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Speech to the American Academy in Berlin on its 20th Anniversary

Speech to the American Academy in Berlin on its 20th Anniversary


Leon Botstein delivered the following keynote speech on October 8, 2014 at the American Academy in Berlin on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the institution.

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Ladies and Gentlemen! Please understand that if I were prone to nightmares, one would certainly be an invitation to follow Max Raabe on a public stage. I cannot imagine a more daunting circumstance in which to give any kind of talk of any length.

I have long been a fan of Max Raabe.  Not only is his capacity to perform so utterly elegant and he so innately and fabulously musical, but he has unearthed an entire repertoire that has vanished.  For those of you who can’t get to sleep and have a good Internet connection I recommend all the Max Raabe material that is available on YouTube. Max Raabe, in my experience, has redeemed insomnia.  Among the items most worth seeing is a documentary of Max Raabe on his first trip to Israel. It is a remarkable documentary, one in which elderly survivors are in tears as they hear music they have not heard in decades but they know by heart.  Many—if not most—of the creators of the music that he sings, both the lyrics and the music, were Jews, and when the Nazis came to power this genre disappeared. He has reconstructed it with the Palast Orchester in a fantastic way. His is a great achievement not only as performance, but as authentic musical archaeology, one that brings something forgotten back to life.

And if one was ever in search of a witness to the transatlantic partnership between Germany and the United States, it can be located in the music of the 1920s and early 1930s that Raabe performs. The style is unthinkable without the American influence. Consider Walter Jurman (1903-1971), the Viennese Jewish songwriter who appropriated American models and whose career took off in Berlin during the 1920s. After fleeing to America after 1933, he went on to compose for Hollywood (as you just heard)—including for the Marx Brothers. Max Raabe has provided us a multi-layered example of the transatlantic symbiosis that sustains the American Academy. It was worth the entire trip to Berlin.

In 1907 the German economist Werner Sombart wrote an article comparing Berlin and Vienna. He wrote it because during that period Berlin had become quite arrogant about itself and looked down on its rival Vienna. Sombart took aim at all the anti-Viennese Berliners. He described Berlin as essentially a soulless place that was completely mechanistic, where people were only interested in time, power and money.  The worst insult he could hurl at it was that it was rapidly becoming New York—the symbol of materialist modernity.

In contrast, Vienna was a place of culture and Kultur, and the jokes Berliners made about the Viennese and Austrian habits—their Gemütlichkeit and their Schlampigkeit, all of this familiar stuff, were simply evidence of the stupidity, the arrogance, the dangerous blindness and material greed of Berliners. Kultur was the distinct essence of all good things German.

It is fascinating that when Sombart insulted New York as the historical destination point of Berlin’s culture, what he didn’t fully realize is the extent of the history of interaction between Germany and America. That experience constitutes the pre-history of the Academy. The Academy has a Vorgeschichte, if you will, because, as many of you know, in late nineteenth century America, Germany was the most important cultural influence on what became America. Our universities, originally somewhat imitative of the British, were completely transformed after the Civil War by an American embrace of the model of the German university.  In New York City in 1900, there were probably 150 German newspapers and periodicals; one could survive in the City of New York speaking German.  If you went to the Metropolitan Opera you had no need to speak English.  When Anton Seidl conducted there he needed no English, and when Gustav Mahler came to take over the New York Philharmonic in 1907, the year of Sombart’s essay, there was likewise no necessity for him or for Alma to learn a word of English.

Apart from the German-speaking religious communities in the Midwest and the South that came into being after 1848, there were choral societies all over the country, as far as San Francisco-- Liedertafel, and Männergesangvereine.  They were all directly imitative of a German tradition initially liberal and later virulently nationalistic--

constituents of the Deutsche Sängerbund that first developed in the 1840s here in German-speaking Europe.

This all came to a very abrupt end in 1917. Yet when we think of this city in the 1920s,—the Berlin that one can see clearly and candidly through the Russian novels of Vladimir Nabokov who lived here at that time—the influence of America, and the migration of Americans to Berlin, continued not only in science and music but in painting, architecture and popular culture.  The transatlantic exchange and communication for which the Academy stands have indeed a very long history.

Ironically, the most important pre-history for the American Academy in Berlin is the rise to power of Nazism, and the emigration of a whole cadre of German intellectuals, scientists and artists to America, some of whom returned after 1945.  For those of us who grew up in the United States after the Second World War, the American university would be unrecognizable without figures such as Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Werner Jaeger the classicist; Hans Morgenthau in politics, at Columbia Franz Neumann, and, of course, all the Frankfurt School members, including T.W.Adorno (who returned), and Max Horkheimer. And of course one cannot forget the obvious: the emigration of scientists, among whom Einstein was by far the most prominent.  In the visual arts, Hans Hoffman, Josef Albers and Max Beckmann come to mind, (as well as Lyonel Feininger, American born of a German musician, who moved to Germany only to return after the Nazis came to power) and in my own field, in music, young talents including Lukas Foss and Andre Previn, and Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, for whom the Music Academy right here is named, who was actually forced out of the United States together with Bertolt Brecht in the late 1940s.  And there was of course Arnold Schoenberg whose uncontrollable arrogance was a parody of an unquestioned sense of German superiority in matters of high culture that came along with the post 1933 emigration.

As a Jewish child émigré myself who was not from German stock, I grew up with the well-known joke about the encounter of two dachshunds in Central Park.  They meet and sniff one another, and both figure out that they are German-speaking. One asks the other where he’s from. Vienna, he says, and the first one replies, “I’m from Berlin”.  The Berliner asks, “how do you like it here?” They both end up complaining about the Wurst, the apartments, and the fact that Central Park isn’t quite the Tiergarten or the Volksgarten. After this bemoaning, the Viennese concedes that it is after all not too bad, considering the alternative.  The Berliner agrees but adds: “yes, all that isn’t really important, but what really bothers me is that in Berlin I was a St. Bernard”. We grew up in the shadow of this tremendous cultural German emigration—particularly of writers, (consider Heinrich and Thomas Mann and Carl Zuckmayer)—and the radical transformation of the American university.

