When my great friend and tutor Charles Cooper (R.I.P.) read the first draft of my D.Phil. thesis he scribbled many comments in the margins and in the first page he wrote: "Too many words". Of course, I had to rewrite the text. In this case, I have to tell Geoffrey Baker the same. Three hundred and sixty two pages are far more than is necessary to support what he sets out to argue. However, he has written an important book for whoever is interested in El Sistema.
Baker explains that he became impressed with the emotional density of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra concert at The Proms in London in 2007 and that made him decide to study El Sistema. He assures that he went to Venezuela for field work as an admirer of its musical achievements. He was officially received as a guest of honor and it was only when he began to be “surprised” by being told, privately and confidentially, information about the conflictual and tortuous process of development of the institution that he adjusted his academic research program to be able to write this book. This is not credible. It is hard to believe that Baker thought all what he argues in the book as a result of his field work in Venezuela.
Firstly, it is wholly clear that he is a scholar expert on social studies of music and as such he had quite a solid baggage of theoretical and ideological positions when he began his Venezuelan journey. Secondly, some of the core points under his attack were obviously evident even when he happened to attend the 2007 Last Night at the Proms concert. For instance: El Sistema emphasis on the symphonic orchestra. The book is more than a critical analysis of El Sistema as a social and musical entity. It is rather a wide deployment of Baker´s ideological positions regarding historical relations of music with society and I should say about socioeconomic development in general, on the basis of a case study: El Sistema in Venezuela. Anyway, he has done a thorough academic job for which I offer my compliments.
Based on a promotional article that Baker published in The Guardian, some people publicly expressed outright support for his arguments, even before the book became available. Being politically motivated, they welcomed the book as an attack on El Sistema and its leaders, José Antonio Abreu and Gustavo Dudamel. However, after reading the book it becomes clear that Baker´s article was an unjust deformation of the width, seriousness and honesty of his research perhaps motivated to promote sales. I admit it misled me. The book is a monumental tour de force of written hearsay. It´s ethnography, after all. Such is the social research method that Baker says he applied to acquire the information that allowed him to write the book.
The problem is that ethnography researchers are supposed to interact with members of the community they are studying without discrimination of pre-determined categories or groups. It seems that Baker had ears only for critics, skeptics, disgruntled musicians and political adversaries of Abreu and El Sistema. Puzzlingly, he says: “I met many people who enjoyed being part of El Sistema…” (p.16) but then no account is made of their appreciations in the following pages. Actually, he is pretty clear about it stating that “This book focuses on the narratives that are currently inaudible and the ways they complicate the official one; it brings out into the open debates that normally take place in private” (p.17). Since there seems to be some debate and “it takes two to tango” I suppose we have to wait for perhaps a second book that hopefully will present the arguments of the other observers and member of the Sistema community that are missing this time. In the meantime, Baker feels compelled to clarify that “[His] relationship with El Sistema, however, is neutral.” and that “What follows may not be the truth but contains some (inconvenient) truths …” (p.20). The reader remains wondering whether Baker´s neutrality warrants a clear and impartial understanding of the cultural value of El Sistema and its real impact on Venezuelan society or it simply serves the reader a chance of peeking into the minutiae of power plays and the misery of petty quarreling typical of large organizations.
The first two chapters, following the Introduction, are dedicated to depict the roles of Abreu and Dudamel. The explicit aim is to bring to light the true character and personality traits of these two leaders of El Sistema from behind the public images that, according to Baker, have been carefully crafted by some professional and explicitly hired world class PR machinery. The result is the characterization of Abreu - who “…is a hard man to investigate” (p.27) - as an authoritarian, ruthless, vengeful, manipulative, arrogant, secretive, unscrupulous and enormously ambitious politician (and musician) who has also shown to be intolerant of critics. His conservatism, Catholic religiosity and elitism are said to explain much of his behavior. His entire professional and political career is displayed and discussed for the benefit, I suppose, of foreign readers since all that is presented is well known to any well-informed Venezuelan. The characterization is based on informants’ accounts and publicly available reports and press clippings. Several times along the text Baker points out that he could not verify or confirm the information, which is fair enough. Again, it´s ethnography he is attempting.
