Time to get out the measuring spoons

Published Sept 2012 – 3,486 words:  A September 2012 report on El Sistema, leading to the question, where exactly might El Sistema be headed at the moment?

Many of us have just turned a sharp corner. A matter of days ago it was summer, with whatever it was that we had hoped for from the annual holiday interlude still flirtatiously, if tenuously, alive. Now we are past the middle of September: for around half the world dark nights beckon, a new cycle has begun, and it’s time to get out the measuring spoons.

So it was that I found myself staring reflectively out of my Caracas window last week, whilst – as usual – contemplating Pico Oriental’s unseen 2,700 metre drop down to the Caribbean Ocean (the other side from the picture below I’m afraid, but that’s the point), also wondering where things are headed in the year that is about to unfold.

Caracas last week

Last week inside La Sede – Caracas’s Social Action Music Centre – it was unusually quiet. The two Bolivar orchestras were still on holiday, the nucleos in Caracas were yet to reopen, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra was rehearsing in the afternoons and evenings, so that in the mornings there was only the occasional sound of a very few of Espíritu (my baroque group) rehearsing, together with sectionals for the Caracas Youth Orchestra preparing to go on tour.

Then a few days ago it was all change. The older orchestras returned, the nucleos reopened, and on Wednesday (see below), the front yard of La Sede filled with the Caracas Youth Orchestra gathering together to leave for Maiquetia airport and a tour to Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria and Germany, a tour which they are by now well into.


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At the same time, the Simón Bolívar choir are on tour in New York, and as soon as both groups get back, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra prepares to leave for Europe. By that time the Sistema’s Percussion Ensemble will have been to the UK, and the Simón Bolívar String Quartet during 2012 will have been performing in Canada, Europe, and the Far East. The Brass Ensemble will be in the US, and later in the autumn Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra also head to Washington, New York and other points North American. From now until Christmas there is hardly a day without one of seven El Sistema groups on tour abroad in one continent or another, something that must surely be on the minds of Askonas Holt, the unflinching music agency charged with regularly moving these approximately one thousand people around the globe.

And then there is Maestro Abreu. Last week in Ravello Italy he announced a bilateral Italian-Venezuelan orchestra for next summer, signed concordats with the Italian Sistema delle Orchestre e Dei Cori Giovanili e Infantili d’ Italia, was given the freedom of the city of Ravello, revealed plans for the Opera Academy that no less an organisation than Milans’s La Scala is going to create with El Sistema in Venezuela, and oh yes, mentioned that in 2015 he will bring Venezuela to Milan’s Expo ’15, including the presence of some four Venezuelan orchestras (including the hotly anticipated Venezuelan National Children’s Orchestra) and two choirs to include the famous White Hands chorus. And that is just the news from the opening days of the current tour. A talk by him at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 8th recently went on sale. It’s probably sold out by now. Between now and then who knows what reordering and development of the musical world will be heralded by his remarkable peregrinations and their attendant announcements.

These happenings are of course merely one part of a continuous array of action that has occurred throughout the Sistema world during the last year. My initial point then is this: the measuring spoon says it has been another astonishing year for El Sistema.

For anyone who doubts this conclusion let me briefly recapitulate just a few of these highlights. (I’m going to keep this to a few headlines or your day may be over before it has begun.) El Sistema began 2012 with the mother of all symphonic projects when Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed all Mahler’s symphonies, twice, once in LA and once in Caracas, including performances beamed into cinemas around the world, and eventually some of it committed to disc. In Caracas El Sistema marshalled 1800 young Venezuelans to play for – and bring tears to the eyes of – the stalwart Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians. In the same month El Sistema signed separate concordats with South Korea and the New England Conservatory.

Between May and June a bi-national orchestra of 160 Norwegian and Venezuelan musicians, performed side by side at the Bergen Festival and in the Norway Academy of music, Oslo, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble also sharing a concert with the Norwegian National Brass Band.

And then as part of the Cultural Olympiad of the London 2012 Olympics the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under Dudamel performed in Scotland in Raploch with the Scottish Sistema Big Noise, culminating with a major concert on the first night of Festival 2012. In London they performed as part of the Sounds Venezuela programme with a special Olympic residency and concerts in the Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre that saw the site turned into a Venezuelan nucleo for a week, involving hundreds of young English musicians. The Simon Bolivar String quartet followed up a concert in London with a launch of their first CD. Now the autumn tours beckon.

