Interview between Dr. Geoffrey Baker and Sistema Global Research Managers
13 February 2015.
Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Hello Sistema Global! My name is Elaine and I’m one of the Sistema Global Research Managers, and I’m here today with Steve Fairbanks who is the other Research Manager as well. Tody we’ll be interviewing Dr. Geoffrey Baker, who is a reader, or associate profesor, at Royal Holloway at the University of London. In November of 2014, Geoff published a very significant book on El Sistema, called “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s youth” (and it looks like this). Today we’re very luck to have the chance to interview him for this series of interviews with El Sistema researchers.
Stephen Fairbanks (SF): Thank you for joining us, Geoff. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about your background as background as a musician, as an educator, and as a researcher?
Geoff Baker (GB): Yes, well sure. I started playing music when I was quite young, when I was a kid, and I mainly loved classical music but I also got involved in jazz and popular music as well. And I started teaching quite young, when I was in my mid-teens, in fact, and carried on teaching through my studies. And I ended up doing a Master’s at Royal Academy of Music. And two things happened at that point. First of all, I became introduced to musicology as a discipline. And secondly, I got interested in Latin America. And I made my first trip to Latin America in 1996, as part of my Master’s course, to do some research for my Master’s thesis. And after that I pretty much decided to change direction. And I went into a PhD in Latin American musicology. And that’s been my field ever since, for the last 19 years. I’ve spent long periods of time in Peru, in Cuba, Venezuela, of course, Argentina, and shorter trips – weeks or sometimes months – to most other countries in Latin America. And I went back into teaching in 2005, I took a job at Royal Holloway, University of London as a lecturer, and I’m teaching musicology and ethnomusicology now, rather than instrumental teaching, but I’ve been there as a faculty member for the last 10 years.
SF: Thank you. How and when did you first hear about El Sistema?
GB: Well it’s interesting. I first read about it in an in-flight magazine, on a flight in Latin America during one of my trips when I was working there. This must have been around early- to mid-2000’s. So several years before the big media boom, in the UK, anyway. And when I read this article it immediately grabbed my attention. And I cut it out, and I saved it. And I recognized straight away that this was something that really interested me and would be a great research project. But I was in the middle of all sorts of other things, I was working on two other projects at the time, and I wasn’t in a position to actually do anything about it. But I kept the article, and the idea was there. But it was years before I could actually act on it.
SF: That’s fascinating. That actually leads us into our next question – could you share a little bit about the process by which you decided to pursue your most recent research, and your most recent book. In other words, what were some of your motivations?
GB: well, the immediate catalyst was the famous Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra Proms performance in 2007, when they kind of burst onto the global scene. Because I’d read about it, I managed to get a ticket to that concert, so I was there, I was part of that audience. And you know, the idea had been in my head for years, but when I came out of that concert I thought, ok, the time’s come. And I sat down and I wrote my first research proposal to start working on it. And on a personal level I was motivated because it was a story that combined three things that I was very interested in, which were Latin America, classical music, and social justice. So in a sense, it was something of a no-brainer as an idea. And as an academic, you know, I was just motivated to explore, to understand – here was this fascinating topic, but there was little if any academic research on it. So I just wanted to go deeper, I wanted to know more, you know. And it’s always appealing for an academic when you find a subject that both grabs your attention as fascinating, and is also unexplored.
SF: Good. So what challenges did you encounter as you pursued your project?
GB: Well, one of the big challenges I had… My background is partly as a music historian, so I’ve done a lot of work in archives, and one of the first things I wanted to do when I got to Venezuela was get into El Sistema’s archives. So it was quite a blow to be told that I couldn’t, that I wasn’t going to be given access to the archives. In fact, they said they didn’t have an archive, although I later read Chefi Borzacchini’s book where she discusses the archive, so it turns out that wasn’t strictly speaking true. But also, so – more broadly, in Venezuela, archival resources are often chaotic and incomplete, even in the national library, so systemic, systematic research, rather, can be quite difficult at the best of times. So you know, it was hard for me to find documentary evidence to help me trace the development of El Sistema over the last forty years. So I had to rely quite heavily on oral history, on testimony of musicians, older musicians, cultural observers, journalists, and so on. And this was, you know, fascinating too. I would have very much liked to be able to test this data more thoroughly against documentary records, but I wasn’t given that chance. But still I was able to find some interesting documents – old newspaper articles for example, El Sistema’s old constitutions, this kind of thing, which did help flesh out my picture somewhat. So that was one big problem that I came up against.
