Pianist speaks out against the flagrant politicisation of El Sistema

Gabriela Montero has spoken out forcefully against the pressures used by the Venezuelan regime to use El Sistema as a tool for its violent, corrupt and incompetent leadership and in support of its anti-US stance.

She writes:

VIDEO: The Absurdity of El Sistema today.

In this highly choreographed and expertly produced video, El Sistema musicians, dressed in the Venezuelan revolutionary flag, offer support to Chavista artists in a modified Venezuelan folk song. The words are changed to protest President Obama’s recent sanctions against certain Venezuelan officials, identified by the US government to have abused human rights or taken part in high-level corruption.

One of the singers is the daughter of second-in-command Diosdado Cabello – currently under investigation in the US for his alleged role as the leader of the “Los Soles” drug cartel.

To add to the abuse of these musicians, they are being forced to sign Maduro’s petition to President Obama demanding the lifting of those sanctions, under threat of losing their positions in the orchestra. This was revealed to me today in private by one of the distressed musicians.

And El Sistema’s Eduardo Mendez has the gall to publicly claim that El Sistema is not politicized?

 

The video was published on March 31 and has been seen by barely 2,000 viewers.

Gabriela, who lives in the US, has nonetheless taken considerable personal risks in speaking out against the regime. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if El Sistema supporters in the US and Europe were to take against her as a result of her courageous stance.

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  • In her opposition of the regime, Gabriella too is politicizing El Sistema. (I actually appreciate classical musicians willing to take a stand. Too often they behave like a heard of sheep. More power to her.) In the USA, her statements will be utilized in an anti-socialist manner and celebrated. Meanwhile, Gergiev, Adams, and Co. will be demonized and told that artists shouldn’t be political. Business as usual.

    Geoffrey Baker, a Reader in the music department at the University of London, has written a very interesting book critiquing El Sistema based on a year of field work in Venezuela. He sees a move backward in using the authoritarian and hierarchical social structures of the symphony orchestra as a social model. He challenges the idea that El Sistema is an organization for progressive or democratic social change. He criticizes the cult around the program’s leaders, and questions the drilling, martial values, and boot camp methods of education. He suggests that a wider range of music should be included in the program, especially of the sort that might encourage more democratic values.

    If there is a weakness in the book, it is that he overlooks the close relationship between postmodern critiques of classical music and the economic and social philosophies of neoliberalism which have been especially destructive in Latin America.

    I think this touches on one of the great dilemmas of classical music. It became something like a dead art from in the early 20th century. It’s development largely reached a standstill. It failed to develop forms of music-making in line with contemporary values of democracy, individuality, and social organization. Why should the anachronisms of the symphony orchestra be a social model, especially in a region of the world already known for an excess of authoritarianism and the feudalistic social values long a part of the orchestral heritage? It’s like we wake up and realize that the enemy is embedded in our own hearts, in our own cultural conditioning. This inability to develop more relevant social models is perhaps the greatest artistic failure of 20th century classical music.

    • “It failed to develop forms of music-making in line with contemporary values of democracy, individuality, and social organization”

      Thank God for that. Democracy is not a precondition for good art.

      “a region of the world already known for an excess of authoritarianism and the feudalistic social values”

      Do you similarly object to the huge influence of classical music in the countries of East Asia? These places were also known for “authoritarianism and the feudalistic social values,” yet they’re doing great today.

      • Few societies have produced great art when their forms of artistic expression were inconsistent with the society’s larger values. Historically this usually happens during transitional periods before artistic expression aligns with new developments in philosophy, economics, religion, technology, etc.

        Societies often seem to reach their golden ages when a form of cultural isomorphism evolves that creates a unified vision of human meaning. Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the great periods of Imperial China and Japan, and renaissance Europe reached their greatest heights during these periods of unified vision. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydan also lived in a world that was largely culturally isomorphic. They did not have to invent a musical language, or a concept of their position as an artist in society or the universe. Even the romantics lived in a much more defined cultural world than existed in the 20th century which became so fragmented that classical music effectively died.

        • “Few societies have produced great art when their forms of artistic expression were inconsistent with the society’s larger values.”

          Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or any work that calls a society out on its b*llsh*t.

        • “Few societies have produced great art when their forms of artistic expression were inconsistent with the society’s larger values.”

          Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or any work that calls a society out on its garbage.

        • “Few societies have produced great art when their forms of artistic expression were inconsistent with the society’s larger values.”

          Yeah, no great art has even been produced that called a society out on its nonsense.

          • Not true. Freedom of expression, including social criticism by artists, has been a value of numerous societies since the enlightenment — something that we will hopefully maintain.