Against this backdrop of events consider where Venezuela’s Sistema has arrived: According to figures from Venezuela, in its 37th year the programme begun by Maestro Abreu in Venezuela with 11 musicians now consists of around 400,000 children and young people studying in 286 nucleos in 23 Venezuelan states with 100 pre school orchestras, 150 children’s orchestras, and 146 youth orchestras, giving a total of 396 orchestras from a population less than a tenth the size of the USA. El Sistema is said to operate 9 special education programmes, 7 conservatoires, 20 instrument repair centres, 8 prison orchestra network programmes, 42 Venezuelan popular music groups, 22 student orchestras, 20 bands, and 342 choral groups.

And although Venezuelan soloists have yet to make big inroads abroad, the crop of new conductors is doing exactly that, with a growing number of musical directorships and chief guest positions: Dudamel in LA, Diego Matheuz in Venice’s La Fenice Opera House and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Christian Vasquez with the Gävle Symfoniorkester and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. To this could be added Rafael Payare winning a conducting competition in Denmark, and other conductors such as Joshua Dos Santos and Manuel López-Gómez slowly but surely establishing themselves on the international circuit.

El Sistema has also advanced plans to establish seven national music centres which will bring state of the art performance, recording, rehearsal and practice facilities within reach of every part of the country.

The first centre – La Sede referred to above – has already been operating in Caracas for a number of years, but work has just begun (left) on a massive extension to La Sede, with construction on both sides of the building going on which will provide larger concert halls and more facilities.

Of course all of the happenings that I have so far mentioned (with the exception of the development of the national centres) are really just the icing on the cake. No, really. The really profound achievements are the steady regular improvements to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Sistema children and young people in the regular programmes throughout Venezuela, the sort of thing I see whenever I walk into or work in a nucleo in Venezuela. So this year’s progress – a progress which I am only just touching on then – is I believe, to underuse an overused word, humongous. So that’s it then, end of article.

Not quite. For in the annals of Sistema history I don’t believe that 2012 will be remembered for any of these events, wonderful and extraordinary though many of them undoubtedly were. No, something else will I believe take centre stage in the history books: and it is not, unusually, a matter of what the Venezuelans did, as much as what they caused others to do. Because 2012 will I believe come to be seen as the tipping point in the process of the adoption of El Sistema around the world. It is time then, to get out the second measuring spoon, and look at the emerging burgeoning international development of El Sistema around the globe.

The first event I will mention was the ‘Take a Stand’ conference in Los Angeles that coincided with the previously mentioned Mahler Project. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College and Longy School of Music had recently formed a new Masters course in Sistema teaching, providing a significant addition to LA’s Sistema activity, and complementing the work of the YOLA nucleos. To celebrate this launch, the ongoing Mahler project, and to take the temperature on (mainly USA) Sistema work outside of Venezuela, hundreds of delegates from several continents gathered in LA.

Hardly had this finished when the New England Conservatory announced an extension to its Sistema Fellows Programme as well as a new batch of Fellows for 2012-13. And elsewhere in the US more Sistema training courses are springing up. OrchKids in Baltimore and YOURS in Chicago (partnering with North Park University) are some of the latest examples of this. The USA Sistema movement itself has taken some interesting strides this year with the formation of a national association composed of dozens of Sistemas (there are currently around 55 Sistemas in the US), the very recently named National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programmes. In August the action moved north with a Sistema Teacher and Leader Conference held by New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and Sistema New Brunswick, with participants from Canada, the USA and Venezuela.

But new Sistemas and ideas for new Sistemas have been springing up all year. Armenia, Greece, Malta are some examples in Europe. The Chilean Sistema is now working through the schools system. In Asia the Korean Sistema has expanded its activities following its new agreement with El Sistema in Venezuela, and Sistema Japan took a huge step forward with an international conference and launch in the Fukashima area north of Tokyo that was so devastated in the tsunami and nuclear leak last year.

And all the time Sistemas are visiting each other, learning from each other and planning together. At Southbank Centre’s Festival of the world in June, coinciding with the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a day devoted to the idea that art can change the world included a session bringing together Sistema Directors from Brazil, Columbia, the US, Canada, England, Scotland and Sweden. A story board (below) recorded the discussion:


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Whether it is Sistema New Zealand’s recent trip to Europe, a set of Danish schools on a fact finding mission, the Kenyan Youth Orchestra looking at how it can employ Sistema techniques, the Director of the Guatemalan Sistema on a sabbatical in Europe, the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra working with In Harmony Sistema England’s Julian Lloyd Webber, the Czech Republic Harmonie project basing itself on In Harmony Sistema England whilst the other Czech Sistema visited Big Noise in Scotland, or the Turkish Sistema one of a number Sistemas about to visit Caracas, there are now regular joined up Sistema conversations going on right across the globe.

