Truth is symphonic (ii)

Continuing my previous post concerning the pioneering vision of Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela for social transformation through music known as El Sistema, I would like in this post to focus on a compelling speech given by Abreu on receipt of the TED prize in 2009, (well worth viewing  on-line at http://www.ted.com/talks/jose_abreu_on_kids_transformed_by_music.html ) which provides a remarkable glimpse into his philosophy.

Abreu’s project stems from the conviction that the world is in crisis. This might seem somewhat obvious given the profound and chronic problems of Latin America (huge social inequalities giving rise to exclusion, family breakdown, drug abuse and violence). What is not obvious is Abreu’s diagnosis that these problems cannot be solved merely by being addressed on the material level, as they are symptoms of something far deeper:

‘A few years ago, historian Arnold Toynbee said that the world was suffering a huge spiritual crisis. Not an economic or social crisis, but a spiritual one. I believe that to confront such a crisis, only art and religion can give proper answers to humanity, to mankind’s deepest aspirations, and to the historic demands of our times.’

Abreu’s idea, of creating a network of children’s and youth orchestras and choirs as a way to give Venezuelan children an escape route from poverty, was grounded in a belief in the spiritual power of music, particularly music of the Western classical tradition. This may seem a little surprising, given that one might have expected Western art-music to have been poorly received in the barrios as the preserve of a Europeanized elite, an alien product imposed on the people by a colonialist culture. Abreu’s view, however, was precisely the opposite: having been a classical musician himself, he was convinced that art is not a leisure pastime for the rich but a social right of which no one should be deprived by economic inequality. Once children are given instruments and access to the spiritual values embodied by genuine art, the result is a form of liberation; their music-making not only transforms them personally but also affects their family and community circles concentrically in a radical way.

‘The spontaneity music has excludes it as a luxury item and makes it a patrimony of society. It’s what makes a child play a violin at home, while his father works in his carpentry. It’s what makes a little girl play the clarinet at home, while her mother does the housework. The idea is that the families join with pride and joy in the activities of the orchestras and the choirs their children belong to. The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself, which also lies within itself, ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress heading for a professional level, who’ll later become a full citizen. Needless to say that music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading in the life of a child.’

Crucially (and in opposition to the individualistic, competition-based model offered by music conservatories), El Sistema’s methods of musical education are not individual but corporate; musical groups become models of true community in the pursuit of a common goal:

‘In its essence, the orchestra and the choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses.’

Choirs and orchestras endow their participants – for the most part drawn from the most disenfranchised sectors of society – with identity and the right to exist in public life:

‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta insisted on something that always impressed me — the most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no-one, the feeling of not being anyone, the lack of identification, the lack of public esteem.’

It is clear that Abreu’s underlying vision of the human being is not of an autonomous, independent individual but rather of someone who finds her true self through interdependence with others. Although he does not say so explicitly, it is not difficult to see how this is the logical outgrowth of Christian faith rooted in a belief in the creation of humanity in the Trinitarian divine image, of Being as Communion (to use the title of John Zizioulas’s ground-breaking study of the Trinity as the root of human personhood). Sociality is as irreducible a dimension of human existence as individuality because God, the source of all existence, is the loving community of Father, Son and Spirit.

The experience of choral and orchestral music-making tells us that the development of individual personality and collective identity are not to be placed in opposition. Instead – as in St Paul’s vision of the church in I Corinthians 12-14 – each person’s gifts are developed for the benefit of the community, which in turn promotes the growth of each of its members:

‘The music becomes a source for developing the dimensions of the human being, thus elevating the spirit and leading man to a full development of his personality. So, the emotional and intellectual profits are huge — the acquisition of leadership, teaching and training principles, the sense of commitment, responsibility, generosity and dedication to others, and the individual contribution to achieve great collective goals.’

One of the key elements of El Sistema that ensures its cohesion is the fact that older children teach and lead their younger colleagues from an early age. As a result, leaders emerge from within the system who perceive their leadership in terms of solidarity and continuity with those they lead, not domination. In part 3 of this post, I will offer some thoughts as to what happens when one of these El Sistema leaders bursts onto the world stage – Gustavo Dudamel.

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