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FEATURE: Europe’s Sistema-inspired Launch
I’d like to dwell for a moment on authenticity. It is July 2006. I am having breakfast at the Alba Hotel in Caracas with Maestro Abreu. The discussion is lively, and one aspect of substance that we alight on is Europe. And El Sistema. Maestro Abreu is talking (with his usual prescience) about the idea of Sistema-inspired programmes in Europe that, at this moment in time, do not actually exist. I’m a little bit slow; it takes me a couple of years to catch up. So it is not until the early hours of 2 February 2012, just as the second Take a Stand Symposium has finished in LA, that I realize what I have to do. I sit down in my hotel room, log onto the Sistema Europe domain that I had taken out almost on a whim the summer before, and write to as many relevant people as I can think of in Europe with the news that a network for Sistema-inspired programmes is launching in Europe.
Three years later, we have dozens of network member programmes across much of Europe. From the Arctic to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, thousands upon thousands of young people from a huge variety of cultures are part of a network that is still more a big family than a grown-up organization. And that is how the family of Sistema-inspired programmes in Europe likes it. It’s true that last year we became a legal entity with an elected Board and the usual rules and meetings. But whilst our political masters in Brussels have constructed the quite staggering bureaucratic entity known as the ‘EU’, we prefer to act as a simple servant organization, protecting – more than anything else – the set of ideals from Venezuela that brought us here in the first place.
In Europe we have the advantage of large numbers of cultures in a small regional space; more than 40 countries packed into a land mass significantly smaller than Russia or Canada. And maybe that’s part of the reason for the diversity of Sistema-inspired practice that seems to be our hallmark: Big Noise Scotland’s impressive teacher conference; Sistema Italy’s notable federal structure; Sistema Sweden’s fantastic side-by-side projects; Sistema England’s recent innovatory Young Leaders programme; the indescribable marvel that is the Turkish Music for Peace Foundation; Superar’s fast- spreading franchise in Austria, Switzerland, the Balkans and beyond; and deeply committed projects from Portugal to Armenia, from Greenland (sorry to steal that for Europe) to France.
Perhaps the most striking initiative in Europe to date has been the annual summer Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra that brings so much of this kaleidoscopic ingenuity together. This year at Milan’s Expo and the famed La Scala opera house, 250 young musicians from 24 countries gathered together with several Venezuelan orchestras, and not only made music in concerts, but also tried out striking new (for El Sistema) music-making ideas: everything from flash mobs to empathy games, music visualization sessions and workshops on baroque dance.
Of course we have our challenges, and they are not just financial. It seems impossible to get all the programmes to give us even modest information about themselves; our website is begging for development; and we have had to deal on occasion with internal national squabbles that amounted in one case to a miniature trademark war. And now that we have Sistema Europe, we also have to work out who owns and uses Sistema Europe’s apparently increasingly valuable brand.
So in Europe we are (in no particular order) friendly, visionary, chaotic, complex, innovative, unresolved and deeply aspirational. Our approach puts me in mind of some words from Neal Ascherson, writing in the London Review of Books the month after Sistema Europe was founded: “My own sense of the Europe we have is that it’s like a sponge, a living sponge of squashy texture and uncertain outline, a rich and beautiful collective creature into whose open pores countless visiting organisms swim or stay to breed… [and not] a clanking metallic superstate”. And that is the point, really. When Maestro Abreu offered me his thoughts about El Sistema and Europe, he was simply doing what he does with everyone, saying, in essence, “You know your own culture, you know your own needs: take El Sistema and use it as it can be used according to your understanding of your own place.”
That seems to me as good a starting point as any for the first edition of the World Ensemble Newsletter. Me: I am a European, always will be. But whoever and wherever you are, my view is, never neglect the challenge to keep the ideals of your culture at the heart of your work. Let’s be Sistema-inspired, but always true to our own vision. Then the work will really be authentic.
Date Published: 1 January, 2016