Then there are the non Sistema organisations wanting to become more knowledgeable about, and work with, Sistemas: ECHO (The European Concert Halls Association), The RSA (Royal Society for the Arts), ICO (The east European I, Culture Orchestra), The Institute of Education, the British Council, a Swedish media training course: these are just a few of the organisations that I personally have met with to discuss international El Sistema work in the last few months.

As a blunt overall measure, a couple of weeks ago I had cause to send someone a list of the countries where I had had contact with Sistemas or Sistema inspired activity during the last year. I put down the following, in no particular order: Scotland, England, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Armenia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Rumania, Turkey, Malta, Greece, the Czech Republic, Russia, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, The Republic of Congo (though I think there may also be interesting things happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, South Africa, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan. And there are another dozen projects in different countries I would have liked, but did not have the time to be in touch with. Meanwhile I note that this blog has been accessed by people in 70 countries, people, presumably, who have only done so since they are interested in El Sistema developments. This is not evidence of a 25 hour a day work pattern on my behalf, but the sheer number of people and places focusing on El Sistema projects in their own backyards.

Of course of the list I have just given you, not all the projects are classical Venezuelan Sistemas. Some like the USA, Colombia and Italy are huge, (as I have mentioned there are dozens of different Sistemas or Sistema inspired organisations in the USA, and Colombia has over 20,000 students), whereas some, like Iraq and Afghanistan, are not really Sistemas as much as music schools and youth orchestras for the most underprivileged, that happen to operate with most of the principles and quite a few of the practices of El Sistema. And some are no more than nascent ideas, like the lady who is determined to start a Sistema in Russia, or musician Gabriel Prokofiev who is intent on starting one in Congo-Brazzaville, whilst in Bulgaria there is a group that probably don’t even know that what they are doing is essentially like a Sistema. But most of the examples are the classical sort that we would recognise from the work in Venezuela.

But it is not simply a matter of individual Sistemas or new Sistema training programmes. The new word on the block is ‘networks’. I mentioned above the new National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired programmes in the US. Another major new Sistema network, one that I have been involved in setting up, is in the new hot spot in Sistema formation, Europe. Sistema Europe was launched in February 2012, and whilst it currently has eleven member countries, I would estimate from current relationships, that that number will soon be around 25. That’s getting on for a significant proportion of the continent. One of the members of Sistema Europe, Superar Austria, is in the midst of putting together a European Union (EU) application for a cross Sistema project on the Roma who live in several European countries, whilst another EU application is linking Canada’s and Europe’s Sistemas in an application. In England the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) is beginning to look at the question of international research networks. And in July a special interest group composed of 15 nations gathered as part of the ISME International Society for Music Education’s 30th World Conference for Music Education in Thessaloniki to investigate, and share knowledge and practice of El Sistema.

Another flavour of the growing storm of network activity is given by the newly established Sistema Global network, the labour of Glenn Thomas from San Diego. It currently exists as a LinkedIn group and a Facebook page, and is beginning to become the place where international Sistema news can regularly be found. Then there is the Ensemble magazine, produced for the American Sistemas by Sistema author Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, one of the El Sistema movement’s greatest teacher teacher. Mention should also be made of Jonathan Govias’ blog (more about that below). Glenn Thomas, writing in the Ensemble magazine earlier this year, cast an eye over the international development I have alluded to here: he estimated the current number of children and young people in Sistema inspired work worldwide to be around one million. And climbing.

So what does all this mean, and where is it all going?

Well before we get to that, it’s worth mentioning that there are of course some naysayers. And apart from them, there are also Sistema supporters like Jonathan Govias, a key Sistema thinker precisely because of his naturally doubting, sceptical and anti-bullshit mindset, who often like to put the cat amongst the Sistemas when people get unthinkingly over-enthusiastic about El Sistema. Leon Botstein, an intimidatingly muscular intelligence if ever there was one, gave a remarkable talk at the Take a Stand conference in January, cautioning too much blind belief in the possibility of the USA being able to be a copy of El Sistema. He said, if I have got this right (I can’t seem to find the video of the talk on the LA website anymore: can anyone help?), that El Sistema is not a movement. Well Mr. Botstein, I respectfully but avowedly disagree. That’s exactly what I would say it is. And the evidence is forming before our eyes, popping out with real speed and vigour. Imperfect, sometimes a pale emulation of what has happened in Venezuela, but definitely on the move.

