sounds from behind the iron curtain: polish music after world war II


Conference Presenters | Featured Artist

[9:30 - 10:30 a.m.]

Renata Pasternak-Mazur (Rutgers University)
“Sound Spaces: Official, Unofficial, and In-Between Repertoires in Socialist Poland”

Contrary to their perception in the West, state-socialist regimes were not synonymous with totalitarianism. There was a significant difference between the official (formal) and operative (informal) levels of ideology in the former Soviet Bloc (Pekacz, 1994). The premises of socialist cultural policy in Poland were never fully implemented, and following the “thaw” of the 1950s, cultural spaces beyond official control widened as part of the long process of de-ideologization that preceded the system’s collapse.

Obstacles blocking the creation and maintenance of music as envisioned by cultural officials included both the constant presence of unauthorized music making and the development of repertoire that was incompatible with the cultural policies of the socialist state. Oftentimes the system tried to absorb and adapt cultural activities which were not envisioned in its cultural policy, thus trying to appropriate them.

On the one hand the system allowed for a wide range of genres, including rock music; on the other hand, music that was incompatible with socialist policy developed in the spaces that were beyond official control, such as privately-organized social gatherings, including wedding receptions and prywatka parties, the students’ tourist movement, and the Church. In rural areas, sanitized “folklore” that was structured by central cultural policies was often treated as “for public display only”and remained outside of the body of voluntary musical practice. Interestingly, musical practice in rural areas which did not fit the paradigm of muzyka ludowa received little attention, being ignored in fieldwork studies as irrelevant. The paper will survey various musical activities which were at odds with the premises of official cultural policy and the different roles they played in developing a counterhegemonic vision in the realm of music.  Moreover, it will demonstrate that under the socialist regime the realms of official and unofficial culture were not inviolably disjunctive.

Renata Pasternak-Mazur is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University and a graduate of the Jagiellonian University (Poland, M.A in musicology). She specializes in twentieth century and contemporary music and is writing her dissertation on Polish post-socialist music as seen through the lens of musical phenomena that came into prominence after socialism collapsed but are perceived as controversial, undesired, shameful, and even dangerous. Her publications include The Black Muse: Polish Hip-Hop as the Voice of “New Others” in the Post-Socialist Transition (2009) and Sacropolo or Sacrum in the Marketplace (forthcoming).


Kurt Nelson (New York University)
“Tadeusz Baird and the Cultural Thaw of the 1950s”

The life and works of Tadeusz Baird are unknown to most music scholars in the United States.  Yet he was among the most highly regarded composers in Poland from the 1960s until his death in 1981.  He was one of the original founders of Warsaw Autumn, an international festival of contemporary music that continues to draw many of the world’s most prominent composers every year. Baird’s compositional output reflects the cultural transition in Poland from a period when artistic choices were subject to state censorship, to a time when artistic expression had significantly recovered its freedom. From the moment that Poland began to experience the cultural thaw that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Baird took to writing music that embraced the influx of modern compositional techniques from Western Europe while simultaneously aspiring toward a distinct Polish identity.  His ability to render this language with expressive, communicative power was something unique for the time. 

This project seeks to open new discussions about Tadeusz Baird and his music.  I will be presenting elements of the research that I am currently undertaking in the composer’s native city of Warsaw, bringing to light the details of Baird’s collaboration with Kazimierz Serocki and others in the founding of the Warsaw Autumn Festival.  This will be followed by an account of the dramatic stylistic transition in Baird’s music that began with his Concerto for Orchestra of 1953 and which culminated in a new level of expression in his Erotyki for soprano and orchestra of 1960/61.  This section will describe how Baird’s music moved steadily towards an integration of influences from Western Europe with the sonorism of the ‘Polish School’ during this period.  Baird’s ability to reconcile tradition with modernity will be seen as central to his importance for music scholars today.

Kurt C. Nelson was born on Long Island, NY. He received his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees at the Florida State University School of Music where he studied composition with John Boda and Ladislav Kubik. Following the completion of his Master’s degree, Kurt continued his studies with Krzysztof Meyer at the Music Academy in Cologne, Germany. In 2007 Kurt obtained the “Kozertexamen” in composition, the highest graduate certificate awarded by German music academies. Kurt is currently a PhD candidate in music composition and theory with Professor Louis Karchin at New York University. His research focuses on the music of the late twentieth century, especially Polish composer Tadeusz Baird.  He has recently been awarded stipends for research in Poland from the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Fulbright commission.


