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The People’s Republic of Poster: Western Film Posters in Poland from 1952-1989


If a movie poster is meant to capture a film’s essence, then the American poster for Shoot Out is a pièce de résistance.  The film has been described as “routine and formulaic”—so too is the poster.  It features an image of the film’s star, Gregory Peck, wearing standard cowboy garb and standing opposite three men.  Everyone in the poster has a gun drawn, and the tagline reads, “Three fast guns against one determined man!”  The perspective rests above the scene, so a viewer feels no menace; he is just a bystander cheering for a well-prepared Peck.  The image has no artistic merit, but it doesn’t need any.   It is merely a vehicle to condense and to advertise the film.

And yet the “essence” captured in the Polish poster for the same movie seems to illustrate an entirely different film.  In this poster, an anonymous hand holds a revolver just above the viewer’s eye line, creating the illusion of a cannon.  Meanwhile, a psychedelic polka dot background parodies the dramatic tension.  It’s a scene gone awry, but one thing is clear: violence operates at its center.  Even the Polish version’s title is telling. The U.S. title Shoot Out implies equal opportunity: everyone has a gun and it is just a matter of who can shoot first.  But the Polish translation, Odstrzał is more directed; this word is usually used as a hunting term to refer to the roundup and slaughter of  “excess” animals.  What began in the United States as a free-for-all battle of bullets wound up in Poland as a tale of hunter and hunted.    What was lost in translation?   Why would Polish poster artists create such a menacing image for such a “formulaic” film?

Considering Poland’s violent history, it is not surprising that a movie about an occasion of weapon wielding would conjure images not of Gregory Peck, but of man’s smallness next to a loaded gun.  It is also not surprising that the film’s title would be changed to emphasize a hunt, and by default, victimhood.  As far back as the 1800s, the role of victim has been ingrained in the Polish psyche.  In the romantic period that followed the partitions of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, branded the nation a victim and martyr.  Two centuries later, with their country again stripped from their hands, the Polish people remained conscious of Mickiewicz’s appraisal.  In 1968, just three years before the poster for Odstrzał was printed, Polish university towns erupted in protest when performances of Mickiewicz’s Dziady were banned from Warsaw’s National Theater after audiences “cheered [its] liberal and anti-Russian statements.” [Ludowski]  That same year, Polish poster artist Maciej Hibner designed a poster for the American western In The High Country that depicts a cowboy in the moment just before a gunfight.  He stands behind the doors of a saloon, fists tense at his sides before the impending draw.   Though his eyes are obscured by a shadow, the threat is clear: he is staring at the poster’s viewer, and in just moments, the viewer will be his victim.    If the bards of Poland gave voice to the nation’s distress during the romantic period, poster designers did the same for Polish consciousness during post-World War II communism.

It is not by chance that images laden with social and political messages appeared in film posters during this period.  In a society that was otherwise heavily censored by the communist government, restrictions on film posters were surprisingly lenient.  Acquiring permission for publication was “a formality; the design simply had to be seen in order to get the stamp of approval.”  [Knorowski]  Traditionally, the film poster is a medium for advertising, not self-expression.  It is thus “less potentially threatening to the social order.”  [Boczar]  Polish poster artists took advantage of this slack supervision.  Instead of producing advertisements that communicate the film’s plot, they created works of art that reinterpret the plot.  Posters showcase both the artist’s individuality and the symbols that would speak to a repressed nationality.  Because film posters do not require words to serve their purpose, their designers had license to use visual cues that appear innocent, but attract the attention of those sensitive to their undertones.  Viewers were encouraged to “participate actively in the reception of the message.”  [Boczar]  Henryk Tomaszewski, one of the most influential artists of the Polish poster school, confirms this: “We simply altered the picture from one to be looked at to one to be read.”

Posters for American western films inevitably feature icons of the American west: cowboys, pistols, and Native Americans.  But it is the way that these symbols are used that reveals the Poles’ conflicted views about their relationship to western values.  Often, a commonly understood image is twisted and obscured to mean its opposite: the heroic cowboy becomes a fool, the empowering pistol becomes a menace, the savage Indian becomes an ally.  As Kevin Mulroy notes, “the western became fair game for reinterpretation . . . America could send out heroes, but villains might land in Poland.”  This is the story that the posters seem to tell.  The pistol, for example, is depicted in American images as heroic at best and a tool at worst. It is rarely the main focus of a poster; it is simply a cowboy’s accessory.  In Polish posters, however, the pistol is often the main focus, as seen, for example, in Maurycy’s Samotny Jeździeć (Lone Rider, 1966) and Maciej Źbikowski’s Hombre (1969). These posters feature nothing more than the lone pistol, highlighting the unadorned finality of violence.  There is nothing to be said about the actions that lead up to the demise illustrated by an abandoned smoking gun—the weapon speaks for itself.

