forced to adopt someone else’s high art? I don’t think so.

The string section of a remarkable orchestra of 4 year olds in Barquisimeto. Forced into someone else’s culture? I don’t think so …

Toronyi-Lalic criticises El Sistema because he thinks it contrary to the idea that music doesn’t and shouldn’t need social goals to justify its existence. But El Sistema doesn’t operate on that assumption or principle. It operates on the principle that playing in groups can be an extraordinary and powerful vehicle for social development, and that the music that it performs is entirely self justifying. If he knew Abreu he would immediately see that Abreu would agree with the truth of the last clause even as he, Toronyi-Lalic, disagrees with the truth of the previous one. Music certainly doesn’t need any goals to justify its existence – the Venezuelan experience shows that music can and has been used to help certain goals: these are not mutually exclusive statements.

Another very different charge concerns the assertion that Abreu, Dudamel and El Sistema have individually and severally been too active in supporting the Venezuelan government and Presidency of President Chávez. This story started to gain traction in the US and the UK with an article in the New York Times in February 2012 which not only alleged that Chávez has tried to appropriate the achievements of El Sistema but also gave examples to show that Abreu and Dudamel have tacitly supported it by not criticising the government, by playing for state occasions, meeting Chávez in public, appearing on Chávez’s personal television programme, and playing the national anthem for the opening of a government-financed television station that replaced an anti-Chávez channel that the government was alleged to have effectively shut down.

It’s probably the case, ceteris paribus, that Abreu and Dudamel would prefer to just stay out of politics altogether, but Venezuela is a democracy and as a state foundation and national institution El Sistema has both a responsibility and a duty to be a player on state and government occasions. Sure Chávez wants to make political capital from the achievements of El Sistema (so, no doubt, does the opposition candidate Capriles Rodonski who supported the project as Mayor of a Caracas suburb and Governor of Miranda State), despite the fact that enough voters in Venezuela know that El Sistema pre dates the Chávez government by almost a quarter of a century and around seven governments. Personally I think Abreu hits the nail on the head: “Our relationship with the state” he says, “ is very simple. Our kids have the right, the constitutionally given right, to musical education”.

If you think that Chávez is the equivalent of Hitler or Mussolini then there is an argument to say that El Sistema should not be taking the government’s money or appearing on its programmes. But whether you consider, as many do, that Chávez is a tyrannical criminal who has gagged the press, ruined the country’s institutions and tried to dismantle democracy, or instead, as others believe, that he is the answer to Venezuela’s previous forty years of corrupt two party oligarchy that squandered Venezuela’s oil wealth on a tiny minority of Venezuelans, he is no Hitler or Mussolini.

Last word on this should probably go to Jonathan Govias, from a recent blog: “Beyond the shameless photo-opping” he writes, ”it’s difficult to see any real political influence currently exerted upon the Fundación [by Chávez]. That may change at any moment, given the impending presidential elections, but to date Chávez’s influence appears to have been more benign or beneficial, his political tenure well-timed to coincide with the program’s rise to international fame, and his most concrete action a major increase in its funding.” Not quite Toronyi-Lalic’s view that “the propaganda that Chávez’s authoritarian government has received through the orchestra’s worldwide evangelisation might be argued to have made Venezuelans’ lives worse in bolstering a tyrant.”

These issues are however really just warm ups. The big one, the really substantial issue is the question about whether or not there is evidence for the view that El Sistema has been an effective agent of positive social change. One could begin with the evidence of the Inter-American Development Bank, available at that has been supporting El Sistema since 1998:

“In 2007, the Inter American Development Bank decided, after careful consideration, to support El Sistema in Venezuela with 150 Million US Dollars to expand its activities. The basis of this decision was the fact that the crime rate and, even more significantly, the school dropout rate among the over 300’000 participants of El Sistema – of which a large percentage came and come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds – had fallen well below that of control groups. An investment of $1 in El Sistema therefore resulted in a benefit of $1.68 for the country due to saved costs that come with higher crime and school dropout rates.”

The research, conducted by non-interested specialists, examined 26 indicators to evaluate El Sistema’s effectiveness with social change, and is very clear. However it could certainly be argued that we need more of these studies. I also think there is a United Nations report that talks about El Sistema as being one of the most successful Venezuelan projects in fighting extreme poverty, but I cannot seem to find the reference. But, hard facts apart, I would also argue that the evidence from armies of people who have direct experience of El Sistema in Venezuela – including people springing from many different areas and walks of life – is impossible to ignore.

So I ask if it’s possible that the extraordinary array of musicians who have been convinced by seeing such changes first hand are all simply deluded: Sir Simon Rattle, Eduardo Mata, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado, Valery Gergiev, Placido Domingo, Nicola Benedetti, members of the Berliner Phiharmoniker and other orchestras for starters. Or if I am completely misguided by what I have seen of the lives of my students, including Orlando Pinto, Jesus Linares, Boris Paredes, Manuel Hernandez, Rosana Sanchez, Anais Ribera, Enmanuelle David, Javier Gonzalez, Alexander Gonzalez, Fabiola Gamarra, Karem Silva, Yeniree Vargas, Vanessa Garrido, Cesar Gonzalez, Jonny Viloria, Hector Perez, Eduardo Franco, Elio Herrera Sanchez, Juan Horie, Jonas Villegas and Carlos Sanchez. Or if my colleagues director Roger Hamilton and ‘cellist Robin Michael, who last year worked with many of the students mentioned above, are fools for being so staggered by their experience of working with El Sistema musicians.