The end of the war revealed the extent of Germany’s cultural loss. What is interesting is that German intellectuals after 1945 tried to figure out why the German universities and German cultural institutions, from museums to opera houses and orchestras (particularly in Berlin) and indeed the German intellectual and artistic community, in many different ways both heinous and utterly thoughtless, collaborated with the Nazi regime. The result was a sense that perhaps there needed to be an effort to reform the German university.  Jürgen Habermas, in the later 1940s, argued that what the German university ought to do is imitate the American, and institute something that we would recognize as the liberal arts or the college experience in the United States, and try to reform the way in which the professors were appointed and courses of study organized. Inspired by the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism he suggested that the hierarchical, authoritarian system, the kind of education of extreme obedience that Walther Rathenau described experiencing as a young man, in a critique of the German educational system that he wrote before World War I, be abandoned.  If one could find a way, Habermas argued, to reform the German school system and university so they would be more like the American (on the assumption that the American common school and university, in its hybrid form of English and German, were somehow contributors to the sustaining of democracy), there might be a chance for democracy in post-war West Germany. Although this did not come to pass, in the midst of the Cold War, clearly in West Germany, the transatlantic dialogue continued, partly motivated by the extreme fear and danger represented by the Cold War and by the Soviet Union.

To turn now to Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall: what is astonishing, as I stand here in the garden of this house, is that the most important post-unification effort to renew and sustain the transatlantic dialogue, the American Academy, is the creature of a very unusual nostalgia, a sentimental echo of the nostalgia we heard so wonderfully evoked by Max Raabe, and that is the nostalgia of the German Jewish émigrés of the 1930s and 1940s.  The Arnhold family, the Kellen family, Richard Holbrooke himself, Henry Kissinger, Gary Smith’s parents, like so many American émigrés of German Jewish origin, unlike their fellow Jewish European refugees, retained a tremendously deep affection for the place from which they were expelled. Despite everything, they remained attached to the image of Germany.  No equivalent of the American Academy in Berlin funded by survivors and descendants of Polish Jewry, is imaginable in Poland, and nothing like it is remotely thinkable for Russia or the Ukraine, at least certainly not sponsored by the Jewish emigration from those places.

Gershom (or rather Gerhard) Scholem used to claim that there was no “symbiosis” between Germans and Jews in the years between the 1780s and 1933.  I am not quite sure he was right.  Why did these German Jews who were forced out actually return in the 1990s with the idea of putting an institution into place that would sustain, after the end of the Cold War and German unification, the transatlantic dialogue and exchange of ideas and of people between their new welcoming Heimat America and the old one, Germany? The answer goes back to Sombart’s critique of Berlin’s conceits and his privileging of culture as a major aspect of what Berlin needed but lacked.

The German Jewish emigres held fast to the belief that Bildung and cultural attainment, including an aesthetic sensibility, were instruments of civilizing people and the world. This ideal was an extension of a late nineteenth-century and very widespread belief that Germany was a kind of pinnacle of true humanistic civilization placed in the middle between the raw barbarism of the Russian to the East, the effete superficiality of the French, and the crass materialism of the American to the West.

The dachshund and St Bernard exchange implicitly reveals this conceit. For example, all of us who studied music with émigrés constantly heard about how terrific it all had been in the old country, and we, as Americans, were considered simply unwashed and kulturlos, and hopelessly resistant to true cultivation.  Even my parents—Ostjuden who never lived in Germany—looked at America with a kind of horror at America’s vulgarity, as if such vulgarity had not existed here in Germany. Germany before 1914 put itself forward politically and culturally as a kind of a broker between East and West as a cultural ideal.  Friedrich Naumann’s concept of Mitteleuropa, which was a serious idea for many a great social scientist and keen mind, was rooted in Germany’s pride in its cultural and scholarly pre-eminence.  It revealed the glib conviction that Germany and particularly Berlin would become the cultural capital of the world, perched between these two extremes, America and Russia. Sombart’s critique of Berlin was fueled by his frustration at Berlin’s failure to grasp its proper destiny.

Ironically, after unification Germany has indeed re-emerged as unusually powerful and the essential instrument of Europe, economically, politically and culturally. Placed between America and Russia, Berlin is and will doubtlessly remain for decades to come the cultural capital of Europe, a cosmopolitan destination point for artists, young people, students, and the place of dominant cultural institutions. But in this political context, one might ask, to what end?

The American Academy was built through German Jewish philanthropy and enthusiasm on the premise that the answer lies in some connection between culture and civility, between art and culture and the way we conduct our lives in the public space of everyday life.  The irony of this belief is that it has survived not only among the victims of the failure of that connection, but despite the complete disproving of the link between culture and civility. It was during the Nazi era that culture, and its attributes among its devotees—Geschmack, Bildungoffered no barriers to barbarism and no barriers to hate and to the unthinkable.  Indeed, the elites of culture and scholarship collaborated. So, why did the survivors of this colossal failure return to the premise that culture mattered in politics?

I think the American Academy was created explicitly to give the role of culture and the arts in politics a second chance. The work that Gary Smith has done with the Academy initially may appear on the surface be about politics, (including the hobnobbing, if I may say so, with foreign ministers and ambassadors and other power brokers), but it is not; that is really not what the Academy has been about.  The fellowships at the Academy represent the core belief that through the arts, education, scholarship, literature and research, through what we call the humanities, the development of the Geisteswissenschaften, the development of sensibilities and thought processes that are speculative and are imaginative, that somehow there will emerge a connection between the flourishing of those activities and the way we conduct our political and personal lives. At its core the Academy under Gary’s tenure stands for the proposition that there is a link between democracy and freedom and learning, a link between learning and art making and the defense of freedom, especially in the contemporary world and particularly in the public space that has changed very dramatically with modern technology.