Polish posters commonly feature the pistol in direct confrontation with the viewer, as in Źbikowski’s Był Tu Willie Boy (Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, 1971), and Królikowski’s Rzeka bez Powrotu (River of No Return, 1967).  American posters for River of No Return opt for illustrations and photo stills of Robert Mitchum forcefully holding Marilyn Monroe by the wrists and pinning her to the ground as the tagline declares, “Monroe meets Mitchum in the most savage wilderness of all the Americas!”  Aside from a printed name, the Polish poster makes no reference to these stars, nor to this scene.  The only message here is the barrel of a gun, aimed directly at the viewer.  There is no wilderness, there is no seduction.   There is not even a face behind the threat, just a white silhouette.   It is as if the source of violence is anonymous, even irrelevant.  It is not a traceable human, but a presence that is out for the kill, and the viewer is his target.

When violent images are featured on American film posters, they are intended to promote action within the film.  As in the poster for River of No Return, masculinity, heroism, and savagery are endorsed.   Violent images in Polish film posters, on the other hand, are used to stir an emotional reaction through jarring, direct engagement with the viewer.

It is natural for an artist to use symbols in a way that is relevant to his culture.  Thus, the recurring theme of victimhood in Polish posters is telling of the poster artists’ history.  Frank Fox observes, “Posters assume the viewpoint of those subjected to violence, a concept familiar to viewers in Poland.”

Arguably, the victim in United States history is the Native American.  While American westerns often depict Native Americans as savages and a threat to goals of Manifest Destiny, Polish representations offer a touch of empathy.  Even if the films themselves do not encourage compassion towards the “savages,” poster artists in Poland took the liberty to do so in their advertisements for the films.  One of the most pointed examples is Jerzy Flisak’s W Kraju Komanczów (The Comancheros, 1965).  An eagle, a national symbol of Poland, morphs with a Native American face to illustrate a film about the tragic displacement of a tribe that cannot defend its land.

That same year, Jerzy Treutler designed a poster for How The West Was Won that features a pistol impaled in the skull of a Native American, as if to imply that the west was won by the ruthless use of weapons against the natives.

One of the most graphically loaded posters in this genre is Marian Stachurski’s Rekord Annie (Annie Get Your Gun, 1958).  A singing Annie Oakley stands at the center of the poster, her arms flung out, not noticing that her rifle is pointing directly at a Native American’s head.  Meanwhile, the Native American holds the gun to his mouth with closed eyes and a smile on his face.  He blindly accepts the instrument of violence as if it were a peace pipe.  But despite his naïveté, he is literally on a higher plane than the cowboys, businessman, and sharpshooting star of image.  He floats above the scene, serene and detached from the absurdity.

Writers and critics drew parallels between the Native Americans and Poles long before poster artists adopted the subject.  Following the collapse of the January Uprising in 1863, historical realist Ludwik Powidaj published a positivist manifesto in Lwow entitled “Poles and Indians,” predicting that Poles would befall the same fate as Native Americans had in the west if they did not embrace industrialism.   Even Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his letters from America, grapples with his sympathy towards Native Americans.  He mourns their failure to stop American colonists from industrializing their lands: “Wherever such a cross (telegraph pole) appears, there people, forests, buffaloes, will perish.”  When he encounters an Indian tribe during his travels, he observes, “The unruly conduct of the white men was in striking contrast to the stolidity of the red warriors.”  The image of the Native American seems to resonate in the Polish spirit not with fear, but with recognition and admiration.

While America’s “savages” were reinterpreted as passive victims, its heroic icon, the cowboy, was reinterpreted as a grim fool whose rebellion would be his demise.  Portraits of cowboys feature obscured faces, discrediting their individuality, as seen in Wasilewski’s Prorok, złoto I Siedmiogrodzianie (The Prophet, The Gold, and the Transylvanians), Neuhebauer’s Major Dundee; Świerzy’s Vera Cruz; Freudenreich’s Rancho w Dolinie (Jubal) and Mściciel (High Plains Drifter), and Terechowicz’s Tom Horn.

