To Let Oneself Be Moved
From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology
What does the otherwise sound like? What flights of the imagination resonate in and through sound? How do we capture the political significance of aesthetic experiences that our interlocutors describe as going “beyond words”?
These questions are evoked by my fieldwork with young musicians, members of Venezuela’s classical music program popularly known as El Sistema. Founded in 1975, El Sistema aspires to remedy poverty and inequality by bringing free classical music education and instruments to almost a million young people around Venezuela. The program’s mission inspired many young people and their parents, who saw in music a means of salvation and community transformation. The majority of these musicians are residents of the urban barrios, or popular neighborhoods in Venezuela. I found that people willingly aspired to being moved and touched by music. The playing of music, and the stories musicians attached to them, announced “infinite alternatives to what is” (Crawley 2016, 2). The capacity to imagine—and experience—an otherwise through music acquired revolutionary significance for people whose possibilities for the future were foreclosed by socioeconomic inequality, state repression, and political crisis. To capture the experiential and political potential of this sonorous excess, I allowed myself to be affected by and with my interlocutors, to play and listen to music with them. Beyond aesthetic interdependence, these were acts of influencing one another intellectually and conceptually that taught me to listen to the world differently, to let go of analytical and academic certitude.
Frustrated by my constant questions that attempted to tame their art and reduce it to familiar categories of analysis, many of my interlocutors, like Nahia, told me, “You have to entregarte [turn yourself in to; give yourself up to] the music.” Her words echoed those of another pianist at El Sistema who had told me, a few weeks previously, “It takes a certain opening up to be able to receive the music.” Following Nahia’s invitation, I put aside my preconceived questions and allowed myself to listen to music without premeditation. Untethered from these analytical and academic tools, I entered an ethnographic experience that was open-ended.
I lay under a grand piano while Nahia played Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude Op. 74. The six-foot instrument towered above my entire body. I was right underneath the soundboard, a piece of flat wood positioned beneath the strings of the instrument, which vibrates when struck by hammers connected to the keyboard. My intimacy with the soundboard created the distinct feeling of key hammers striking my chest with each chord, playing on my ribs. The force of the sound seemed to be lifting me off the floor. I was laying down with my hands outstretched. As soon as Nahia began playing, I learned what my interlocutors meant when they said one should “turn oneself in to the music.” Every cell in my body was vibrating, before I could make sense of what was happening. I let sound wash over me and guide my imagination.
While I had engaged in similar musical activities as a child, the nonverbal experiences ignited by music acquired different significance in Venezuela. For the Venezuelan musicians, they were a medium for stepping away from political and social reality, in order to experience a different way of being and feeling. To imagine personal and social transformation in music untethered from the obstacles of political polarization, socioeconomic inequality, and state repression that plagued the country. The otherwise conjured in music resonates with what queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz (2009, 3) calls “a surplus of both affect and meaning within the aesthetic.” As a sonic and experiential excess that went beyond the political economy of language to which meaning is bound (Moten 2003), this musical experience was ambiguous and open-ended. While the sonic event itself was fleeting and ephemeral—ending with the last vibration—the sonorous surplus vibrated with people’s social investments in music. Nahia, for example, saw in music a means of social and political transformation that held the potential to build communities between strangers, to affect young people and inspire them to pursue a goal, to dream, and to build futures. Allowing myself to be moved by her music was a way of partaking in and believing in the political and social potential she envisioned—but also enacted—through music. This became even more vivid when I played together with the musicians, thus taking part in the creation of something larger than ourselves.
Instead of thinking about this ethnographic experience as decorative, a momentary state of wonder from which I would later return to my rational and analytical self, I allowed myself to be changed by the experience—to let it influence my thinking and writing. If my academic training would have me read these musical experiences as a form of escapism, I began to see the political potential of these forms of relating and community building. It was contained in acts of musical creation that in their very essence resisted the forces of destruction around them, and in providing an outlet for the expression of dreams for social transformation that did not find meaningful representation in existing political ideologies. Though Clara, Nahia’s mother, was moved by Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, which provided the political platform for people on the margins of society to imagine a future otherwise, when Nahia came of age, disillusionment with Chavez’s political project was growing. Nahia did not feel represented by dominant political ideologies—neither by the state nor by the opposition. In music, she found a medium for expressing visions of social and political transformation that did not subscribe to major political idioms. Such artistic practices surfaced as “modes of thinking, being, listening, and shaping that emerge from below, showing how other worlds are indeed possible” (Gómez-Barris 2018, xiii).
In a moment of disenchantment with political leadership, social energies in Venezuela found one refuge and expression in the practice of music. Such embodied acts of playing music together are not merely glimpses of an otherwise, but are, as the editors of this collection argue, “felt, experienced, tactile forms of being already in the present.”
Crawley, Ashon T. 2016. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press.
Gómez-Barris, Macarena. 2018. Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas. Oakland: University of California Press.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.
Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.