[10:45-11:45 a.m.]

Lisa Cooper Vest (Indiana University, Bloomington)
“‘A Survey about the Work of Igor Stravinsky’” (1957): Stravinsky Reception and Polish Cultural Confidence at the Beginning of the ‘Thaw’”

During the political “Thaw” of the mid-1950s, Polish composers, critics and scholars frequently complained about their cultural isolation due to WWII and the subsequent institution of Soviet controls. Many hailed the first Warsaw Autumn contemporary music festival in 1956 as an important step in reversing what they perceived as Polish backwardness. In particular, critics applauded festival organizers’ decision to program compositions by Igor Stravinsky, whose music they felt represented a serious gap in Polish cultural knowledge.

In 1957, the Polish periodical Ruch Muzyczny [Musical Movement] published seven Polish composers’ responses to a survey about Stravinsky. The survey posed questions about the influence that Stravinsky had exerted on them personally and on Polish music, and also asked them to evaluate Stravinsky’s music. The composers – Tadeusz Baird, Henryk Schiller, Tadeusz Machl, Witold Lutosławski, Michał Spisak, Wojciech Kilar, and Adam Walaciński – express admiration and appreciation for Stravinsky, but they also assert their independence. A close reading of the composers’ responses reveals a great deal about their feelings about artistic genius and creative inspiration, the uncomfortable implications of compositional influence, and the idea of “great” or “ideal” musical works. In comparison with the earlier excited tone of Stravinsky reception (after the 1956 Warsaw Autumn), the Polish composers’ struggle against the aesthetic ideology of the survey suggests that a discursive shift was taking place. Their frank discussions indicate a readiness to move towards a new position of cultural authority – a position that would provide a foundation for the Polish avant-garde movement of the early 1960s.

Lisa Cooper Vest is a PhD candidate in the musicology department at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is currently completing her dissertation on Polish avant-garde musical aesthetics under the direction of Professor Halina Goldberg. She has presented papers on changing conceptions of avant-gardism in mid-century Poland and on issues of voice and gender in Krzysztof Penderecki’s opera The Devils of Loudun. In 2010, she published an article in Musicology Today about aesthetic discourse and educational initiatives within the Polish Composers’ Union in the late 1950s. Lisa Cooper Vest’s research has been funded by grants from the Fulbright Hays program, PEO International, and the Mellon Foundation.


Cindy Bylander
“Charles Ives and the Stalowa Wola Festival: Inspirations and Legacies”

The organizers of the Young Musicians for a Young City festival, held in Stalowa Wola from 1975-1980, selected Charles Ives as the event's ideological patron. As such, his songs and chamber music held a central position in its programs. The ideas expressed in his compositions and his Essays Before a Sonata, translated into Polish for Res Facta (1971), became the basis for frequent discussions of artistic values and social aspirations. For the festival's participants, many of them students, Ives became a symbol of freedom and unconventionality that inspired them in their own contemplations of the essential values of art and life.  Not coincidentally, similar themes were percolating throughout Poland in these years preceding the emergence of Solidarity.

After considering archival evidence available in Warsaw and Kraków, other publications on Ives available in Poland at that time, and the Essays themselves, I suggest that the framework and perceptions of the festival were intentionally based on a selective interpretation of Ives' convictions. Although all involved downplayed such a central Ivesian (and Polish) theme as spirituality, their advocacy of topics related to authenticity resonated among young musicians and throughout a disillusioned musical community behind the Iron Curtain.

Moreover, the seemingly exotic choice of Ives as patron yielded greater fortune for Poles than would have occurred had a native composer been featured. The creative work of a deceased American, heretofore virtually ignored in Poland, bore fruit for young composers seeking a new path and for amateurs participating in novel educational efforts. The government's unexpected indifference to the event can be attributed in part to the organizers' promotion of Ives rather than one of Poland's outspoken living composers. This festival heralded a period of innovation in composition and concert life that brought fame to a new generation of musicians and reinvigorated the country's musical establishment.