In his poster for Twarz Zbiega (Face of a Fugitive, 1966), Kazimierz Królikowski takes this method one step further.  Not only does his cowboy lack any features, his face is a platform for the film credits.  His individuality has been dismantled; his body only serves to carry the names of others.

In addition to being deprived of visual character, the cowboy’s heroic actions are consistently reduced to futility and foolishness.   Three different posters for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example, show the duo riddled with bullets (Pągowski, 1953 v. 1 and v. 2, and Świerzy, 1983). Pągowski’s first version is in the form of a colorful comic strip.  The men are drawn as caricatures, and the word “BANG!” adds jocular flare.  But a small inset reveals a rough sketch of the characters sprawled on the ground.  They have no color, no cowboy hats, no distinguishing features.  They have been reduced to a heap of bloody, nameless forms. Pągowski’s second poster, in contrast to the comic strip version, features a detailed sketch of the two characters, but still there is no color in the image aside from the blood that flanks their portraits. Three decades later, Świerzy would use a similar approach, but the image is obscured and riddled with bullet holes.   The men smile through the bloody portrait, at once underscoring the pride of defying authority, and the uselessness of it.  All three interpretations emphasize the characters’ ruin in gory detail—a move that not even the film itself makes: it ends with a still-frame just before shots are fired.  These posters go beyond the film, and beyond American posters for the film, to illustrate violence and death.  It is this insistence on the demise, and not on the individualistic actions leading up to the demise, that characterize Polish posters.

Poster artists also enjoyed more whimsical renditions of the cowboy’s frivolity.  Jan Młodożenic’s Sędzia z Teksasu (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1975) portrays a two-dimensional figure with bullet holes scoring its chest.  It is nameless, faceless, and useless–a cowboy’s shape, and nothing more.  The only three-dimensional object in the image is a gun belt around his waist.  The oversized belt looks ridiculous, and is made even more unreasonable by the figure’s vain reach towards the weapons, as if he intended to act, but was too late.  The potential hero’s hesitation has reduced him to a porous cardboard cutout.

Another Młodożenic creation, Oddział (Posse, 1976), shows a sheriff face-en-face with a smoking gun.  As in the poster for Sędzia z Teksasu, the figures in this poster are two-dimensional, with one exception.  The stack of dollar bills that serve as the mayor’s face (again, the character’s own face is obscured) is on a higher plane than the other elements.  Even in the midst of violence, the power of capital cannot be touched.  Meanwhile, smoke rises from the gun to create the poster’s backdrop.  The sky is composed of violence, the authority is composed of money, and neither is winning.

If posters such as these reflect Poland’s post-WWII political climate, it is clear that something had to change.  Despite the disparaging representations, it was ultimately an image from an American western film that would help usher in sweeping political changes.  Tomasz Sarnecki’s Solidarność (Solidarity) features a publicity still of Gary Cooper in the film High Noon.  The image has been adapted for the movement: Cooper wears a solidarność pin above his sheriff’s badge, and he holds an election ballot in his hand.  Following Poland’s entry to NATO, Bronisław Geremek, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997-2000, said of Gary Cooper’s image, “It helped us to win.  For the people of Poland, high noon comes today.”

The High Noon film poster itself evolved as Poland’s political climate did.  Marian Starchuski’s version when the film arrived in Poland in 1959 highlights the movie’s climax, when Gary Cooper’s character, Will Kane, manages to gun down his opponent.  Yet the design is vague.  Kane is not holding a gun.  Instead, the gun lays abandoned on the ground beside the fallen man as if the man has shot himself.  Kane’s wife is rushing forward as if to help her husband’s enemy, while Kane looks away, stern but aloof.   The image does not fall in line with the movie’s plot.  The dedicated sheriff is cold and detached.  The faithful wife runs from him and towards his enemy.  The enemy has fallen victim, not to Kane’s valor, but to suicide or some unseen murderer.  Furthermore, the scene is placed in front of an austere red background.  High Noon is widely recognized as an allegory for anti-McCarthyism.  Considering its place in communist Poland during the Second Red Scare, this choice of background color is politically loaded.