Of course, many people have been saying for quite a long time that it won’t work ‘here’, where ‘here’ means anywhere that is not Venezuela. Others doubt that it has really been conclusively shown to work even in Venezuela. Of these, Geoff Baker, in a recent blog is the most interesting I have come across.  Whilst I disagree with much of what he alleges about the supposed presence in El Sistema of a continuing cultural imperialism, and also his analysis of the Venezuelan politics of Maestro Abreu and President Chavez, he makes good points about the evidence base, and in particular the state of the Inter American banks evaluation reports. And the El Sistema movement really needs serious critics like him to pull us up from some of the more intense bouts of hysteria.( I prophesies that the moment we will realise that will be when his book about El Sistema is eventually published).

Another area of concern could be one that Dan Trahey from Baltimore and I discussed in an almost chance encounter in the Alba Hotel in Caracas earlier this year: dilution. As the attraction of starting a Sistema increases so perhaps do the number of people saying, ‘Oh I’ve started one’ when they have either done nothing of the sort, or taken such a watered down approach to what constitutes El Sistema that in practice it’s just a very ordinary project dressed up with the slogan ‘Kind of Made in Venezuela’. As Sistema travels it must, for sure, adapt, but the devil is in the detail, and we need to keep asking when adaption becomes an excuse for just doing what we have been doing for years, but changing the name on the tin to an increasingly marketable ‘El Sistema’

And so the debates continue. And should. But whatever else happens in the last few months of the year I believe that one thing is certain, and that is that 2012 will be seen as the tipping point for an apparently inexorable international development of El Sistema. Yesterday I had a meeting with the Worshipful Company of Musicians in the UK to discuss an Honorary Fellowship I have been offered for 2012-13 to further work I have been doing on El Sistema. We discussed the options. International development won hands down, and not simply because it was my vote. Then today it was off to the Royal Society for the Arts to discuss a joint project proposal: agreed item, the international development of El Sistema. In two days time I travel to Vienna for a concert by the Caracas Youth Orchestra, but the big meeting will be Sistema Europe and a batch of new applicants. Next week the British Council to look at international networks. And so it goes on.

And with that I suggest that you put away your measuring spoons for another year and start thinking instead about what part you are going to play in this development. If you want help, it’s very much a ‘ just ask’ scenario with El Sistema, such are the number of places that new enthusiasts can be pointed and directed to. My e mail address on this blog can be relied on to serve as a start whoever or wherever you are, but with people like Glenn Thomas, Eric Booth and Jonathan Govias around it’s hardly the only one. And it’s not as if you hadn’t been warned. As a blog article earlier this year announced: Not hopped on the bus yet? You better get going. ‘Nuff said.

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8 thoughts on “Time to get out the measuring spoons

  1. GCThomas

    Marshall held nothing back in this epic account of Sistema Global. This blog joyfully captures the enormity of the movement, in both total influence and shear size. If there were a course on El Sistema, this piece would be required reading.
    Look out for each other.
    Glenn

  2. musicinnorwich

    Great to read this round-up fo current El Sistema activity which is massive. We were very happy to meet with Marshall at Southbank this week to tell him about Sistema in Norwich and the long-terms plans to fundraise for a nucleo in Norwich and the shorter terms plans to run more sessions in Larkman and Catton Grove as well as extend to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and other schools in Norwich. We also plan to run two concerts before Christmas – one to celebrate the birth of Sarah Glover who invented the Sol-fa system of scales. El Sistema really does demonstrate the power of the arts to transform people’s lives – keep an eye out – you may be able to help Norwich’s kids to transform theirs. Thanks for your encouragement Marshall, we have a long way to go but will build from the bottom upwards, with the community

  3. Robin Noud

    Very informative and inspiring article! We are launching our first year on October 15th, and I hope that many more nucleos will be formed in 2012/2013 in North Carolina and the US.

  4. Pingback: New kid on the Sistema block | Marshall Marcus's Blog

  5. GCThomas Thomas

    Hi Robin,
    Thanks again for your energy on behalf of Norwich. Your interest and effort were a great encouragement to all. Glad to hear about your exciting vision.
    Sincerely,
    Glenn

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