The Internet is, after all a large, undifferentiated sewer of self-expression, in which it is impossible to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. In it all sort of items look alike. And we, the users ever more addicted to it, rather than having a dialogue with others, end up, with the help of Google’s algorithms and Amazon’s manipulation, just confirming what we already believe, and visiting sites with which we are already comfortable.  So the massive technological expansion of freedom, communication and self-expression has actually led to a kind of incrustation of conformity. The more we have access to more information and data, can say anything we want, and blog to our heart’s content, the more we become predictable, ordinary and imitative.

And it is not enough to have inner freedom, just as inner emigration was helpless during the Third Reich. To assert that one is immune to the constant assault from the web of technology (I won’t buy a product because I’ve seen a blip ad while trying to navigate my way from Dahlem back to Berlin using Google, because of the belief that I can resist it) is unconvincing. Since inner freedom is not enough, the Academy has become devoted, in my view, to the proposition that precisely in the modern, technological world the face-to-face encounters, the work of artists, and the expression of ideas by individuals in real time and real space will actually emerge as the last vital bastion of dissent.

We may talk a lot about freedom but very few of us use it.  We say we like dissent but we really don’t like to hear somebody say something we don’t already believe.  I have not met or seen a politician whose mind was changed by evidence. In our country we talk a lot about democracy and we have candidates debate one another in a mockery of what is a debate.  I would vote—no matter what her political position might be—for any candidate who in a debate, faced with a set of arguments and evidence, said, “you know, now that I have listened, I concede that I might be wrong.”

Inspired by the highly sentimental and idealized hopes of Americans of German Jewish origin, the American Academy has become a kind of crucible, a meeting place, where people can figure out how to resist what’s happening in the world beyond the forms of inner emigration that flourished under Stalin and Hitler.  That technique of inner emigration, using the imaginative capacities of poets, particularly musicians, kept some measure of freedom intact, and survived under the radar screen of censors and tyrants. But after 1989 we know that this is not enough.  The purposes of dissent, dialogue, scholarship, finding that things which have been held to be true may not be true, whether in history or in the natural sciences, but for this Academy particularly in areas of philosophy, and politics, require and demand an intrusive public presence. Thought and expression are vital in ways that cannot be only interior; they must be exterior and in the public discourse. This Academy is devoted, in an idealistic and nostalgic way, spurred on by a generation that saw the death of the dream that Kultur and Bildung would lead to a civilized world, to restart that process.

The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself an émigré to America, challenged the conventional distinction between the word (speech) and the idea of action. She argued, idealistically, that speech is and must be a form of action.  What this Academy is dedicated to, in a generous and eclectic definition of speech, including making of visual art, of music, performance, and of course literature and scholarship in the fields that Fellows come to work in, is the proposition that speech is indeed a form of action and should be politically engaged.

The tremendous irony and beauty of the music you heard from Max Raabe, with its tremendous twists on the classical tradition, and its inner jokes, is that it is part of a long tradition of using music and comic theater as modes of dissent and social and self-criticism. Its challenge to the conceits about romance and sexuality, and its undermining of the clichés of self-important individuality and notions about what is morally right and wrong, help show the way forward. The goal of the Academy can only be approached in a transatlantic way within the patterns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of an exchange back and forth, not forced by emigration or by tyranny, but exchange encouraged voluntarily.  Two societies, German and American, that are democratic, and pluralistic, might actually come to believe that Berlin, particularly because of its history and its immensely bright future, can become a place in which the connection between culture and freedom, and culture and justice, can be reshaped in a way that does not render all that we do in the arts and humanities irrelevant and merely private.

That is the future of the American Academy, in my view. It is also the legacy that Gary Smith so ably has left us with. I want to thank Gary, all the Trustees of the American Academy, all its benefactors, and its Fellows for making this place possible, and for redeeming the cherished hopes of those who fled from this very place, not willingly but who nonetheless have now come back, some only in spirit, to finally, we hope, make possible a dream brutally destroyed in 1933.

Thank you.


El Sistema Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall 2012

El Sistema Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall 2012

December 8, 2012
Leon Botstein delivered the following speech as keynote speaker at El Sistema's Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall.

I would like this event to be useful to you. We are celebrating not only now months of activity by the groups of El Sistema here in the United States, but also nearly 40 years of accomplishment of El Sistema in Venezuela and its consequences worldwide.  I want to begin by acknowledging the profound accomplishment of Maestro Abreu in nearly 40 years of music making, and in making music a central dimension of social policy for his nation. This is an incredible achievement. There are no comparable examples of the way Abreu has used of music as an instrument of social change while at the same time rendering the experience of music itself persuasive to participants and listeners.  In general aesthetic judgment and pleasure (our notion of great music and great performance of very high standards, and our conversations about art and judgment) seem divorced from issues of politics and issues of societal inspiration. Maestro Abreu has managed to merge the two by creating a very effective instrument–over hundreds of thousands of people all over the nation–and using music with children and young people as a transformative instrument. In doing so, he has vindicated as well the misconception that we in the United States (and, to some extent, in Europe) have always worried about, (especially since the cultural wars in the United States in the ‘70s and ‘80s): the idea that classical music (which is a misnomer to begin with–there’s nothing classical about it), the traditions of orchestral music, chamber music and choral music, are solely the output of a privileged, aristocratic, white, European, male class and irrelevant outside of the cultural context of their origin.  This notion doesn’t make this kind of music particularly endearing to communities viewed as “outside”. But as Maestro Abreu’s efforts have shown, the belief that this tradition of music is a thing of the past, a historical artifact that is atrophying, turns out to be wrong.  Equally misguided is the notion that its value is a dimension of colonial and imperial imposition.