High Noon was released in Poland again in 1987.  Grzegorz Marszalek’s poster to mark the occasion is noticeably divergent from the 1957 edition. Though the image appears to be derived from the publicity shot that would later be used in the solidarity campaign, this rendering remains in line with Polish film poster themes.  The character has gained individuality (he is the only one picture), but his face is obscured by a long shadow from his hat.  He is pictured from the waist up, and appears to be immobile.  Still, he wears a slight smile and clutches his timepiece in one hand while touching his gun holster with the other.  Action is imminent.

The now-indispensable Solidarność poster of 1989 signals a complete departure from the themes of the Polish poster school.   Instead of a sketch or painting, Sarnecki uses a photograph of the character.  His face is no longer obscured by a hat or shadow—this is clearly Gary Cooper.  His pistol has been blanked-out and replaced with a voting ballot.  A solidarity pin is symbolically placed above the badge that denotes authority.  Additionally, Cooper is not pictured from the waist up, but in his entirety.   It is now clear that he is taking a step forward: progress is finally being made.

Decades worth of “pictures to be read” laid the foundation for the impact of High Noon during solidarity.  Lech Wałęsa, the movement’s co-founder, would later write, “[communists] tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S.  But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles.”   Whereas communists read the posters as a threat of westernization, Poles had learned to read images as metaphors for their own experience.  The progress of Kane’s image signaled the political progress of the Polish people: from bystanders to ballot-holders, from obscured faces to individuals.

In his essay The Mass Ornament, Siegried Kracauer notes that visual expressions, “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”  It is unclear if Polish poster artists consciously knew that they were painting, not the portraits of American western stars, but self-portraits that mirrored the social and political landscape of Poland.  Whether deliberate or not, the posters served as a channel of expression for both their artists and the viewers that share in the artists’ frustration.  Ironically, it was censorship and oppression that allowed these works of art to come into being.  The posters communicate the unspoken in post-WWII Poland, the symbols within allowing their distress to be seen, if not heard.  The feeling of victimhood, the scourge of violence, the empathy for the oppressed, and the grave demise of individuals that resist authority—it is all recorded within these posters.  But it was not until the High Noon poster of solidarity that the Polish people could adopt a western symbol for what it was—not a fool or a menace, but an individual taking his first step towards liberation.

Claiming baggage

I’m back in France.  Nothing’s changed.

I arrived excited this time, anxious, determined to approach this as a French person would—to shove my way through this country with my nose held high and my brows furrowed low.   I would be just as bastardly and unaffected as the rest of them, and just as fabulous, too.

I stepped off the plane at CDG with a plan:  I would swap my cheery Swiss-inspired French for the more precise, insistent Parisian French.  Instead of a sing-song, alpine “Bonjour!” I’d use my freshly-honed, disarmingly curt, Parisian “bonjour.”   The Parisian version is more staccato, and seems to have a slight raise on the jour, rendering the word partly-inquisitive, partly-restrained.   Totally French.

But at passport check, my new French stinkeye was faltering.  Something about the inherent awkwardness of approaching a stranger in a glass box and offering him, bleary-eyed, a document with my sad mug on it as a bid for entry into his country always leads me to recede back into my American openness and smiley innocence—two qualities, incidentally, that the French view not as affability, but as stupidity.  In American culture, awkward situations are often met with an elbowing “hey, we’re uncomfortable, but at least we’re uncomfortable together, right? heh heh.”  Not so for the French.  The douanier met my smiling “merci, bonne journée, et vive la France!” with a glare of regret for having stamped me into the country.

From this point on, I tried to keep my curiosity and amusement in check.   I emerged into the arrivals hall looking simultaneously grouchy and indifferent.   Now if I could just maintain this look for the next year.

I’ve been to Charles De Gaulle airport more times than I’d like to count.   Yet finding the CDG railway station is always a hassle.   I know exactly where it is, too (the ground floor of terminal 2A).   I know all the landmarks; there is a Paul patisserie on the 4th floor, as well as a cosigne de baggages called Baggages du Monde.   The guichets are on the 2nd floor, and you go down an escalator to access the train (usually at the last minute, to spare yourself the arctic blast and cigarette haze of a Parisian platform).

And yet, every time, there is a problem.    The sign that says “rail station” with an arrow pointing down, is pointing down (indicating, one would think, “downstairs”) where there is no elevator, escalator, or staircase.   As if you are supposed to teleport to the floor below, or as if this is a platform 9 ¾ deal, and the train station is exactly where you’re standing, but you’re too Muggle (or too un-French) to see it.