    • Wow, how refreshing to read Mr Osborne’s response. Trying to get anyone in the professionalized classical music community to go anywhere near the issue of the virtual death, early in the last century, of what we now call classical music is like pulling teeth. Of course it did have a future, but that future was largely determined by the academic community, ever content to live in its little bubble and furiously champion serial music as “the music of our time.” When the academic world gets its hands on the arts and artists, you can kiss it all goodbye. I realize I’m not addressing the main topic here, but I just wanted to express appreciation for the mention of this seldom-discussed issue.

  • This is just part of the sordid reality of El Sistema – a reality that few people outside Venezuela know about, thanks to many music journalists’ propensity to construct myths and fantasies from afar rather than dig deep and find out what’s really going on. Thank goodness for Gabriela Montero’s efforts to open people’s eyes.

  • In her opposition of the regime, Gabriella too is politicizing El Sistema. (I actually appreciate classical musicians willing to take a stand. Too often they behave like a heard of sheep. More power to her.) In the USA, her statements will be utilized in an anti-socialist manner and celebrated. Meanwhile, Gergiev, Adams, and Co. will be demonized and told that artists shouldn’t be political. Business as usual.

    Geoffrey Baker, a Reader in the music department at the University of London, has written a very interesting book critiquing El Sistema based on a year of field work in Venezuela. He sees a move backward in using the authoritarian and hierarchical social structures of the symphony orchestra as a social model. He challenges the idea that El Sistema is an organization for progressive or democratic social change. He criticizes the cult around the program’s leaders, and questions the drilling, martial values, and boot camp methods of education. He suggests that a wider range of music should be included in the program, especially of the sort that might encourage more democratic values.

    If there is a weakness in the book, it is that he overlooks the close relationship between postmodern critiques of classical music and the economic and social philosophies of neoliberalism which have been especially destructive in Latin America.

    I think this touches on one of the great dilemmas of classical music. It became something like a dead art from in the early 20th century. It’s development largely reached a standstill. It failed to develop forms of music-making in line with contemporary values of democracy, individuality, and social organization. Why should the anachronisms of the symphony orchestra be a social model, especially in a region of the world already known for an excess of authoritarianism and the feudalistic social values long a part of the orchestral heritage? It’s like we wake up and realize that the enemy is embedded in our own hearts, in our own cultural conditioning. This inability to develop more relevant social models is perhaps the greatest artistic failure of 20th century classical music.

    For those interested, Geoffrey Baker’s book can be ordered here:

    http://www.amazon.com/El-Sistema-Orchestrating-Venezuelas-Youth/dp/0199341559

  • Ah, here comes that word “relevant” again. Literature, music, painting must all be “relevant” thus excluding any works from the past previously considered great. Personally, I could list a good half dozen post-Mahler composers who have enriched my life and that of many others, which is all that matters.

    • I wasn’t going to respond to your post, but I just read Alex Ross’s paean to contemporary orchestral literature and decided I should perhaps provide another perspective. His comments are so broad and subjective they aren’t very substantive. It’s not enough to simply think of living composers that one likes and make the assumption they will insure the future of classical music. More precise and varied cultural analysis is necessary.

      Think of early 20th century composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, Puccini, Prokofiev, and Copland. They were all very active and widely performed between 1910 and 1940 (as influenced by their age variations.) Think of the best known composers of the last 30 years (or any 30 year post war period) and compare them to the composers I mention above using these questions:

      1. How often will they performed during their life?
      2. How many scores and recordings will they sell?
      3. How many different ensembles will perform their works?
      4. How much money will they make from their music?
      5. What was the average date of compositions performed by classical musicians during their lives?
      6. What percentage of society will hear their music relative to other forms of music such as jazz, and popular music?
      7. How wide is the consensus within the field about the quality of their work?

      Even the most known composers today compare poorly on every question. The trend has spiraled down fairly continuously for close to a century and will almost certainly continue in that direction until the concept of classical music will no longer exist as a living art form.

      And there are even larger cultural and social factors at work. With the demise of cultural nationalism the general definition of the composer and his/her position in society is changing. The idea of the composer as someone who will have a place in posterity, as a part of a literary canon, and as a symbol of the nation-state has already more-or-less ceased to exist. Classical music, which is largely an instrument of cultural nationalism and the embodiment of a national literature, is dying along with the rise of the global village.

      Classical music is a literary art form in the sense that it is centered around a written literature. This concept of music-making is also fading, in part because there is no accepted definition of what classical music is. It will continue to become something so amorphous that it cannot be a printed product, nor coherently define the literature of a genre.