For complex reasons the traditions of notated Western music from the 16th century to today that are associated with concert music turn out to be transferrable culturally. They are being reinvented by new communities in new places that have nothing to do with the dead white males that had a hand in creating them. This is happening in the Far East (in China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia) and South America (particularly Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela). This musical tradition is now reinvented anew, by new generations and in new cultural contexts. That said, it has shown a potential transferability comparable to matters of science and mathematics, which know no cultural boundaries.

Therefore, Maestro Abreu’s achievement is not only for the country of Venezuela and its citizens, but also on behalf of the capacity of any nation’s power to place music making into the center of its culture. And, of course, the most famous result of this, on the international concert scene is Maestro Dudamel, particularly with his continuing commitment to maestro Abreu’s principles, the creation in Los Angeles of YOLA (the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) and the programs which have created in Los Angeles the largest nucleo in the United States.

I start out with this praise because what I would like to talk about is not so much El Sistema as a model; rather we should regard it as an inspiration. It would be a mistake to look at what has been accomplished in Venezuela and conclude, “We can do this in the United States.” There is a certain tendency, given the power of the accomplishment, to follow the imitative route, to think that El Sistema is to music what Weight Watchers is to weight loss: that it’s a product you can package, wrap, and carry with you anywhere you go. But it’s not so simple. The problems of Venezuela are not the problems of the United States. There are certain things in common, but there are many things that are very different. There are fundamental aspects El Sistema from which we can learn, that allow us to say we are inspired by El Sistema, but without merely imitating it. To truly honor the achievement of Maestro Abreu is not to imitate it, but to think in the same transformative way about our own circumstances in the United States and find a means, though probably those means may look very different from what has worked in Venezuela, to realize some of the same objectives.

Let me concentrate first on what we can take from the Venezuelan experience that looks transferable. Translation can be either literal (that is to say, very exact), which makes it ugly. Or it can be poetic, which means you are trying to get to the underlying meaning of words in another language and translate it in a way that expresses its moral equivalent in your own language.  It may end up being, on the surface, quite a departure from the literal meaning.

The first principle of El Sistema we see that could impact the United States is to define music education and the function of music not in terms of some threshold and standard of quality in music making, but rather in terms of the activity itself. In the United States, we have a tendency to look at music as a function of something we call talent. Parents (wherever they are but also in poor and underserved communities), think that being musical is an exceptional quality. We love child prodigies, and we love to exploit them. This is a profound error based in this pervasive misconception. Music is an inbred, human activity, which every individual possesses, and the level of “natural” ability is not connected to what makes it meaningful, either to the individual or to the society. Prodigies do not define what is musical, and in our educational system we should not segregate by ability. The ability to make music should be encouraged democratically in every child without a prior prejudice of their so-called ability, because we do not know enough either about human psychology or human mechanisms of learning to make a reliable prediction of who in the end will be a good musician, who will not be one. Music making is developing a mode of expression apart from language and of encouraging a different dimension of sensibility. It is therefore not about the exceptional child; it is about every child. Once we accept that position, our whole attitude to music education must necessarily adjust, and that’s what El Sistema has done.

The second lesson to be learned from El Sistema is to regard music as a group activity and not as a divisive, individual activity, to understand that the learning of music is not only (or even primarily) a solo activity isolated from the community. In American popular culture we are familiar with the image of the bespectacled nerd carrying a violin case, someone who is laughed at by all the other kids on the baseball field, and perhaps even beaten up. (This is an autobiographical statement.) The centrality of the group experience in this case has everything to do with not making music. Later, rock music assumed the social collaborative and group function as an amateur activity that once defined classical music, in American society, at the expense of chamber and orchestral music. Snobs and defenders of classical music held rock and popular music in contempt, particularly after World War II. My point is that the perception of making music as a singular activity based in some exceptional talent must be changed. It is a group activity in which everyone at all levels of proficiency must be a participant. And this is perhaps easiest in choral groups.

The third important concept that El Sistema has successfully realized is that learning music and teaching it is a unified, simultaneous process.  The moment the young person begins to play they also have an opportunity to pass the knowledge and experience on. The process of having to explain and articulate what you are learning to someone else, only intensifies your own learning. One of El Sistema’s greatest triumphs is the integration of mentoring, which sharpens and accelerates the skill at every level, and informs the sense of communal activity. Older players sit with younger ones; the moment you can do something, you share it.

The fourth principle of El Sistema that is universally applicable is that of simplification without reduction. In traditional teaching methods, the core experience is the individual lesson in which music is simplified and reduced to the point of robbing it of its interest. (This is true even in the very successful Suzuki method.) A child encountering a simplified version of a complex piece may fail to perceive what makes it a great piece of music.  This is why composers like Bartok and Schumann tried to write music for children with actually intrinsically interesting content; it is preferable to watered down music. Imagine telling child, “I want you to learn Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so I’m going to simplify it. It’s all about an unhappy young guy who dies.”  The child might say, “What’s so interesting about an unhappy young guy? I can just look at my older brother. Why should I spend the time worrying about Hamlet?” It is essential to find a way to make the power and mystery and wonder of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler palpable to the child as something they can experience by doing.  One way is through repertoire that’s specifically written for children, as Bartok and Schumann recognized. Then there is El Sistema’s way, which is to have the beginner be a part of the orchestra as it performs the repertoire in its full complexity but to play parts that are suitable to the beginner’s level; the parts will gradually become more complex as the student becomes more accomplished.  Therefore a student can take part in a full performance of a Shostakovich symphony, hearing and seeing how his or her companions play it, and participate according to the appropriate skill level.