Cindy Bylander received her Ph.D. in musicology from The Ohio State University and currently resides in San Antonio, Texas. She was awarded a U.S. Fulbright grant to conduct research in Poland in the 1980s.  She is particularly interested in the compositions of Krzysztof Penderecki, the impact of the Warsaw Autumn Festival and other regional festivals on musical life in Poland, and the roles played by the Polish Composers Union and its individual members as they negotiated the vicissitudes of Cold War cultural policies. Dr. Bylander has presented papers at conferences in the United States and Europe. She is the author of Krzysztof Penderecki: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 2004) and has published articles in Musical Quarterly (2012), Musicology Today (Warsaw University, 2010), "Warsaw Autumn" as a Realisation of Karol Szymanowski's Vision of Modern Polish Music (Warsaw: Polish Music Information Centre 2007), Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde (Greenwood Press, 2002), Studies in Penderecki, Ruch Muzyczny, Polish Music Journal, and Polish Music Center Essays. Her article on Penderecki's symphonies is forthcoming in Polish Music Since 1945 (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica).


[1:00 - 2:45 p.m.]

Andrea Bohlman (University of Pennsylvania)
“Listening with the Polish Opposition in the 1980s”

The final decade of the Cold War in Poland is frequently considered “the era of Solidarity”--a reference to the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain and the culture of protest it organized. In this paper, I discuss Solidarity’s “music history” from archival and ethnographic perspectives, drawing out music’s vital presence during the union’s nascent moment in 1980 and examining the unfolding documentation of Solidarity’s sounds through the present. Written, recorded, and filmed accounts document the patriotic anthems, satirical cabaret, and devotional hymnody that resounded at the scene of the 1980 strikes. Activist film makers, pamphleteers, scribes, and radio engineers attended to the ubiquity of songs, giving the brief musical narratives prominent positions in Solidarity’s first histories. A music history of Solidarity emerges in which music was assigned the task of authenticating other modes of performance at scenes of protest.

Recent digitalization projects at archives in Poland and the United States have brought the sound media of the recent past back to life, complicating our understanding of Solidarity's cultural history. My presentation analyzes the sonic media of the Polish Opposition as documentation of that which was heard, but also as clues as to what listening meant for those participating in Solidarity. In the 1980s the presses of Polish samizdat--the "second circulation"--published editions of song texts, concert reviews, and musical debates. Its substantial cassette culture is made up of diverse sonic documents that engage music seriously, for example radio plays, musical albums, and political reportage. The increasingly multivocal image I offer of the Opposition and its legacy encourages increased attention to archival sources beyond the written record.

Andrea Bohlman is a historical musicologist who studies the recent past, in particular the musical cultures of East Central Europe from the final decades of the 20th century through the present. After receiving an MMus from Royal Holloway, University of London, she earned her doctorate at Harvard University in 2012. Her dissertation research on intersections between political activism and music in Poland at the end of the Cold War was supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Musicological Society, and a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. She has also published on the composer Hanns Eisler and the Eurovision Song Contest and her current project, “The Documentary Impulse: A History of Sound Media in 20th-Century Poland,” engages with amateur music-making practices and “old” media, such as magnetic tape and radio, to reframe the vantage point from which 20th-century music history is written.


Paulina Piędzia Colón (Graduate Center, CUNY)
“John Paul II, the Revolution of the Spirit, and Joanna Bruzdowicz’s Sonate d’Octobre