      Technology is allowing the manufacture of music, its composition, notation, publication, performance, and recording to become so democratized that the idea of the composer as a rare, transcendental genius will disappear. As the concept of the composer as a specialized profession fades, so too will classical music.

      Classical music developed during an age when labor was cheap. Modern economic concepts do not allow for the expense of classical music. Classical music will die as an economic anachronism.

      As I said, these trends have existed for a century and there is nothing to indicate that the downward spiral will stop.

  • Quite obscene –
    Alas, it seems that El Sistema/Simon Bolivar Orchestra was something too good to be true…
    At least Chavez had the intelligence not to meddle with such a treasure.

  • “One of the singers is the daughter of second-in-command Diosdado Cabello – currently under investigation in the US for his alleged role as the leader of the “Los Soles” drug cartel.”

    So much for that warm, fuzzy image of poor, big-eyed slum children being elevated by classical music. *sigh*

    • Quite – and it raises the questions of who is responsible for that warm fuzzy image and why no journalist has yet peered behind it.

      • I think sometimes it’s just a matter of ego-stroking. There is a way in which it makes a lot of the first world happy to imagine cute little poor brown babies being saved by mere exposure to their vaunted, fabulous culture — and I say that as a devoted lover of European classical music. But the whole idea unfortunately can run a little close to the paternal stereotype of bravely traveling to a savage land to shed some white on the people.

        It may have started out as a genuine desire to improve life through music (and music is a powerful force*) but I think once it became obvious that it could be used to put one over on gullible well-meaning upper-middle-class first-worlders who already thought that they were superior, it was inevitable that it would be used for that purpose, especially by such a crooked government. 🙁

        * And not a powerful force for good, just a powerful force.

  • Misrepresentation of totalitarian institutions through the nefarious, rose-colored glasses of sympathizers is nothing new. Try reading the utopian vision of the USSR in the mid-1930’s by correspondent Walter Duranty published by the NY Times. Thank God for courageous people like Gabriella Montero who will not put up with the politically correct lies. That will it will be welcomed by reactionaries? So be it. See Orwell! See Koestler!

  • 1.- I have to thank you Gabriela, for be one of our voices in the world and an excellent artist and let our nation up around the world.

    2.- I have to say YES and I agree to your sentences, “El Sistema” does a good job with the music in Venezuela, ONLY with Orchestras, not with the singers (always used like a toy) BUT, they have to send their students to study in Music Schools that depends of the State, like “La Escuela Superior de Música José Ángel Lamas” for example. They want to destroy these schools because they want the money and all for them, TO BE the only people that teach music in Venezuela (is not Dr. Abreu a musical dictator?)…. I have to say that the best music teachers and artists in “El Sistema” studied in these music schools. After they founded an opportunity there, they had to forget the past and they had to say that they studied there. That’s a lie!

    3.- Of course, to get the money, they have to sell their souls to Maduro, before Chávez. You can see this in their past birthday.

    4.- I know a lot of artists, which carrears were circumvented. Why? because the Dr. Abreu (not master) didn’t want to accept they can play or sing in other places. Some of them, didn’t want to pass for his bed, selling their souls and bodies. So, they found all the doors closed here in Venezuela, and out of here.

    5.- They NEVER support the talent without the approval of the Dr. Abreu.

    6.- I worked for them, and I can say they make machines playing notes, not artist. So, they need the slighted teachers in music schools dependent of the State.

    7.- When they do the big concerts… Doesn’t exist the big choir, because doesn’t exist “El Sistema Nacional de Coros” (it’s a choir made of choirs from all places around Venezuela). I believe the Master Isabel Palacios is the one and only that be able to do this System, but I doubt she want to do it with Abreu.

    Finally, I have to thank with all my soul, all the people that tell the true about them. THANK YOU and THANK FOR ALL GABRIELA.

    Venezuela supports you!

    • We note that Venezuela is the only Latin American country, and one of the few in the world, where large-scale discussion is being held about the role of classical music in society.

      • Actually, classical music is a matter of public discussion now in Colombia and in Peru; the two countries will be signing a cultural pact later this month in Lima. Mark Pullinger’s brilliant article in Bachtrack.com – http://tinyurl.com/mqxeb7u – tells the story.

  • “Few societies have produced great art when their forms of artistic expression were inconsistent with the society’s larger values.”

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or any other art that calls a society out on its bullshit.

  • Gabriela Montero would be well advised, to not politicize El Sistema herself for her personal vendetta against the Venezuelan establishment.
    El Sistema is probably the best thing this country has, and she should fight the sources of the political problems of that country as she might perceive it, but not damage El Sistema in the process.