And another was that very unexpectedly, I was brought into close contact with highly sensitive and often controversial information. And at times it was difficult to know how to handle it. There are no rulebooks that tell you how to deal with this kind of situation. And I didn’t know any academics in that sort of position. So I was quite torn at the time – as a researcher, I wanted to push ahead and get more deeply into the issues. But I also had a responsibility to protect my sources, to protect myself, to protect my research project. So, you know, it was a tricky path to follow at times, balancing the curiosity that I had on one hand, and caution on the other. And I was touching on some delicate subjects and also not everyone was willing to go there. So I certainly had the experience of being cold-shouldered a number of times by people who I knew knew things, but who didn’t want to tell me. And also I had moments when people shared information with me and I thought: what am I supposed to do with this?
SF: Thank you. Let’s jump ahead to the process of writing. What audience did you have in mind as you were writing your book? And would you say it evolved during the process of writing, did you find that perhaps your audience changed chapter by chapter in your book?
GB: I think, by the time I sat down to write, I think I knew what I wanted to do. I think when I first planned the project, I had planned a standard academic book. By the time I started to write, I decided I wanted something a little bit more accessible than a standard academic book, because it was clear to me that the well-known public narrative around El Sistema was wrong in many ways. So I wanted to try to pitch my book – to make it at least accessible to people who were interested in that public narrative, so let’s say educated, open-minded, classical music lovers, though not just them, you know. And I mean it was always going to be an academic book, I’m an academic. But I wanted it to be available to educated readers who aren’t necessarily familiar with, or particularly interested in academic sources, scholarly theories, and so on and so forth. So it was a bit of a juggling act. Trying to produce something that a professional academic or a PhD student might find useful, but at the same time, something that might grab the attention of a more general reader, or someone who’s more immersed in the practical side, more than the theoretical side – a professional musician, say, or a music teacher. And it’s a risk, definitely, it’s a risk, because you can end up being accused by academics of oversimplifying, and of practitioners of being overly theoretical or over-complexifying. So you know, it’s hard to keep everyone happy, and you can risk making everybody unhappy.
In terms of the kind of the flow of the book, some chapters are more theoretical than others. But I wouldn’t say that the imagined readership changes. You know, for example, I try and use Foucault in such a way that it doesn’t really matter whether you already know anything about him, or his work. And I hope that I wouldn’t use theory for the sake of using theory. If I talk about Foucault, it’s because I think he gives us a really important, distinctive handle on the issue of discipline, which is something that most classical musicians will understand is an important issue. And I mean if I include Foucault it’s because when I read that book a huge lightbulb went off in my head, which wasn’t a kind of theoretical lightbulb as much as a real deep understanding of the complexities around the idea of discipline, and I thought that was something really important to share with people beyond just the kind of narrow academic audience.
SF: What do you consider the most notable findings, or rather, some of the most notable findings in your book?
GB: That’s a very dangerous question to ask someone who’s spent the last seven years researching something and who’s written a 360-page book on the topic. So you know, it’s really hard to narrow down to a few headlines. But you know, I’ll tell you the things I really think are key. One is, that in general the pedagogy and curriculum of El Sistema are pretty old-fashioned and conservative. I was expecting to see something rather more revolutionary in terms of artistic learning. But it’s very much about discipline as I’ve already said, about authority, about obeying commands, a focus on drilling rather than critical thinking or creativity, lack of interest in contemporary thinking on music education, or citizenship education. So it’s – the core ideas of El Sistema have been around for centuries. We’ve had this kind of program in Europe 200 years ago, aiming to discipline the poor through music. And the ideas go back hundreds of years in Latin America. And this conservatism goes many ways, stems from El Sistema’s founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, who’s a deeply conservative figure, and who’s got quite a mixed reputation in Venezuela. He’s been given quite a whitewashing in the international media which regards him as a saint. But one of my discoveries in Venezuela is that he’s seen, certainly by some, as a complex and controversial figure there. He was famously described as “the philanthropic ogre” by the investigative journalist, Rafael Rivero, who wrote a long article about him in 1994. And certainly I came across some pretty unflattering reports from people who’d researched or worked closely with Abreu. That was very much a surprise.