These are the pedagogical achievements that we can take from El Sistema and try to transfer to the American circumstance. This would need to be done, of course, in a context that does not separate public music making from the community. The orchestras, the chorus, the musical activity from the beginning must be public and collective.  The primary objective is to put the orchestra to the service of social unification by fostering those qualities that make an orchestra great: its collaboration and mutual understanding.  Thus, for example, instead of badgering an orchestra to play in tune, we encourage the members to learn how to play together and find their own way to intonation through the exercise of discipline, social cohesion, and a sense of community. Is it possible to build through music a sense of self worth and a sense of solidarity and a sense of investment in wellbeing? Indeed yes, if it is done publicly with children; parents, neighbors and friends are the spectators so that they become integral parts of the children’s experience. That process of education, of intervention into children’s lives, cannot be limited to the school time. It has to be done within school and, as well, after school. It has to be integrated into the whole life of the children and community, seven days a week, of a child and community. And as El Sistema has shown, in this way music ceases to be a function of privilege and wealth, and that group music making can be a deeply successful intervention in communities that are largely excluded from many economic and social privileges.

These are the ideals of the achievement that we must find a way to transfer to the United States. We at the Longy School of Music and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a program called Take a Stand, are at the beginning stages of trying to figure out what is it that we can learn from the El Sistema experience. So let me turn now to the question of the American circumstance and how it relates to El Sistema. We are fortunate that the idea that music is a democratic social activity and crucial for children, particularly in creating a sense of community and belonging, has an independent American philosophical heritage, and that heritage rests in the Transcendentalists in 19th-century New England. The most articulate heir of that tradition is the American composer Charles Ives, whose father was a bandleader. Ives was fond of saying that in a church choir, the most enthusiastic singer who could not sing in tune was, to his father, the most musical person.  To correct that person in a way that dampened his or her enthusiasm for singing was to inhibit their music making.  Ives felt that the activity rather than the end product was the most important part of music making.  The group activities in the 19th century America in which Ives grew up associated with music (the marching bands, choruses, church choirs), performed social functions essential to developing a sense of American citizenship, of being part of a community, and of having democratic respect for your neighbor.  We therefore don’t have to reach outside of our own intellectual heritage to find inspiration to adapt what El Sistema has achieved.

One major difference, of course, is that the United States has a genuine problem of scale–the size and pluralism of the nation. We are a nation of immigrants, a huge, disparate population with entirely different circumstances. We are, without question, a more affluent nation, and the nature of our poverty and of our prejudices and exclusions is peculiar to us. It exists in rural America and also in urban America. It overlaps with race, but not entirely.

A second difference is that we have a highly developed and internationally competitive popular culture of our own that has, over the last 50 to 75 years, marginalized classical music. This has resulted in classical music being damaged by those who resisted its democratization; defenders who cherished their presumed superiority, snobs and connoisseurs who have tried to make music seem like a luxury or fine wine that the average person can’t afford. It has become tainted by the impression that learning it is hard and motivated by trying to make an individual look socially better and more elite. Because it has been wiped out by American enthusiasm for sports and popular culture, it has been confined to a narrow sphere of admiration by those who want to consider themselves better than popular culture; classical has therefore lost the prestige that it once carried as a relevant and shared art form somehow representative of the values and aspirations of freedom and a democratic society.

The Venezuela in which Abreu invented El Sistema might be provocatively compared to America before the First World War, when the dominant German and Italian and Eastern European immigrants to America brought with them a high sense of the value of classical music, and created schools and choral societies. All the settlement houses in New York City have music programs: Henry Street, Third Street, Greenwich House. They were a crucial part of the settlement house movement in America (in Pittsburgh and in New York), because music education then was viewed as it is now in Venezuela, as a social instrument of real value. That movement died out, partly due to the closing of America to immigrants between 1920 and 1965. It is actually possible to track from that point the decline of audience interest in classical music with the loss of immigration and the aging of the population that believed in musical culture enough to put it in the school system beginning in the 1930s.  We have a bit of catch up to do to redeem the significance of classical music. The last president of the United States who loved classical music was probably Jimmy Carter, and he was less of an enthusiast than Richard Nixon. Now, that may not recommend classical music to us. But Mrs. Roosevelt loved classical music, and Harry Truman (who was not rich or privileged and an autodidact) liked it too. I don’t want to speak about the Bush family. I’ll leave them out for the moment. Again, I don’t want to comment on Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing, and I’ll fall silent about our current president. But classical music is not high on the national agenda, and in the culture in general the instrument of the orchestra and the choral society (except, perhaps, in the Midwest) is now an instrument that requires some revival in the United States in terms of its place and purpose.

It is not news that America is in the throes of a tremendous sense of crisis about its educational system, particularly among the underserved populations. We have an embarrassingly low high school completion rate. Of the people who complete high school, what they accomplish for the number of years they spend in school is an embarrassment. Our funding of the school system is completely antiquated, and if there is a movement that has resonated with many political factions, it is for the dismantling of public education through privatization–though given how little we invest in public education, which is not considered a federal constitutional obligation in the United States, there is less to dismantle than we might wish. This is tragic. It is completely different from the Venezuelan situation, where in fact Abreu’s achievement has been to convince the state, despite regime changes, to invest in El Sistema as a national program. I defy any of you, as we stand on the so-called fiscal cliff, to persuade anybody right, left, or center to invest in music education. The person who did would be considered a candidate for a psychiatric evaluation. And that is not only because the right wing doesn’t want big government, but also because the left considers high culture to be a peripheral decoration.