It is well known that John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland in 1979 lit the flame of resistance against the Socialist government of “People’s Poland.” And during the decade that followed, it was John Paul who emerged as the central symbol of national identity, while the Catholic Church became the country’s undisputed moral authority. The Pope’s message of freedom began to dismantle the atmosphere of censure and fear implemented by the government. Not only did it inspire the union workers of Solidarity, but also the community of artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals in general. And as much as anything, I will argue, music documented this new emergence of hope and spirit of rebellion. Since the best-known expressions of this anti-government coalition are works by composers who today have household names—Penderecki’s Lacrimosa and Górecki’s Beatus vir—I will concentrate on a work by a composer who is not quite as well known, at least not in the United States: Joanna Bruzdowicz’s Sonate d’Octobre of 1978. Composed in order to commemorate the election of John Paul II on 16 October 1978 (which event, as the composer noted, “became an inspiration for an ‘October Revolution’—this time . . . of hope, freedom, and democracy . . .”), the work’s title, dedication, and date of completion suggest that it was the first composition to explore and (to some extent) foretell Karol Wojtyla’s role in revolutionizing the country’s fighting spirit. In all, I will discuss the role of the Sonate d’Octobre as a vehicle for the expression of political, religious, and ideological beliefs, and close by considering its significance amongst other works dedicated to John Paul during the period 1978-1989.


Paulina Piędzia Colón is a doctoral student in musicology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research interests include Polish music inspired by the persona and teachings of John Paul II, music and socialism, and the influence of commedia dell’arte imagery on music composed between 1890 and 1930.



Marta Marciniak (University at Buffalo, SUNY)
“'Star Wars, or You Can Have Anything!': Polish punk and the Politics of Everyday Life during the Cold War Era"

In my paper I would like to present some results of my continuing fieldwork research and several years' worth of thinking about punk as a transnational subculture that is especially useful in our understanding of postwar cultural and social history of countries like Poland and the United States. I would like to discuss my methods and approach to studying punk as this uniquely important postmodern cultural phenomenon and to participate in the discussion about how music in modern Polish society should be studied, as well as how to conduct qualitative fieldwork research in subcultural communities, which often present unusual challenges, especially in oral history interviewing. An additional goal I would like to achieve in this paper is to open a conversation about the state of research on punk music and subculture in Poland.

Broadly speaking, my methods are based on oral history and ethnographies of punk communities in the area of Warsaw and in Upper Silesia, from 1978 until the present day. I would like to discuss the differences between these communities in terms of their musical identities and how these are intertwined with political stances and affiliations. Since the guiding theme of the conference is Polish music after 1945, I would also like to share some of my results concerning attitudes among punks toward the regime and political opposition before 1989, the transformation of 1989 and its consequences for the punk communities in question. In terms of history of Polish music, I would like to trace what I discovered as the lines of influence that shaped Polish punk music and those which in turn shaped punk communities elsewhere, as a consequence of the migration of people, ideas, and sounds. As illustration of my findings, I am able to provide visual and audio-visual materials collected in the field in 2012.

Marta Elżbieta Marciniak, A.B.D. received her undergraduate and Master’s education at the University of Warsaw in Warsaw, Poland, with M.A. degrees in linguistics and American Studies. She is currently writing PhD dissertation in the American Studies Program at the University of Buffalo. Her academic interest in the history and ethnography of punk stems from years spent with the Warsaw punk crew. Her doctoral dissertation surveys the oral history and ethnography of four punk communities: two in Poland and two in the United States. Her work explores the transnational aspects of this subculture and its ideological and economic background, as well as its development in concrete and imagined settings. Aspects of music production and consumption and music’s role in everyday life are also key elements of her research.


[4:00 p.m.]

Możdżer’s swaying swing and slow-melody nuances suggest Keith Jarrett at times, but his outbursts of percussive playing, flinty treble-note sparks and staccato drum-pattern sounds are all his own.
-- John Fordham, The Guardian

By using his phenomenal technique and rich arsenal of expressive means (mainly in the realm of classical piano!) Leszek Możdżer reaches the heart of Krzysztof Komeda’s musical aesthetics.
-- Tomasz Szachowski, Jazz Forum

Leszek MożdżerAn outstanding pianist, composer and producer, Leszek Możdżer (b. 1971, Gdańsk) is widely considered to be the most interesting talent in the last decade of Polish jazz history. Encouraged by his parents, Mr. Możdżer has been playing the piano since the age of five. He graduated from the Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk in 1996 after studying classical piano with Professor Andrzej Artykiewicz.