I once managed to find an escalator that supposedly led to the rail station (the escalator, incidentally, was nowhere near the “escalator to rail station” sign).  I began to go down the escalator when a French maintenance worker stopped me, yelling “attention, travaux!”   Sure enough, at the bottom of the escalator, there was a single orange cone and some caution tape indicating a mini construction zone, which one was somehow supposed to see and heed before boarding the escalator that was otherwise open for business at the top.

And so, the seeking-train-station dance continues:  I walk in circles, or spirals, or zigzags, passing through terminal after terminal, each insisting that the rail station is here, look down!    And I do ultimately find it . . . with minutes to spare.  I squeeze myself and my luggage past unrelenting French people that clog up the station, groups of high school kids looking like models sprawled out on the floor, using their luggage like living room furniture.   (Who can blame them?   There are hardly enough seats in the station for a Smartcar-load of passengers, let alone dozens of TGV-trains full.)     I reach the grey, stinking platform just in time to hear the SNCF tone chime, “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ depart avec un retard de quarante minutes.”

Train’s late again.   I say “phew” and “damn” in nearly the same breath, and begin to vulture around the station, trying to snag one of the four seats offered to the four hundred delayed passengers.    Usually by the time I find a seat and have just settled in to its unforgiving plastic, I notice people scrambling to the platform door as a barely-audible announcement is made: “DO DO DO DO—le TGV ‘neuf mille huit cent quatre-vingt quinze’ arrive en gare.”    Uh, what happened to the 40-minute delay?

Again, the gathering of luggage, the jostling, desperate push through the Frenchies, the teens, the tourists, the worried crowds gulping down their cigarettes in the icy chill, and onto the train, where I heave and hoist my bags, not because I want to look strong and independent and heroically un-jetlagged, but because no one in this city would dare help a lady, nor a man, nor anyone that’s beyond reach of one’s own nose (which, in the case of the French, can be quite large).

I don’t know what keeps bringing me back to this country.   Let’s call it a case of terminal masochism in a girl seeking love and approval from that which is too indifferent to give it to her.   Tant pis.

Because He was Hidin’


Poor Haydn. He tried so hard to establish himself as the original genius. Yet, two hundred years after his death only one Berkeley music student out of a class of eighty would venture a guess when asked to name one of his pieces (“um, the Surprise Symphony?”). On the other hand, if you ask the same class, “Why couldn’t Beethoven find his teacher?” without missing a beat, someone will snap back, “because he was Haydn!”

As the pun implies, we know Haydn by name, and only in relation to his role as the teacher—a role of which he was proud, to the point of having his contemporaries call him “Papa.” With some knowledge of his biography, we see another layer to the pun: much of Haydn’s career was spent in relative obscurity, “hiding” away on a remote estate in Hungary. Both of these factors—his role as the Father, and the environment in which he composed—explain his continued lack of recognition, particularly when placed next to his towering students, Mozart and Beethoven.

In his lifetime, Haydn watched the potential for musical immortality become greater than it had ever been. He was in London in the 1790s, witnessing the revival of Handel’s music, which would mark a shift in the musical environment towards political and populist concepts. A niche was emerging for the commemorated Music Hero, and Haydn intended to fill it. In his art, he began to highlight military motifs, scoring the wartime atmosphere of the 1790s with his “London Symphonies” including the Drumroll Symphony and the Military Symphony. He layered upon his reputation outside of his compositions as well, harnessing the power of cultural capital. He suggested Beethoven include the note, “pupil of Haydn” on his first compositions, the Opus 1 piano trios. Mozart, in an earlier and similar episode, had written his “Haydn Quartets” in honor of his “Father, Guide, and Friend!”

Haydn had no shame in giving his pupils a boost. In fact, he likely expected their success to, in turn, boost his reputation, as not just a mentor, but a prophet, a “creator” and herald of extraordinary talent. What he did not foresee, however, is that he was not serving as coattails to ride in on, but a springboard from which great artists would launch themselves, leaving him behind. To call oneself “Papa” is automatically desexualizing, especially when your young protégés are creating works like Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s thrusting Ninth Symphony.