When it comes to Dudamel, Baker´s neutrality is strained. Dudamel´s musical talents are not discussed. In fact, they are not even mentioned. The conductor´s public image is the object of Baker´s analysis and his rise to stardom is the target of the criticism. It is while referring to Dudamel when Baker´s ideology begins to emerge in the book and his neutrality begins to crack and slip away. Although Dudamel´s rise is anecdotally reported as a conjunction of Abreu´s decision to promote him and Gustavo´s decision to submit himself to his authority, it is the actions of his PR agents that shock Baker. He criticizes strongly that Dudamel landed a contract to advertise Rolex watches; that he is paid $1,4 million a year by LA Symphony Orchestra; that he got a contract with Deutche Gramophone; that he gets large fees for concerts in famous venues, like the Salzburg Festival through the actions of his world class agents and that he travels with all the paraphernalia typical of the jet set. However, Baker´s criticism is not limited to the individual case of Dudamel. Actually, Dudamel is criticized for the wider offence of belonging to the elite of the world musical industry. The culprits are really “music as business” and “art as spectacle” which, according to Baker, are precisely major sins of Abreu´s strategy regarding El Sistema.
I suppose world class performers such as, Yuja Wang, Katia Buniatishvili, Gabriela Montero, Riccardo Muti, Baremboim and his WEDO, Berlin Philharmonics, The Belcea Quartet and the likes will feel alluded by this vision of their disgusting selfish capitalistic exploitation of the sacred art of music making. Ça va sans dire, that we, classical music lovers, might also be found guilty for our dependence on the “international music industry” for listening recorded music and watching video concerts. Baker denounces that star orchestra conductors are making too much money just like CEOs in private corporations. He thinks that they are being paid salaries and bonuses many times above the salary of the average worker/musician and that is not fair. Thus, he brings the question into the realm of the social inequality issue being currently discussed in the world. Regarding this issue, it doesn´t seems fair to challenge the three of four musicians from El Sistema who have made it to the top for following the trend. It is certainly naïve to criticize the enormous salaries of music top stars as well as those of baseball or football players and other show business fees and celebrities earnings on the grounds of “justice”. You may propose many types of solutions to the inequality problem but it is simply neither fair nor realistic to criticize an individual star player for negotiating the highest pay possible. On the other hand, it´s not hard to understand that the larger the audience the bigger the pay.
Several times along the text Baker feels ethnography as a straitjacket and breaks away of its limits. His desire to display his ideological positions is restricted by the descriptive and diagnostic nature of the method. Therefore, after describing El Sistema’s features and while propounding a more democratic and shared style of decision making, he goes ahead and criticizes Abreu’s management and administrative policies as being authoritarian, hierarchical, centralist, arbitrary and clientelist corresponding “…snugly to capitalist ideology” and to the ways of the “… Catholic Church, which ´demands authority, without offering, accountability´ (Deveney 2013)” (p.76).
Baker is haunted by the question of authority in music making and in society at large. He emphasizes the analogy of the hierarchical management situation of capitalist corporations, which he loathes, with the authoritarian relationships between the conductor and the musicians of an orchestra. He even goes on to express general rejection of “orchestral music” because of its need for conduction. Although it doesn´t become totally clear whether he is more in favor of “conductor-less” music-making such as soloist playing or chamber music he presents references of an impressive list of “scholarly” studies concluding that orchestra musicians everywhere are really an exploited, frustrated, unfairly paid, and suffering class. They are physically injured by too much rehearsal, publicly humiliated by conductors and engaged in hopeless careers. Furthermore, orchestras are not favorable for musical education.