Mr. Możdżer was introduced to jazz by clarinettist Emil Kowalski during his last year of high school and began his career by working with the band Miłość [Love] in 1991 and appearing at such festivals as the International Jazz Juniors Competition in Kraków, where he received an individual award in 1992. In the following years, Mr. Możdżer performed in concerts and festivals with such well-known figures in Polish jazz as Anna Maria Jopek, Adam Makowicz, Janusz Muniak, Zbigniew Namysłowski, Adam Pierończyk, Tomasz Stańko, Michał Urbaniak, and Piotr Wojtasik. Mr. Możdżer also collaborates on a regular basis with such international jazz icons as Arthur Blythe, Billy Harper, Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny, Archie Shepp, and Buster Williams.

In August 2010 Mr. Możdżer performed in Gdańsk on three stages for 22, 000 people in a project called Możdżer + together with: Naná Vasconcelos, Lars Danielsson, Zohar Fresco, John Scofield, Steve Swallow, Bill Stewart, Marcus Miller, Alex Han, Louis Cato, Eddie Daniels, Charles Fox, Motion Trio, Gaba Kulka and the Aukso Chamber Orchestra led by Marek Moś. Mr. Możdżer tours extensively all over Europe, the United States and Canada, Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republics in Central Asia. 

Other dimensions of Leszek Możdżer’s musical activities include his collaboration on film music projects with composers Zbigniew Preisner and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, recording music for Twentieth Century Fox and Miramax, and a number of theatrical collaborations, including Tango with Lady M (Poznań Dance Theatre), Psychosis (Duesseldorfer Schauspielhaus), The Government Inspector (Warsaw Drama Theatre), Mandarins and Oranges (Wrocław Music Theatre), and Maidens’ Vows (National Theatre in Warsaw).

During the last two decades, Mr. Możdżer has received numerous honors and awards. Polls organized by Jazz Forum magazine recognized him as the Most Promising Musician of the Year (1993 and 1994), the Best Jazz Pianist (each year since 1994), and Musician of the Year (1995 and 1996). He is also a laureate of the 1992 Krzysztof Komeda Prize, First Prize at the International Jazz Improvisation Competition in Katowice (1994), Melomani Grand Prix (1997), Fryderyk Award—Jazz Musician of the Year (1998), Mayor of the City of Gdańsk Award (2004 and 2009), Polityka Magazine—Passport Prize (2004), Ministry of Foreign Affairs Prize for Promotion of Polish Culture Abroad (2007), Gazeta Wyborcza Trójmiasto—“Storm of the Year” Award (2010), Splendor Gedaniensis Award (2011), and RMF Classic Radio—Man of the Year Award (2010 and 2011).  Możdżer’s albums, The Time (2005) and Between Us and the Light (2006) received Double Platinum Awards, and his 2010 recording for Universal Kaczmarek by Możdżer was also recognized with a Platinum Award.

Since his debut CD Chopin—Impressions was released in 1994, Leszek Możdżer has recorded over 100 albums including: Talk to Jesus (1996), Facing the Wind (1996), Live in Sofia (1997), Chopin demain—Impressions (1999), Live in Ukraine (2003), The Time (2005), Pasodoble (2007),  Live CD & DVD (2007), Firebird VII (2008), Missa gratiatoria (2008), Tarantella (2009), Kaczmarek by Możdżer (2010), and Leszek Możdżer Komeda (2011).

Mr. Możdżer's latest project, Lutosphere, is a collaboration with Andrzej Bauer and DJ m.bunio.s based on music by one of Poland’s leading avant-garde composers, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994). Ewa Szczecińska in Tygodnik Powszechny summarized Lutosphere as follows:

Leszek Możdzer, the author of these transformations, demonstrated a superb sense of taste and humor.  Lutosławski taken away from Lutosławski. Lutosławski à la Możdzer. And, nonetheless, something remained from Lutosławski’s melodic language and intonation. Możdżer had found something in this iconic personality that was always there, but only so few wanted to see […] Is “Lutosphere” by Możdżer-Bauer-Bunio able to bring Lutosławski closer to us? Maybe not. Does it take away from his music? Certainly not, because it turns a monument into a living thing by making it shine.


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Image credit: A rendering of the manuscript of Krzysztof Meyer's opera Cyberiada (1970). Photo: Vladimir Paperny
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the Polish Music Center Manuscript Collection. All rights reserved.

Page created: May 23, 2012 by Krysta Close