That is not to say that Haydn’s music was not properly commemorated in its time. Carpani, who would later translate The Creation into Italian, wrote of the work’s 1798 premier, noting that it “commanded the perfect silence and scrupulous attention of the audience . . . a sentiment almost of religious devotion.” Another Haydn contemporary, ETA Hoffmann, would likewise call music “a form a worship.” This is a point that could only be reached with works like The Creation as a stepping-stone—works that command a religious rhetoric, and a Creator to set this atmosphere in motion.

Haydn was fully aware of his position as “The Creator.” After The Creation’s premier in Paris, he wrote, “the token of esteem with which you have honored me justifies my hope that perhaps I SHALL NOT WHOLLY DIE.” His role would immortalize him, yes, but by relegating himself to the realm of religious worship, he is consigned to the “traditional,” the safe, the moral—an aesthetic shackle that would prove problematic in a musical environment that would soon call for more subversive forms.

Summarizing ETA Hoffmann, Leon Botstein notes, “Mozart’s Romanticism offered a unique exit from the limits of musical classicism.” That is to say, Romanticism would embrace that which fell outside the boundaries of Haydn’s form. The Romantic Era is one marked by the abstract and by a penetrating examination of human emotion. Music would turn to instability, dissonance, rebellion—measures characteristic not of the rational father, but of the scowling, impetuous son. In sealing his image as the “Father,” Haydn damned himself out of relevance. Again, Botstien observes the nineteenth-century critical consensus that “even when Haydn deals with the sorrowful and the grim, he does so as a ‘loving father’ for whom balance and moderation are never lost.”

And yet, Mozart, another figure of classicism who in who fact shunned the “exaggerated and pompous” sublime aesthetic typical of romantic music, did not meet Haydn’s fate. While Mozart was easily appropriated both by classicists and romantics, Haydn, as Botstein puts it, “stayed in the same place.” What is it about Mozart’s music that allows for it to be co-opted?

Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the environment in which the music was composed. Haydn noted that, isolated as we was at the Esterhazy palace, he “was forced to be original.” But originality does not necessarily take into account commercial appeal. With the advent of musical publication and an emerging public of consumers, the period saw the rise of a commercial market for music, and commercial music to go with it. Perhaps because he was fired early on and needed to appease commercial tastes to make a living, Mozart honed a musical character that would appeal to a spectrum of listeners, from “connaiseurs” to “amateurs,” from kenner to liebhaben. In a letter to his father on December 28, 1782, Mozart acknowledged his intent to write in order to please both: “These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”

To feel pleasure “without knowing why” is the essence of Mozartean Beauty. He draws our attention not to the complex scaffolding that supports the piece, but to the sensuous experience of listening to it. We feel his musical language without it being the main point. Haydn, on the other hand, is interested in alerting us to his witty technical doings by bringing them to the surface and buffering them with gimmickry. As Scott Burnham notes, “his thematic material less often sounds as its own raison d’être, more likely serving as an occasion for witty doings that throw the spotlight on the very machinery one rarely notices in Mozart.” The essence of Haydn’s music is to move the listener “from being manipulated to being aware of being manipulated,” whereas Mozart’s manipulates on a more subversive level. Like Don Giovanni, he seduces us without warning. Haydn, the Papa, the desexualized Creator, cannot seduce. Instead, he gets our attention by saying, “Hey, look I what I can do!”

Voltaire once said, “how pleasant it is for a father to sit at his child’s board. It is like an aged man reclining under the shadow of an oak which he has planted.” There is no shame in Haydn’s title of Papa; whether it has cast him into irrelevance or not, to be the wellspring of great artists is what he was after. He probably did not predict the “shadow” that his pupils would ultimately cast over his own musical legacy, but still, he can rest underneath it with satisfaction. The father is aged, but not weak. He is reclining, but not departed. As music and politics become increasingly apocalyptic, there is a chance that we will call upon the father figure again soon. We will beckon him back to restore order, stability, and logic . . . to make us laugh, to speak in a manner that is clear, if not obvious. For only the Father can comfort. And only the Creator can arrive in a time of darkness and say, “Let there be light.”

If you’re happy and you know it, do not clap your hands . . .



If you flip to the second-to-last page of a concert program at the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, you will find a warning: “In a multi-movement work, it is customary to wait until the end of the last movement to applaud, so as not to break the concentration of the performers.” According the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the note’s origins are a mystery—it has been in the program “for as long as anyone at the PSO can remember,” leaving us without the option to ask its author to substantiate his claim. Waiting to applaud is customary since when? So as not to break the concentration of what performers? Emanuel Ax, who himself will appear with the PSO this summer, asks for just the opposite during his performances: “I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.”