    She is from a family that could apparently afford her music education in her childhood, but back then the majority of “her” people could not afford such education.
    Today they can, thanks to El Sistema.

    Somehow I get the impression, that Gabriela Montero does not care about that.

    • The country has the highest murder rate on the planet and people can’t even buy toilet paper. Are you telling me that one needs to be politically suspect to say that there’s something amiss with that? For pete’s sake, all you have to be is SANE to question what’s going on in a country that doesn’t even empower its people to wipe their own asses.

    • Whoever you are, courageous Anon, let me tell you some truths.

      Gabriela Montero did NOT grow up in a wealthy family. In fact, the very opposite is true. Her childhood, dealing with her obvious musical gifts, was anything but comfortable. Anyone who knows her will know what she went through to get to where she is today. Do some research.

      Gabriela Montero has been fighting against the disastrous Chavista regime for the past six years, starting with the release of “Solatino”, when she went so far as to persuade EMI to remove the color red from its iconic logo. She has been fighting against the regime ever since and, sadly, all her most pessimistic predictions have come true. Venezuela is now a failed state.

      She only began to challenge certain elements of El Sistema as it became apparent that they had allowed themselves to become the international propaganda wing of the government, and when they continued to play concerts as students were dying in the streets last February, as though nothing was happening. So far, not one prominent member of El Sistema has said enough is enough, and protested or spoken out against the total destruction of Venezuela by their paymasters. Not one! Why? MONEY!

      Anyone who knows Gabriela knows that she cares so much for Venezuela and for all Venezuelans that she even composed a piece of music, Ex Patria, dedicated to the 19,336 Venezuelans murdered in 2011. She fights every day for the Venezuelan people. Her major disappointment is to see how those who profit from this tyrannical government remain silent so as to protect their salaries, instead of protesting loudly for real and enduring change, change that would bring about a better nation and a viable future for ALL Venezuelans. No doubt you are one such person, a beneficiary of PDVSA who is clinging on to whatever hope of a future El Sistema might give you. But, without a nation, you can forget having any future, with or without music! Gabriela knew that, and articulated it loudly, six years ago!

      El Sistema could be part of the solution. Imagine if the musicians took to the stage in Carnegie Hall and sat in silence, refusing to play. Imagine if they took off their tacky tracksuits and threw them in a pile at the front of the stage. Imagine if they made a huge, bold statement to ALL the people of Venezuela, and gave up their piece of the pie in the short term in order to fight for the long term security of the nation! Imagine that, as a unifying act of self-sacrifice!

      Well, that is what Gabriela Montero did when she refused to play for PDVSA, no matter what they offered her. “I have no price!”, she told them.

      Wake up and see who is NOT your enemy, you fool! Your real enemies are the ones who are paying you to be servile and impotent!

      • “Wake up and see who is NOT your enemy, you fool! Your real enemies are the ones who are paying you to be servile and impotent!”

        So do you feel better now?

        • With a response as vacuous as this in a situation so grave, its as well that you hide your identity. Adieu, ANON.

  • There are strange things happening in the world today, has always been and will always be.

    We must overlook these things and focus on the big thing.

    The big thing will not arive soon and easily, but it is an all going process.

  • Los encargados de comunicación del sistema deben sentirse muy orgullosos con tan hermosas piezas de propaganda. Me gustaría estar en su mesa creativa y Aprender en que demonios se inspiran.

  • She is right! We closed our eyes during many years to the marketing full of petrol/blood money producing the mambo messiah of all arts. Is it fair to support something like it? Just because it’s entertain us? The lions in the roman circus were also very good on it.

    • That’s so funny and deranged. The whole American entertainment industry is a “roman circus”. So what’s wrong then with the Venezuelans running a little circus of their own?

      • Anon,

        That’s true about the US marketing. Money talks, and bullshit walks. However we can say it openly to anyone, in every place. We can also blame Congress and President for everything we think is wrong. We won’t go to jail or be killed. That’s the difference if you try to do similar criticism in Venezuela now a days. There brutal force/blood talks, and Moreno walks (Shoulder to Shoulder with Dudamel and Abreu)

        A public person supporting a candidate in the US, isn’t the same thing of supporting Chavez/Maduro. In the second case they are not supporting a candidate, but the lack of it and all human rights.

    • RGIAROLA It takes a decent man/woman to say “we closed our eyes”. I admire you greatly for saying it. Unlike you, so many people feel it is more important to defend a defunct position than to adjust to the realization they may have been wrong.

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