The two chapters dedicated to musical education are very informative and I should say, pedagogical. I learned a lot reading them. However, as a classical music lover I remained worried. According to Baker, orchestral music is, to say the least, “questionable”. He writes: “If orchestras were widely considered to be positive social and professional environments, then there would be some basis for El Sistema’s position; but its claims founder on the numerous accounts by orchestral musicians and experts that reveal large classical ensembles to be permeated by social dysfunction, questionable ideologies and pedagogical flaws. The symphony orchestra appears to be a problematic institution, in Venezuela and elsewhere, leaving El Sistema’s core idea looking rather threadbare.” (p.132)… this sounds quite ominous to me. I wonder how the members of the great American and European symphony orchestras can nowadays resist the pressure of the dysfunctions and keep playing. Why do they not quit? They live in free countries. I suppose this must be similar to medical doctors, nurses, soldiers, ballet dancers, cooks and so many other “suffering” professions. They just love what they do.
The other chapter is just a sorrowful description of El Sistema music teaching being another quite familiar “Venezuelan hell”: “there are not enough teachers”; “the teacher did not come today”; “the salaries have not been paid for months”; “the spare strings for the violins have not arrived”; “the strings arrived but now the reeds for the clarinets are delayed”; “you cannot attend class because there is rehearsal now”; “administration used the money for salaries to pay for travel costs”; and etc. etc. etc. You know!!! … A good ethnography like this one would be interesting to be done on PDVSA, the judicial system, the army, the public schools, the hospitals, the “misiones’ and so many other institutions of XXI century Venezuela. I wouldn’t single out El Sistema.
This is the main weakness of Baker’s effort. He doesn’t seem to understand the historical period Venezuela is currently going through. There is not even one sentence mentioning the terrible destruction that the 15 years of the chavista dictatorship has brought to the country. That is perhaps why some people consider El Sistema as a “miracle”. Whatever it has come to be, it looks like an exception in the mid of that mess. Half the book is dedicated to dismantle Abreu’s claim of social action without acknowledging that such claim was just an indispensable fundraising stratagem to keep El Sistema growing in chavista times. There was no philosophy, no music teaching theory, no social development thinking behind Abreu’s approach and later strategy. It was just political, as well as Chavez’s response. Baker is (“wasting his gunpowder on vultures” / gastando pólvora en zamuros) wasting his time demonstrating El Sistema´s failure to have a significant social impact on “inclusion” of poor children. At least in Venezuela, that is not the point. Perhaps, Baker´s arguments are useful to open the eyes of people in other countries but in Venezuela nobody is expecting that poor children will improve their lives because of the actions of El Sistema.
The question of sexual abuse figured prominently in Baker’s promotional article about his book and was subsequently expanded by other British commentator in another newspaper. Actually, Baker writes that he just heard rumors and hearsay about sexual activity amongst the youthful community of El Sistema. For a country having 16 years as the legal age for consent and being well known by its high statistical number of under-15 pregnancies, his account is hardly surprising. He found no concrete evidence of sexual abuse apart from gossips and suspicions expressed by some anonymous informants. However, the lack of specific references compels him to call for investigation of the matter because “Power imbalances are at the core of sexual abuse,”(p.232), “… El Sistema is no exception, since reports of abuse (psychological as well as sexual) from Venezuela suggest that endemic, problematic features of classical music education are being reproduced rather than revolutionized [there].”(p.231) “At present, the allegations and suspicions [of sexual abuse] that circulate around El Sistema are no more than that. However, events in the United Kingdom illustrated that even world-renowned institutions had skeletons in their closets. … The fact that this problem has not emerged publicly in Venezuela does not therefore mean that it is insignificant there.”(p.232) In other words, Baker thinks that since El Sistema plays classical music, since symphonic orchestras are imbalanced power instances, since there have been abuse in classical music institutions in the UK, and since there are some monkey business among teachers and pupils, … there must be some of that in El Sistema. We better investigate and take measures.
We must ask then, why do people still support El Sistema? Including myself, for example? My answer is, first of all, because it has given us good classical, European and Latin-American, old and contemporary orchestral music of the kind we love and also because it has increased the social appreciation of classical music in Venezuela and elsewhere; it has augmented somehow the quality and the quantity of musicians and music making in our country; it has snatched a few precious resources away from dilapidation and corruption and it has given us a little pride of being Venezuelans. All this is emotional all right but I sustain these are valid reasons. Some people think the cost has been too large but, as per Baker´s estimate, at least 170.000 youngsters are learning music in EL Sistema and we have now some infrastructure and an organization that can certainly be changed for the better in the future.