The suspicion of the American left to any form of culture that is not mass entertainment indicates a problem we have, which does not seem to exist in Mexico or the Latin American countries. The problem is a peculiar American egalitarian suspicion that the arts are not vital to democracy. Most Americans will not distinguish between art and entertainment. They think that freedom of expression is absolutely and satisfactorily fulfilled by what you can see in the commercial arena: movie theaters and television. If people want to hear Beethoven and Mahler, or John Cage or John Adams, pay for it without public help. As we all know, the tickets to our concerts in this hall and to the Metropolitan Opera or any American orchestra are hardly cheap. But even given this expense, the ticket price still does not pass on the cost of this activity to the average consumer. If you actually took an orchestra concert by the New York Philharmonic and made all the seats of Avery Fisher Hall pay in full for the orchestra’s expense, the price would be over a thousand dollars a seat. Even I wouldn’t pay that, and I wouldn’t expect anybody else to do so. Therefore these must be subsidized activities. Not surprisingly, the American public says, “Why should the taxpayer subsidize what you like? I’m perfectly happy listening to the music I like. Why should I have to learn about your music?” This, in a pluralist democracy, is an extremely hard argument to answer. The arts in America are hostages to the whims of the wealthy and private philanthropy.

When we actually try to transfer the insights of El Sistema to the United States, we therefore have to address these issues: funding, the prestige of the activity, the nature of the American educational system (which is not national but local), the intermittent and very complex structure of American poverty, and the essential diversity of the population. So what should we do? First, it seems to me that we actually have a tremendous advantage given the educational crisis. There is no doubt that the biological and neurological evidence increasingly makes the case that musical activity, especially collective musical activity that inspires individual discipline, is a correlative (not a cause, but a correlative) to educational achievement.  This is in part because classical music in our tradition is a notated system that has logic, grammar, syntax and meaning without being a language. What’s peculiar about music is that it is coherent, it coveys meaning, and transforms the experience of time.  It therefore requires the use of memory and the skill to identify and manipulate comparisons, relationships, similarities, and variations. In other words, it has a cognitive function.  It also develops the ability to locate and negotiate multiple activities in the same time frame. (A simple example, of course, would be harmony and counterpoint.) There is no doubt that being able train people to do these things and to listen and observe, has correlative benefits, and that is an argument in the United States to which people are willing to listen. We are concerned about our competitiveness and about the future, and there is no doubt that one could argue that in creating a widespread system of participatory music education among young people, it would improve their schooling and their achievement and cognitive ability. Those are potential claims that could make some headway in obtaining public support.

The second issue, of course, is the concern for the embarrassing unemployment rates measured by class and race in the United States, especially in urban centers. Work, which sustains life, occupies time and offers meaning to people, is something that fills an abyss of loneliness no matter what class you come from. The erosion of work has aggravated the absence of meaning in our lives. This is a shared problem along class lines: isolation, a sense of loss of value in one’s life. One common remedy in the United States from the sense of superfluity, and uselessness is religion. We seek refuge in the idea that God made us for a reason and therefore we are unique in some way that we don’t fully grasp. But apart from that religious belief, what else reminds us of our own need to exist? What keeps us going? That sense of meaning is increasingly hard to find, especially as technology presumably advances our society. The fear a century ago was once that we would all become factory robots, but now we’ve invented robots better than humans. There are no more toll collectors. There are no more elevator operators. Even in factories computers run the robots. We have only come to the beginning of the technological revolution of work. Most of us employed in simple physical tasks are going to be put out of business. We don’t have a bank teller to talk to anymore. We don’t have someone to sell us a subway token. Many of the things that once required human interaction have been mechanized in the name of efficiency. All the people in the world may not be able to be rendered useful in some old fashioned sense. They’re not needed to make food. They’re not needed to make drugs. What are they needed for? The question is of course a practical one of employment and economics, as we see all around us, but it is also one of internal value and sense of the human condition.

In the search for value, the role of the arts becomes that much more important. What can we do that is meaningful, if our work is no longer essential? It is the capacity for unpredictable activity of the imagination. The ATM machine may be more efficient than a bank teller, but no one can predict what expressive capacity any human, bank teller or otherwise, might reveal in the use of language, the use of visual imagination, and in the capacity to make music.

Our ability to use language is hard-wired, and so is our ability to make music. It is through the work of the imagination and our appreciation of others’ work of imagination that we begin to develop a sense of value in life that isn’t about economics, not about our paycheck, and not about our social function at work. It’s about our social function as members of a community. And that is where El Sistema comes in, to provide ambition for the young person, and a real joy of life apart from economic utility. Not to put it too simply, but the fear and intolerance exhibited by those who are capable of taking the lives of others in the name of radical causes, either religious or political, derives from a lack of their sense of the sanctity of life, and their feeling of existential emptiness that must be filled with purpose.  That will to fill the vacuum of purpose is a fundamental human need, easily perverted by the will of powerful leaders. How do you dissipate that?  The arts are not an answer (the Nazis were great lovers of art), but in the right circumstances, the arts can offer a different humanist option based in respect and empathy.

But to realize this humanist view, one cannot merely be a spectator.  Classical music can’t be experienced like a movie in which one sits in a dark place and vicariously experiences emotion through fantastic scenarios that, once we emerge from the cinema, only serve to remind us how drab real life is. Going to most movies (except for horror movies, which are popular precisely because of the sense of relief one feels after watching people get killed, and know we are only watching a movie) offers a passive, illusory use of imagination, a further development of the vicarious experience first provided by novels and plays at the end of the 18th century.  Romance genres are the worst.  Offering a vision of love and relationships that can’t be met in the real world foster a sense not of fulfillment but of discontent. The same thing is true of Wagner’s heroes. We can identify with Lohengrin for a few hours, before we go home to do the laundry and reflect on the certainty that we will never have the chance to play a heroic role or feel the passion of Tristan and Isolde. We compare everyone we meet to movie stars until we develop the same problem that Flaubert described in Madame Bovary, in which Emma Bovary looks at her life through the lens of the romantic sentimental novels she has read, and finds terminal unhappiness.

