Be­yond the notes

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - CHLOE HOOPER

In a stu­dio at the Arts Cen­tre Mel­bourne, a group of mu­sic stu­dents sit with their string in­stru­ments, in­tro­duc­ing them­selves with jagged, raw­sound­ing bow strokes. By as­sign­ing letters to par­tic­u­lar notes these chil­dren, aged 8 to 16, “play” their names be­fore their teacher asks them to re­veal the lit­eral trans­la­tions: JAR­RAD … ALEX … SENARA … Mean­while, four men lit­tle used to such atonal­ity sit at the front of the room, po­litely mak­ing the chil­dren’s ac­quain­tance.

The mem­bers of the Simón Bolí­var String Quar­tet grew up in­volved in El Sis­tema (The Sys­tem), Venezuela’s now leg­endary pub­lic mu­sic pro­gram that sit­u­ates mu­sic schools in the coun­try’s most im­pov­er­ished neigh­bour­hoods. Over this pro­gram’s 40-year his­tory, hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren have been pro­vided with free in­stru­ments and lessons. (“If you don’t get an in­stru­ment in Venezuela,” Ale­jan­dro Car­reño, the Quar­tet’s first vi­o­lin­ist, had ear­lier ex­plained on ABC Ra­dio Na­tional’s The Mu­sic Show, “prob­a­bly you will do many things, but some of them could be al­co­hol, drugs, or a gun, so re­ally the in­stru­ment saves lives.”) El Sis­tema has been em­u­lated around the world, and is the in­spi­ra­tion for The Pizzi­cato Ef­fect, a mu­sic pro­gram run by the Mel­bourne Sym­phony Orches­tra for chil­dren liv­ing in the outer north-western City of Hume.

Zoë Barry, the pro­gram’s lead teach­ing artist, stands lis­ten­ing to the chil­dren, moved by the way their per­son­al­i­ties come out in the mu­si­cal cryp­to­grams. Each of the Pizzi kids, as they’re col­lo­qui­ally known, plays with great con­cen­tra­tion, and it is a sign of how far this group of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and cul­tures has come. “Last year we’d see kids tak­ing their cello cases and putting them over their heads, pre­tend­ing to be in a war and shoot­ing,” Barry ex­plained later. “That’s just not hap­pen­ing any­more. They own it.”

The night be­fore, her stu­dents were given tick­ets to hear the Quar­tet per­form at the Mel­bourne Recital Cen­tre. For many it was their first con­cert, and in or­der to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with the Quar­tet’s reper­toire they’d been lis­ten­ing to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quar­tet No. 8 in C Mi­nor. Through­out this work the Rus­sian com­poser had em­bed­ded his mu­si­cal mono­gram: DSCH.

The chil­dren loved the idea of mu­sic con­vey­ing se­cret mes­sages, so they en­thu­si­as­ti­cally en­coded their own names. (“We try to get across to them that the mu­sic is about telling sto­ries. We’re try­ing to get to the next level be­yond the notes.”) Barry knew, how­ever, that for some of the chil­dren it was “a re­ally big deal to even say their name, es­pe­cially if their name isn’t English”. One of the cello stu­dents hes­i­tates be­fore play­ing his full and long Turk­ish name a sec­ond time.

Af­ter the chil­dren fin­ish the ex­er­cise, Barry in­vites the Quar­tet to play a melody created by string­ing to­gether the chil­dren’s names. She en­joys see­ing this score on the pro­fes­sion­als’ mu­sic stands along­side works by Beethoven and Haydn, and the sense that her stu­dents are claim­ing their own very per­son­alised place in a grand his­tory.

Vi­olin­ists Car­reño and Boris Suárez, vi­o­list Is­mel Cam­pos and cel­list Ai­mon Mata have been per­form­ing to­gether since their early teens in El Sis­tema’s flag­ship youth orches­tra, and are now prin­ci­pal artists in the Orques­tra Sin­fónica Simón Bolí­var. Play­ing now in uni­son they make a se­ries of quick, in­stinc­tive de­ci­sions. The score has min­i­mal ar­tic­u­la­tion, but the teacher hears lit­tle echoes of the mu­si­cians’ classical reper­toire com­ing through, im­bu­ing the chil­dren’s names with vi­tal­ity and el­e­gance.

Af­ter­wards, the Quar­tet share a fruit snack with the chil­dren and the par­ents who’ve car­pooled into the city. The Pizzi kids then join the Venezue­lans for a some­times creaky but high-spir­ited ver­sion of Eine kleine Nacht­musik. And, fi­nally, those with pro­grams col­lect the mu­si­cians’ sig­na­tures or move, beam­ing, in and out of the var­i­ous con­fig­u­ra­tions be­ing pho­tographed.

As the thrilled chil­dren leave the stu­dio, Car­reño, 32, a tall, heavy-set man with a gra­cious man­ner, puts his vi­o­lin care­fully back in its case. Re­cently, Shostakovich’s String

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