‘A specter is haunting music education: it is the specter of El Sistema’

dudamel_2242987bSo starts Robert Fink’s brilliant exposition on the theme of El Sistema (published for free here at Academia.edu). I would urge you to read his paper in full. It is a beautiful and challenging critique of El Sistema that utilises powerful metaphors to bring about a new understanding of this influential music education movement.

At the heart of El Sistema, Fink argues, is a fantasy. It is a fantasy of music appreciation (and music education) as social justice. This fantasy has been achieved and, for many, become reality through Abreu’s skilful political manoeuvring. Fink explores this through six ‘passes’ that demonstrate Abreu’s considerable sleight of hand:

  •  A Youth Orchestra can be a Social Welfare Project;
  • Material Poverty can be relieved by Spiritual Affluence;
  • Talented Young Performers are signs of a (state-Sponsored) Miracle;
  • (Their) Being in Harmony can revive the Meaning of Harmony (for Us);
  • Art as Social Justice enables Social Justice as Marketing;
  • Marketing ‘Change’ while programming The Same Old Stuff.

FInk’s arguments are rich and stimulating. They centre around a challenge to the ideology of harmony (socially, politically and musically) within the project itself and more generally in how it is received around the world. In the middle part of his paper, Fink reminds us the ideology of harmony is dialetical:

Harmony subsumes both consonance and dissonance, and thus the message of Western music for modernity is that struggle and discord can, up to a point, be exciting; that the authentic development of the individual is often at odds with the need for order in society; and that teleological development might lead to com-plexity and disorder, but is preferable to simple stasis. (p.8)

In contrast, he argues, El Sistema takes a very different starting point:

In Abreu’s System, on the other hand, harmony is an absolute, non-dialectical value, functionally equivalent in discourse to something like ‘the beauty of total agreement’. In harmo-ny with Leibniz, who argued that when each of us ‘plays his part,’ we fulfill our deepest purpose, Abreu portrays the classical symphony orchestra as a mechanism for aestheticizing social unity; in fact, the most perfect such cultural machine ever created. (p.9)

The metaphor of ‘harmony’ is used throughout the paper in a powerful way to critique El Sistema. Unlike Geoffrey Baker’s book, Fink doesn’t bring this powerful metaphor to bear on the pedagogical approach inherent within El Sistema. It would be very interesting to discover what he thinks about this.

However, he makes the more obvious point that Venezuela is, perhaps, ‘one of the most in-harmonious places on Earth, with decaying industrial infrastructure, skyrocketing rates of street crime and inflation, an openly paranoid style of official diplomacy, and regular shortages of basic consumer goods that socialist and capitalist factions can only explain by accusing each other of sabotage? (p.20). Perhaps, he concludes, it is time to ‘stop playing around in the fantasy utopia of classical music, and start fighting in the real world’ (p.20).

For us working within music education in the UK, the article is a useful reminder that all that glitters in the world of music education is definitely not gold. Given that our ‘version’ of El Sistema is titled In Harmony, I must admit that I enjoyed Fink’s playful and powerful use of harmony as an ideological and metaphorical construct throughout the paper. For me, like him, I’d prefer to be In Dissonance rather than In Harmony. 

You’ll need to read to the end of his article to find out why. I highly recommend it to you all.

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