That escapist and disheartening relation to art can be avoided by changing the spectator into the participant. Art as an activity is play: playing in a group, in a community, hearing the feedback of the audience, are all thrilling. It needn’t be done with the objective of getting a job with the Berlin Philharmonic (and being told to give up playing if your teacher determines you can’t get such a job), but of being a participant in the imaginative activity of a community, anywhere. That is what El Sistema has proven can be done, and can be done with positive impact for both participant individuals and the spectator community.

Can we do this in the United States? The answer is unequivocally yes. But in our case it will have to be done without the national government, and only indirectly with the government on the local level. It needs to be a truly grass roots project. It has to be developed from within the community, and the community has to be part of its definition, which means the nucleos in different parts of the country will do different kinds of things according to their local context. But there also should be some national interchangeability. As in El Sistema, the nucleos should be nationally coordinated. Additionally, we must under these circumstances be very mindful of the catholicity of taste, so that what we do with the groups (particularly in what may be called the crossover) ranges from the standard classical repertory to the improvisatory to genres that are not necessarily within everyone’s training. And for that, we have to retrain all our classical musicians to be teachers not of individuals but of groups, to be group leaders. We also have to also train them to do transcription and arrangement. In one of Longy and Bard’s first nucleos, for example, in the Central Valley of California, we have a mariachi group. And that’s an excellent point to begin, developing outward from local tradition into other kinds of music, and also to exchange with other nucleos so that they can encounter mariachi as a new musical experience for themselves. The building of different kinds of ensembles and different kinds of repertoire facilitates a constructive national conversation.

There’s so much from which to draw outside the standard European repertoire, that these groups can make a contribution in bringing music to life.  We’re not only getting a youth orchestra or an orchestra to come through the system to play Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, but also the treasures that other orchestras might not dare to touch that are from the classical tradition that has been neglected and from the heritage of the nucleo’s community, whether it’s Mexican composers such as Chavez or Revueltas, or the Argentinian Ginastera, or in the United States the long, rich repository of repertory of American composers such as Copland, Still, Ellington, Harris and Beach.

In the organizing of this monumental project, the first step in every community is to create an alliance between the school system, the local government, the specific political and business leadership of the region, and the performing arts organizations (whether they be orchestras or choral societies), to involve the varying churches (both Protestant and Catholic) and the non-Christian religious communities. The core tenet is that this must done in a way that is collaborative and which reinforces a sense of a democratic pluralism. It also has to be defined in a way that does not slip into segregation, so we will have to find ways in which the actual constituencies of kids are not all of one neighborhood. That’s relatively easy to do in the bigger cities; it’s a little more complicated in rural areas.

In conclusion, what we learn from the success of Maestro Abreu and El Sistema is that music can be made to matter. Music can be placed at the center of a nation’s social and political agenda. It can be placed at the center of a nation’s desire to recreate a fabric of patriotism and community, to give a chance to people who are excluded from proper education and opportunity to develop the skills through music that will make them competitive. It also shows that really honoring musical expression is a way of redeeming a sense of personal value and can have practical impact on the success of a generation and of a community.  It’s a priority, not a luxury, and the emphasis has to be on participation. El Sistems’s example is an enormous encouragement, and therefore it is absolutely proper that we take a very good look at how and what is done in Venezuela, as we attempt to create in the United States versions of what they’ve achieved that will work for us. This is what we have tried to do at Longy and at Bard, in the creation of a national network through Take a Stand in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Our work isn’t about owning a franchise or a product, but it is about paying the greatest compliment we can to El Sistema, which is to imitate and to honor its principles rather than any specific practice. Thank you very much.


We’ll take a few moments for questions, if there are any.  I hate giving talks about without giving someone else a chance to speak, so I would be happy to take a few questions before we run out of time. Go ahead.

-You were going through the obstacles and the differences in American society versus in Venezuela. It makes me think that one of the biggest is the role of the individual in each of our societies. The role of the individual in our society is paramount (deified) which is, from my understanding, diametrically opposite to what El Sistema has been able to build on. So I’m thinking about all those parents who haul their kids to afterschool activities that are for their individual development, and how would we ever make the shift to afterschool activities for social development, especially since socialism is an anathema.

I think it’s a very good question. First, I can’t speak for Venezuela. I speak to the American experience. The focus on individual competitiveness and achievement is not irreconcilable with group activity, because you have to achieve in a group. An orchestra is a very peculiar instrument. It’s an instrument that could be an instrument of subordination (that is to say, everybody has to subordinate his or her artistic individuality to the conductor, and you hope the conductor is good, because if the subordination is obnoxious it breeds rage). However, the orchestra doesn’t necessarily have to be that, and that’s where the mentoring is very helpful. Much depends on the way a conductor treats an orchestra. For example, in an orchestra you have to have a sense of rhythmic cohesion and ensemble. Ensemble is not only created by hawk-like watching of the conductor, but it is formed by listening to the people around you in the acoustic space, so that the back of the orchestra plays a little early so it can line up with the front of the orchestra. In that, you have to rely on the orchestral musicians’ sense of their own ability to control the situation. So you can train an orchestra and a chorus to feel that the sum is greater than the parts but the parts are crucial.  I don’t accept the notion that individual instruction is at odds with the group, especially in music, because the amount of repertoire for solo tuba is limited, and the amount of repertoire even for solo violin is limited (without accompanist), so the moment you make music you’re talking about a social activity and social communication. Second, in America the premium on the individual is hypocritical, because we have freedom and the chance to attain individuality we never use. We use it to look like our neighbor. Actually, all this talk about individuality drives me nuts, because where are truly distinctive individuals? The moment we see the individual, we ostracize her, shun him, hurl epithets and even lock him up. We don’t tolerate a sense of individuality in America (not at all). The American school is all too much about conformity. You know, when we came to this country, the school called my mother, a professor of pediatrics (they made a mistake in calling her), and said that my sister failed to join the group and they were concerned. My mother said, “What was the group doing?” And when she heard what they were doing she said, “I’m on my daughter’s side.”

