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El Sistema

Last weekend I led a day at the London Buddhist Centre, with Maitreyabandhu, on Tristan and Isolde, Wagner’s revolutionary masterpiece. In preparing for the day, I re-read Bryan Magee’s wonderful ‘Wagner and Philosophy‘, and came across this, on Hegel:

Reality is not a state of affairs but a process: it is something going on. This is true of every part of reality, and of every facet of our personal lives and experience. Even a material object is a process.

Anyone with even a minor acquaintance with Buddhism will be familiar with this view. Magee goes on to summarise Hegel’s dialectical worldview in which “any positive state of affairs… [will] call into being contrary and incompatible states of affairs… which destablize it and cause it to change into something new.”

Anglo-Saxon politics can be described very well in this way: as a series of unstable swings between the Democrats and the Republicans, between, in short, a party that (ostensibly, at least) promotes freedom and the individual, and one that supposedly supports more centralised planning and collective action, as I explored here.

So I find it fascinating that, late last year, the UK Government launched National Music Plan for the first time. What provoked the laissez faire Coalition to engage in such centralised planning?

El Sistema (“the system”) of Venezuela was, no doubt, an inspiration. This publicly financed voluntary sector music education program, originally called Social Action for Music, “has 31 symphony orchestras. But its greatest achievement are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90 percent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.’ (Wikipedia) The extraordinary Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which appeared at the UK’s Proms again last year, is one of the products of El Sistema – what better advertisement for the program?

The leftist administration of Hugo Chávez has been the most generous patron of El Sistema, ‘footing almost its entire annual operating budget as well as additional capital projects.’ (Wikipedia) Will the UK Government invest so wholeheartedly? Not if this week’s Huffington Post is anything to go by: Labour MP David Blunkett has indicated that funding for musical education is actually decreasing, with cuts of 12.5% in the past year.

Despite this, I still feel positive about ‘our sistema’. After all, music – like the Dharma – can help us completely transcend all oppositional dialectics and rancour. Both music and the Dharma can help us see beyond our narrow self-clinging and contact a sphere of reliable value, meaning and positive transformation. Anything that supports this process – particularly in our young people – is to be encouraged. As José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, said, on receiving the TED Prize in 2009, ‘only art and religion can give proper answers to humanity, to mankind’s deepest aspirations, and to the historic demands of our times.‘ Let’s hope our leaders fully embrace the transcendental and moral values that music and the spiritual life can embody. Only then can we become the ideal society that an orchestra, in full flow, represents. Share

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5 Responses to “El Sistema”

  1. suyen says:

    I loved the youtube link, particularly the part where the trumpets were being twirled (Incidentally did you know that there are baton twirling world championships?). However, I think I disagree with the last two sentences about leaders being the final determinant of societal values. I think individuals are more empowered than that.

    Maybe what we can do as individuals is to vote with our feet and support the arts more – go out to concerts, see exhibitions, take our friends, save the DVD box sets for another day!

    Here is my contribution: One of the things I love about living in London is going to concerts, and in particular, I think the OAE’s Night Shift is wonderful for introducing / converting people to classical music. http://www.oae.co.uk/thenightshift/

    • Manjusiha says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for engaging with the post. Yes, I just love the vibrancy of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra – I would love to see them live. Perhaps the OAP’s Night Shift is more suitable for me though?! :-) I was trying to emphasise our leaders’ rather than our own stance because I think there has been an over emphasis on individual over collective action for far too long, even (maybe even especially) amongst Buddhists. So I want to counter that, in my own small way, by arguing for more – and more enlightened – State intervention. One of the ways we are empowered as individuals is in being able to influence our leaders, particularly when we work collectively, as well as voting with our feet, as individuals, in supporting the arts, which, I agree is also important and can be hugely enjoyable and meaningful too.

  2. suyen says:

    Yes, I’m rather ambivalent about going out with someone who can get OAP discounts.. :)

    I think one of the problems with emphasising action of others over individual action is how to avoid blame, and other negative mental states that can arise when realising “someone else” should do something about a problem.

    • Manjusiha says:

      Sadly not eligible for my bus pass yet. I’m looking forward to it – if I make it that far (and if free bus passes still exist if/when I get there!).

      I agree about problems of emphasising action of others. It all comes down to ourselves in the end of course, but it’s great to act as part of a community.

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