Resurrection Symphony: Venezuela’s El Sistema and the Social Future of Classical Music
Robert W. Fink, UCLA
Writing about the current state of classical music, a musicological provocateur once claimed that “no amount of material struggle can resurrect the epistemological power of a dead canon.” (Fink, 1998) The example of El Sistema, the world-famous Venezuelan “system” of youth orchestras might seem to falsify this claim: since 1975, under governments of both the right and the left, the Venezuelan state has poured resources from its petroleum monopoly into a massive project of orchestral performance as social welfare. Visitors from Europe and North America have extolled the “miracle” created by Jose Antonio Abreu, the somewhat shadowy figure behind the System, seeing in it both a justification and a template for the continued relevance of European classical music as indispensable social good. (The hypercapitalist Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by a graduate of El Sistema, now sells stylish T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Music is a fundamental human right.”)
The discourse around El Sistema betrays deep ignorance about Venezuela, a redistributive petro-state in which “sowing the oil” and the “magical” politics of state subsidy as spectacle (Coronel) have long been paramount. It fails to take into account the persistence in Latin America of a post-colonial ideology of “harmony” (Nader) underpinning the fantasy of group ensemble performance instruction as indoctrination into European values. More generally, it exemplifies a characteristic slippage in contemporary discourse on classical music between material and “spiritual” value themselves, an epistemological sleight of hand (exemplified in El Sistema‘s masterful propaganda) that allows contemporary arguments for classical music’s social power to fall into tautology.
Robert Fink focuses on music after 1965, with special interests in minimalism, popular music, post-modernism and the canon, music and urban space, and music in Los Angeles. Repeating Ourselves, a study of American minimal music as a cultural practice, appeared in 2005 under the imprint of the University of California. Other interests include music and technology, sound recording, and the music of Stravinsky. His work appears in theJournal of the American Musicological Society, American Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, Popular Music, Nineteenth-Century Music, ECHO: a music-centered journal, and the collections Beyond Structural Listening andRethinking Music. Before coming to UCLA, he taught at the Eastman School of Music (1992 – 1997). ProfessorFink’s UCLA lecture course on “The History and Practice of Electronic Dance Music” was the first of its kind at a major university; it was named the “Best College Pop Music Class” of 2002 by Spin Magazine. He also lectures on subjects as diverse as 1960s soul music and 19th-century romantic opera.