So Americans use freedom actually to voluntarily suppress real dissent and individuality. I’m being overly cynical. I wouldn’t be too concerned about individuality, because I think that in the training of musicians your point is very important. The training of musicians has to involve several things. One is not only playing together in an ensemble but also finding means of personal expression, being able to write music and improvise. All classical musicians need to be trained to improvise. So the experience of being in the group, and having the same technical capacity are crucial, and that’s why teaching the reading of music and the writing of music are so important. Therefore, then, the same individual who may spend three or four hours being part of an ensemble can use those very same skills for something that is her or his own. So I think this is not a problem. And the way you sell this to the public is that, unlike some group activities, musical achievement can’t be taken away from you. In fact, that’s something you can sustain individually. Onereason I never was interested in doing sports is I realized that even if I were good at it (which was implausible), I would be finished at 21. I mean, who are the tennis stars? This is a youth-related activity. But when you watch films of Artur Rubinstein or Casals going out onstage (let alone Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who gave a concert at 99), I thought, “Now, that’s worthwhile. I can amortize my youthful effort over my entire life. So it’s a much more attractive investment, if you want to put it in American terms, an investment that keeps giving.

-I’m aware of El Sistema having been replicated in, for example, Glasgow in Scotland, which is an incredibly deprived community, and where they had a considerable degree of success. My question is, have you had the opportunity to observe other examples of El Sistema being replicated with success, and what are their main points?

The questioner speaks of a replication of El Sistema in Scotland. Let me say something, which for those of you who are real El Sistema devotes may be a little bit heretical, but I’m just by nature a bit heretical, so I apologize ahead of time. I don’t know the details of the Glasgow program, but I would suggest that Scotland and Venezuela in many respects (both by scale and by the nature of the population) may have similarities that would make a direct transference more plausible. El Sistema, like all good ideas, has a history of its own that precedes it. What we are all talking about—music as a participant activity– is something that was second nature in the 19th century with the development of the first urban communities, Vienna of the 1820s or London in the mid-19th century. In this city alone (New York) there were at the turn of the century maybe 200 choral societies and hundreds of musical ensembles in the community that did exactly what El Sistema is trying to do, and that represented a tradition that got eroded by the advent of mechanical reproduction of sound. Our life was silent if we didn’t make the music ourselves. We stopped singing when you could just drop first the needle on a disc, and earlier when we had the first player pianos. The death of the piano as a consumer item was when the first rolls were introduced. So we actually mechanized our own entertainment. What you’re reviving has a human history before El Sistema, and El Sistema is just a way of organizing it so that it’s more connected to modern life and concerns. The other difference, of course, is that when music as practice is targeted at poverty or underserved populations it is undermining privilege, where in the 19th century access to real music education was a function of wealth. And that’s where the radical democratic potential exists. But you were asking, have I observed other examples? There are many examples in the world where this kind of musical activity has still sustained, primarily in choral music where traditions of choral singing (particularly church related) have passed on from generation to generation unbroken.

-You made the point that training in music adds all kinds of important skills: focus, social skills, listening, and then the transference of those to other academic aspects. You discount them to some extent by referring to them only as correlational. The question is whether we could do, or there has been done, something more akin to what one would call a closed experiment, if for no better reason than to drive a more compelling argument.

The questioner asked a very seductive question. I made the argument about the transferability, which is (in my judgment) not a matter of scholarship but a matter of intuition. I would prefer to ride a train with a musical individual than someone who’s tone deaf. It’s just intuitive. Now, it doesn’t make musical people better. Stalin was musical, and Hitler was a great music lover, and the Nazis were notoriously enthusiastic about music. So the link between music and ethics is a very tortured subject. I would like to think that musical activity has some relationship to ethical judgment (I would hope so), but I’m dissuaded from thinking that is the case. So the question is better narrowly focused on the cognitive and social skills. There have been some controlled experiments. There was a cognitive study (a long-range, longitudinal study) of the young people who were in the choir in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. That’s the same boys’ choir from Bach’s time that is still in existence, a great boys’ choir, and they showed real correlative results. A similar finding occurred (the same longitudinal study, I think) with the Sängerknaben in Vienna, where children in a boys’ choir were followed to see how well they do in school. And there are a lot of neurologists and neuroscientists working on this. But that’s not my field. I’m a little cautious because I don’t think we yet know enough about mental function.  I’m reluctant to suggest a causal argument. But a social adaptation argument, which isn’t totally causal but simply experiential, seems very worthwhile. And I think there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that can’t be dismissed. For example, Csikszentmihalyi, a tremendous social psychologist wrote a very interesting book called Flow, and he did a longitudinal study of adolescents in Chicago and showed that adult performance is correlated with the amount of time the person was able to concentrate on something without being connected to clock time. You know what happens when you practice.  Rehearsal’s really boring. Time just creeps, and you think an hour has gone by but only ten minutes have gone by. The other experience is the opposite: it’s so engrossing that you wake up and you realize, “Oh my god, I’m late. An hour has passed and I just thought it was ten minutes.” So the distortion of concentration of time through the process of concentration on music is correlative to discipline. The ability to do that in adolescents is correlative to adult achievement. That’s what we musicians train people to do: to concentrate intelligently. So there is some social psychological evidence that we are on solid ground here, and because music is analogous to a language, it breeds good habits. And unlike painting, it’s social. It’s not about creating an object and someone else buying it. You have to do music in real time as we live in real time. (We have to work together in real time. We have to travel on the subway in real time. We have to do everything in real time.) Music is done in real time. It’s not about connecting to recordings. It’s about musical experience in real life and time. So there’s so much correlation (parallelism) to other facets of life and work that the argument for music is very persuasive. And what Venezuela shows is that they have real results in this way with El Sistema alumni over 40 years. There’s no reason we can’t have real results her in the US, and Lord knows, we need to have them. Thank you very much.