Having been generously invited to post the opening pages of my book here on Sistema Global, I would like to add a few words. I believe that Sistema Global is the primary readership for my book, yet also – paradoxically – the readership that is likely to be most critical of it. There’s no escaping the fact that the book will be controversial, because it challenges many received opinions about El Sistema outside Venezuela. So I think it’s worth explaining who I am and why I wrote this book, and attempting to dispel a couple of myths that seem to be circulating. Here’s what I say later on in the book’s introduction:
As a classical musician, former youth orchestra member, music teacher, and researcher of Latin American music, I was captivated the moment I first read about El Sistema in the early 2000s, though the idea lay dormant until [I went to the now-famous Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra concert at] the 2007 Proms in London. When I arrived in Venezuela three years later, I had a glowingly positive view of El Sistema. I was fascinated by the idea of mass-scale, socially transformative music education and wanted to find out more about this apparent miracle. However, a year of ethnographic research in Venezuela between 2010 and 2011 changed my view. As I watched, listened, and read, I saw a gulf open up between theory and practice, between official narratives and everyday realities. Conceptions of El Sistema were, I realized, highly idealized, overlooking significant drawbacks and contradictions. Furthermore, there was far more debate around El Sistema than had been visible from overseas. Its national and international activities provoked questions, concerns, and criticisms. Abroad, the project’s image was going from strength to strength, but at home doubts were commonplace in cultural circles. I went to Venezuela looking for an uplifting story, for what Simon Rattle had called “the future of music,” and I was disappointed to find something quite different.
In other words, my critique was not premeditated. My present vision stems from a year’s research in Venezuela, and was as much a surprise to me as it will be to anyone else. If this vision differs from other people’s in the English-speaking world, perhaps this has to do with the amount of time I spent in Venezuela, the fact that I speak fluent Spanish, and the fourteen years I had spent researching music and institutions in Latin America prior to beginning this project.
Why write this book? Because I believe that large, powerful institutions should be held to account, and public criticism and debate are essential to their proper functioning. Because I believe that to keep silent about systemic problems is a dereliction of duty for a researcher. Because most of the people in Venezuela who shared their views with me did not have the possibility of writing about it themselves. Because my research was publicly funded, and I therefore feel bound to make the results public, whatever they might be.
As for the myths, one is I had a bad experience with El Sistema in Venezuela and that my book is some sort of act of revenge. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was treated well by everyone I came across in Venezuela – indeed, as I describe in the opening pages of the book, I was treated like a VIP in Caracas – and my experiences with individual Sistema musicians were purely positive. This is a book about an institution, more than any individuals within it, and my critique of that System has nothing to do with the way that its individual members treated me.
Another myth is that I wrote the book for personal gain. Anyone who understands academic careers and publishing will know that to be false. Also, by writing this book, I have made myself persona non grata at most Sistema events – hardly a route to personal benefits. Writing a controversial book doesn’t do you any favours, it just encourages other people to be equally critical in response.
I invite you to read the book, to focus on the voices of the many Venezuelan musicians and cultural observers whose views are conveyed there, to engage with my arguments, and to form your own opinion. I hope you will also consider contributing to further discussion on my website: http://geoffbakermusic.wordpress.com. Although the book’s publication is the end-point of a long process for me, I also see it as a starting-point for a renewed public debate. The more people participate, the more productive it will be for everyone.