10 of the players mentioned above, all members of Espíritu Barroco Venezolano, whose lives have been changed for the better by El Sistema: Javier, Jonas, Fabiola,   Cesar, Carlos, Anais, Johny, Yeniree, Hector y Manuel

Or if the people from the organisations that have awarded Abreu more than 60 international awards from countries and international organisations around the world in the last two decades (that’s several per year every year) for his work in social development , such as the Dutch Erasmus prize, UNESCO, and the TED award, are all misguided. Ditto a host of non music specialist educationalists.

One would also have to take the view that all the documented stories of positive social change amongst a number of El Sistema members are a lie, for example this Youtube clip from a CBS 60 minutes documentary, which focuses on Lenar Acosta  a one time drug dealer who talks of how he swapped his gun for a clarinet as he nurses a drug related scar half the length of one side of his face, and who is now the Director of the Los Chorros nucleo and the curator of the new organ in the Social Action Music Centre in Caracas. Watching him in that documentary, and now meeting him some 10 years later is a humbling experience.

Or perhaps talk to Leswy Pantoja, tuba player with the Símon Bólivar Symphony Orchestra “I lived in a place where it was very easy to go the wrong way, some of the guys that grew up with me are now in jail or even dead. I realised that I wanted my life to be different and thanks to the orchestra it was possible”. There are moving statements from many other of the Símon Bólivar players about how El Sistema changed their lives: Concert master Alejandro Carreño explains “For us to be part of the orchestra is a way to rebirth, the chance to have a new life, a new family, a new way to see the world around us”. Violinist Verónica Balda sums it up: “let me try to put it in simple words, El Sistema is for me: family, life, growth, values and education”. And there are plenty of  comments along similar lines from the other players in the orchestra.

For a different but no less supportive view, you could maybe hear someone like architect Frank Gehry, who is building a new opera house in Barquisimeto, talk about El Sistema. Or what about a meeting with the forty or so Sistema Fellows from the New England Conservatory who have all spent a year specialising in Sistema principles, or the new MA intake about to start studying as part of the Take a Stand programme in LA, or indeed the dozens of non musicians who have been to Venezuela and been convinced of its changing lives, and for the better?

Why not try the ex Labour minister David Lammy for example, or current Conservative Ministers Ed Vaizey and Michael Gove in England, or ex Bishop of Edinburgh and author of ‘Leaving Alexandria’, Richard Holloway? And perhaps Lucy Maguire, a violinist from London who spends months at a time in the Prop Patria nucleo in Caracas. Or the British Council in Caracas, and the British Ambassador in Venezuela. Or perhaps the legion of other cultural and ambassadorial teams in Venezuela from dozens and dozens of supportive countries.

If Toronyi-Lalic wants evidence perhaps he should look at a few films: as starters I could suggest Tocar y Luchar and Let the Children Play, both by Alberto Arvelo, or one of the CBS 60 minutes programmes ( for the latest one, but also the first one from around 2002 that is quoted above), or El Sistema, from EuroArts Music by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier (available for view at ), or the excellent documentary of Abbado travelling to Cuba with the Símon Bólivar Youth Orchestra, or the BBC’s Imagine programme from Alan Yentob. Or books. I can recommend, for example Tricia Tunstall’s recent Changing Lives which portrays just that – the changing of lives – as well as her impending response to Toronyi-Lalic in Classical Music, and Candace Allen’s recent Soul Music, alongside Chefi Borzacchini’s ‘Venezuela, Sower of Orchestras’.

And lastly, there are estimated to be around 2 million people who have now been through El Sistema in Venezuela. The vast majority of them would probably be only too happy to give Torony-Lalic a personal note as to how El Sistema has helped them develop if he should want one. That’s the sort of positive effect El Sistema has on human beings.

Now the collective point about the number of supporters that El Sistema has worldwide is certainly not just the numbers, but also how many of them are from outside of the arts establishment. But for now I would simply invite Toronyi-Lalic to visit Venezuela so that he can see El Sistema’s impact for himself. That would at least provide him directly with evidence for why thousands of varied people in dozens of countries worldwide think that El Sistema has significantly improved the lives of millions of people in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, I look out at the early evening Caracas sky, and listening to the tree frog chorus see something shifting hazily through the air.  A gadfly, or possibly a dragonfly, given the  huge colourful eyes. On closer inspection it appears to be a dragonfly in rose tinted glasses …

Postscript: for further discussion of this article see the 30 July edition of Classical Music

9 thoughts on “Critiquing El Sistema

  1. GCThomas

    Marshall- You have done the next million children a great service in this hard fought labor of love. Tocar es difícil, luchar es agotador. Wish I were there with you and the dragonflies.

  2. adaham

    Great defense of El Sistema and a great answer to a lot of prejudiced criticism of El Sistema. I touch a couple of similar points in my article regarding the presentation of El Sistema at the current Salzburg Festival. If you’re interested:

  3. Pingback: The good, the sad and the very, very ugly | The cultural criticThe cultural critic

  4. Pingback: Documenting Social Uplift Through Music | S&LF

  5. Pingback: Scam, Voodoo, or The Future of Music? The El Sistema Debate | Site Title

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s