A key point of my disagreement with Baker stems from his implied ideological position regarding the appropriate strategy that should be implemented in a country like ours. Important social and economic scholars have argued in the past that underdeveloped countries should adopt a strategy that avoids competing with developed countries by not trying to enter into the frontiers of advanced technological competition among the dominant economic powers of the world. Such approach implies that it is hopeless and wasteful to enter into a race for a place in the key ranges of world economy. In this paradigm E. F. Schumacher wrote his book “Small is Beautiful” in the 1970s. According to that view underdeveloped countries would be better off by trying to apply production technologies that could be more adapted to their abundance of labor, their scarcity of capital and their low level of social organization and governance. This sort of arguments is still part of a truly paternalistic ideology that permeates wide sectors of the western academic community. However, as anybody can see, it hides the belief that underdevelopment is going to be a permanent trait of the world forever and that it is preferable to capitalist development (ref. p. 104).
Contrastingly, I believe that without attempting to advance through jump starting innovations and efforts, underdeveloped countries will have no hope to catch up. I also think that it is just not morally valid to propose developing a separate world for the poorest countries isolating them from the global advances of humanity even if these were historically originated in The West. Thus, when these thinkers criticize (ref. p.187) the focus on classical, orchestral and performance-oriented music-making in countries like Venezuela on the grounds that it is an elitist European centered strategy, reminiscent of the colonial past, I have to reject it as well because I want my country to be aiming to be culturally wealthy and strong and not left behind. We must be able to compete in any field: economic, scientific, artistic, political and whatever. I want my people to play and enjoy our folk music and the music of our composers but also that of the greatest geniuses of history.
The last chapter is an effort to look constructive after all. Baker sets out to explore ways to make good use of some of El Sistema´s “illusions”, “practices” and “ideals” that have remained in “lip service” status. By doing so he finally but implicitly acknowledges that there have been some benefits of Abreu´s endeavor. However, he says that it is the way that El Sistema is being interpreted, followed and adapted in the other 70 countries (he presents the cases of Scotland, Brazil, Colombia, USA and Australia) where it is being more or less reproduced, that seems to be pointing in the right direction, not because the Venezuelan Sistema has shown the way. Emphasis on including needy children, on community relationships, on professional teaching of music, on promoting of creativity and diversity, and other policies of the sort, leads him to express hope that the whole idea could be socially beneficially. “´Social action through music´ is an important idea that deserves careful consideration” he says… after all!
Trying hard I could summarize Baker´s interpretation, in the last chapter, of the underlying political soup as follows (ref p.309): El Sistema has been always conservative and traditionalist and as such it had the support of conservative groups in Venezuela. Abreu decided to give it a leftist “social” façade in order to get money from Chavez. Then the conservative sectors rejected the Sistema because, for them, it became chavista while the cultural left in the UK supported it because it sounded “social” which, as shown, it is not and since El Sistema is based on the authoritative, exploitative and anti-democratic XIX century symphony orchestra they should not support it. Then everybody is wrong and Abreu and Dudamel are the only ones profiting. How about that?
His comparative analysis leads him to propose a series of measures aimed at improving the social impact of El Sistema in Venezuela. He is right on that point, of course. For instance, in regional terms El Sistema could be managed better. His remarks about the need to reinforce regional “nucleos” vis-a-vis the ones in Caracas are truly valid. His comments about the excessive scale and cost of performing infrastructure (auditoriums) in detriment of basic resources like instruments and accessories are obviously correct, to say the least, and so on.
After reading the book one remains with the impression that in spite of its inexplicable overkill of Abreu, Dudamel, the symphony orchestra and classical music education, it is a useful academic study for future research and action in Venezuela and elsewhere.