Then the institution itself, the power dynamics of El Sistema are quite problematic. It’s an autocratic, hierarchical institution, that functions in a pretty opaque fashion. One thing that surprised me about it was the way that resources – both human resources and economic resources – are funneled toward the top of the organization. So the main focus is really on these show orchestras that travel around the world and wow audiences like me in 2007. More than working with deprived Venezuelan children. And frontline teaching of small children in ordinary núcleos is the lowest paid and lowest status work in El Sistema. So away from the cameras and official delegations, there are a lot of disgruntled teachers being paid by the hour with few benefits. And it’s interesting no one seems to be concerned about social justice for them.
One of the things that El Sistema’s most famous for is its claims to be a social program that targets the most vulnerable in society. But I found little evidence of genuine social work going on, it very much operates as a musical program, I found. And also, I came away with a big question mark over the idea that it’s really targeting the most deprived of society. I certainly found when I interviewed Sistema musicians about this, they were skeptical, by and large, for the most part, they regarded this as kind of marketing, as propaganda, rather than the reality of the program. And certainly in the main music school I studied, I found very little evidence of deprivation. And simply there was a lack of mechanisms for targeting the poorest in society by the schools where I studied. The doors were open to all, yes, but targeting was not part of the plan.
And one last idea, which is fundamental to El Sistema, the idea of the orchestra as a model for an ideal society. There’s pretty little basis for that assertion, and I think if you talk to orchestral musicians or read academic studies of orchestras, it’s actually quite a problematic institution. And I would say that El Sistema’s a model for an autocratic society rather than an ideal society, and even for a 1% society.
Clearly I can go on and on, but pretty much I would say that anything I believed when I arrived in Venezuela turned out to be somewhere between questionable and downright false. And a final point which I maybe don’t make enough of in the book, but I’m increasingly seeing as quite crucial is the issue of gender discrimination. And I’m not talking here about the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, which actually require research in Venezuela in order to grasp and verify them. But rather the blatant under-representation of women at the top end of the organization, which is certainly something you can see from the comfort of your computer. The top orchestra, the Simon Bolivar, has an 80-20 gender split, and all of the top conductors and directors are men. So you know, I’m increasingly asking myself, why is the organization regarded as a beacon of social justice, when it’s so obviously patriarchal? And why are people so ready to overlook these things, let alone the red flags about more serious issues that female musicians face? It’s like, you put together children and music and everyone loses their critical faculties. And also, you know, there’s this kind of guru worship around Abreu, which means people won’t stand up and ask difficult questions, like why are his hand-picked conducting protégés always male? As far as I’m concerned, if you believe in social justice, then you believe in gender equality. If you believe in gender equality, then you have to put up your hand and say, El Sistema is a patriarchy, and you get more social action for your music if you’re male.
SF: So, could you take a moment and comment on how you situate this latest book, including these findings you shared with us, amongst your previous work?
GB: Well I think there are a number of threads that run through all the research I’ve done, really, over the last nearly two decades. I mean Latin America, obviously is a thread. I’ve worked a lot on socialist political contexts. I’ve done a lot of work on Cuba and Venezuela and Argentina. Cultural institutions is another thread, cultural policy. And music education was a small part of my first book, and it became essential to a later project which I did in parallel with my research on El Sistema, which is called “Growing into Music,” which involved spending six months filming children learning music in Cuba and Venezuela, part of a larger research project on childhood musical learning around the world. And all of these films are now finished and available online.
But sometimes I think one of the interesting things is that sometimes these connections take awhile to become apparent, even to me. It’s kind of in retrospect that I understand how these things come together. For example, when I conceived of my Sistema project, I didn’t think it would have any connection to my PhD work on music in colonial Peru. That seemed a very far-fetched idea. But after awhile I realized that there were certain dynamics common between these two kinds of musical, cultural contexts. And it’s been interesting whenever I talk to scholars who have studied or read about colonial Latin American music, they make the same kinds of connections. So I think having a historical grounding ended up being very useful, somewhat indirectly, because it could help me understand how El Sistema’s repeating several quite well-worn tropes from the past, the quite distant past in Latin America.
And the other thing I was going to say was that some kinds of connections also emerged from my later research in Cuba, because there I was exploring the way that popular musicians learned to talk to the state in order to gain support or gain space for their activities. And through this research I kind of got a sense of how, when you have a very active state like you do in left-wing political contexts like you do in Venezuela and Cuba – what musicians say publicly is very often well-constructed, for instrumental ends, for particular aims. So what musicians say often needs to be regarded as strategies rather than statements of facts. You have to dig beneath these kinds of public announcements. And that served me very well in Venezuela, where there’s a lot of wonderful sound-bites around El Sistema, and they’ve been very effective in convincing the Venezuelan government, foreign development banks, so on and so forth. But they still need to be analyzed carefully by anyone seriously interested in this field.
SF: Can you share with us a bit about what research projects you are intending to work on next?
GB: Yes and no, I can share with you that I have no idea. I mean part of me says that I am mentally burnt out with this last book, and I’d be quite happy never to do any more research ever again. But I think realistically, I’m really interested in doing more research further down the line on the idea of music as social action but much more broadly. Thinking about different ways of approaching issues of social action and social justice in music. Probably sticking in Latin America, which is the part of the world that I know well. But no concrete plans for the moment.
SF: Do you see yourself being involved in El Sistema research or work in the future?
GB: I think it’s complicated. I mean, in some ways my options are quite limited because I can’t really do further research in Venezuela, certainly not for the moment. So as much as I’d like to plug gaps in my knowledge, for example to do more archive research, I’d love to do that, but you know I just can’t see it happening at the moment, with, you know, El Sistema being the way it is now and the issues I’d have if I went to Venezuela. And you know, there are definitely… I’ll be honest there are days when I’ve had enough of getting abuse hurled at me by people who don’t know very much, who think they’re experts on El Sistema. I just think you know what, I’ve done my research, I’ve published my results, I’ve done my bit, I’ll leave it there. If people want to pretend my book doesn’t exist or whatever, good luck to them.
But then on the other hand, there’s another part of me thinks well, I have to be involved whether I like it or not because now I’m a focal point for Venezuelans who are glad that some of these things are being talked about in public. And that’s in a sense the die cast in that respect. So in some ways, because I can’t go to Venezuela, there’s not very much I can do to be involved in a concrete sense, but I would like to create a space for more public debates around the issues that are arising. This has been my intention for some time of my personal website, but unfortunately after the first few exchanges, the North American advocacy community withdrew kind of en masse. So it didn’t really work out, which is a shame, because I think it would be great if there was more willingness to get into proper critical debate in this field.
Anyway, I’m planning to re-launch the website, in bilingual form, under the title tocarypensar.com [“to play and to think”]. And I’m going to see if the Venezuelans are more up for debate about this. I think at the end of the day there are important issues around social justice, around human rights at stake here, and I can’t just let them go because I’m getting a bit of flak from vested interests or uninformed parties. I think that free and frank debate around El Sistema is essential. It’s a vital part of music as social action. And it’s still not happening. So I have to try to do my bit to make sure that it does happen.
SF: What impact do you hope that your work will have, maybe talking more specifically, on the Sistema Global community?
GB: Well, hope… I hope that it will lead to more critical distance from the Venezuelan program. And to more robust debate around the pros and cons of the Venezuelan Sistema. I mean I do believe that sooner or later, all those Sistema-inspired programs around the world will need to recognize they’ve been inspired by a program that reproduces many of the exclusive and unjust elements of music education in the past. And since these programs don’t receive money from Venezuela, there’s no need for any of the kind of subservience that’s all too common in this sphere. So I’d like to see some of these programs come out and say, yes, we find El Sistema inspiring, it’s inspiring us to think about music and social action. But the way we’re going to go about this is going to reflect cutting-edge research on music education today, not ideas that were already conservative two hundred years ago. And one of the points I make in my book, which is not as negative as people would like to make out, is that there are really good models of music education being put into practice in Europe and the Americas today. Often on a shoestring budget, tiny scale, zero publicity. Why not be inspired by these, as well, instead, you know? So I think at the heart of this lies a key question, which is what are you, what are we fundamentally committed to? Is it spreading El Sistema or is it spreading social action through music? Because they’re not the same thing. And if you’ll allow me to finish on a more utopian note, I really hope the Sistema Global community will eventually decide to use its influence to push for positive change in Venezuelan music education. I think that anyone who’s thought about social justice seriously knows that calling out social injustice is central to pursuing social justice, however politically inconvenient it may be to do so. So I think Sistema Global could push for gender equality, for example, or it could push for a more humane rehearsal schedule, better physical training for young musicians, reduced frequency of performance-related injuries. I think that keeping silent in the face of these kinds of problems is not social action through music.
SF: Good, well thank you, Geoff, we’ve very much appreciated the time and insights you’ve shared with us. Your book certainly has caused a stir among the readers in Sistema Global and we appreciate being able to get to know you better as we reflect on the book and connect the ideas you shared with your motivations and how you’re pursuing them. Thank you very much!
GB: Well, thank you, thanks so much for the invitation and for the initiative of producing this series.
ECS: Thank you Geoff!