Classical music performance is predicated upon the ideal of preserving centuries-old art forms; the nuances of receiving this art, however, are harder to maintain. A movement or thematic episode that was provocative 200 years ago may now be cliché or antique. The avant-garde, when played on loop, unravels into kitsch; Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” becomes Elmer Fudd’s “Kill the Wabbit.”

And as the PSO’s no-applause decree shows, it is not just the connotations of art that change, but also the etiquette of receiving that art. In Mozart’s time, it was expected that an audience would cheer at their favorite parts of a piece, and certainly that they would erupt into applause in the pause after an especially engaging movement. Mozart wrote to his friends about pieces that, by audience demand, had to be encored immediately. He famously wrote to his father about a particular part of his “Paris” Symphony which prompted a “tremendous burst of applause” when that passage was revisited during a “da capo” section (a repeat of material from the beginning).

Today, scholars have no idea which passage Mozart was referring to (though we all have our guesses, which reveal our own tastes more than Mozart’s). What is significant is not that this fabulous Da Capo is some elusive moment that today’s audience cannot hear, but rather it is any number of moments in the piece that today’s audience cannot respond to with the abandon of an 18th-century Parisian audience. The understanding that the audience would engage with and respond to the music was part of Mozart’s composition process, as evidenced by his considerations and predictions of their tastes. If classical music performance aims to respect what is “customary,” to remain true to the composer, who are we (or the program writers at PSO) to deny the composer what Mozart calls “the effect it would surely produce”?

And yet, these days a shout of “Da Capo!” from the audience would result in the immediate removal of the uncultured heckler. (Unless, of course, he disguised his call in a whomping cough during the pause between movements that once allowed room for the audience’s reactions but have now become awkward, makeshift cough breaks). Perhaps if we were allowed to express our enjoyment of the music throughout, as in Mozart’s day, rather than after sitting in stiff silence for two hours, Mozart’s elusive passage will make itself more obvious. The Da Capo mystery cannot be solved without the crucial audience dynamic—the collective consciousness in which we feed off each others’ enjoyment, in which we take clues from others about when to laugh during a comedy show, when to cheer during a political rally, and when to hack up a lung during an orchestra concert (if not between movements, then during the haunting pianissimo section of a RomanceLarghetto movement). Emanuel Ax notes, “I think that if there were no “rules” about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time…” The composition and those who perform it on stage constitute only half the musical performance equation. To silence the audience is to silence the most essential instrument in a symphony.


Chopin Map
On March 10, 2010, I rang in Frédéric Chopin’s 200th birthday at UC Berkeley by surprising my Polish class with gingerbread and monopolizing the chalkboard with the mammoth message: “Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin Chopina!” My excitement provoked a few bemused smirks, but otherwise no one seemed impressed that the musical hero of Poland has remained relevant for two centuries.

But considering his music’s precarious role throughout Poland’s history, it’s a wonder that Chopin’s legacy remains. As a political exile in France after 1830, Chopin crafted musical collections including dozens of “mazurkas” and “polonaises” to commemorate the Polish culture that, for decades, had been stifled by wars, failed uprisings, and foreign occupations. Due to its inherent “Polishness,” his music repeatedly faced the same threats of erasure endured by the nation itself. Public performances of his works were censured under tsarist rule in the 19th century. In the 20th century, his music was banned under Nazi occupation. It is no wonder, then, that in a finally free and independent Poland, the Polish people cherish his enduring legacy as a hallmark of Polish resilience. Nor is it any wonder that in 2010, Chopin’s name would carry more celebrity in his homeland than it did when he left Warsaw 180 years before.

I hadn’t planned to end up in Warsaw for the Chopin bicentenary celebrations, but it’s a welcome twist of fate that I did. I have always been a classical music fan but have been particularly devoted to Chopin’s music for the past several years. So I nearly squealed with delight when I landed at Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport (yes, this is really its name) and found the city wallpapered with announcements for nonstop concerts, festivals, and tours in celebration of “His Year.”

Without allowing time even to overcome jet lag, I went to work. I wore my shoes to the heel running around town snapping photos of all the Chopin posters I could find. In broken Polish, I asked shop owners and the random passersby to capture me posing precariously next to his name, or holding my hand at just the right angle so that his head would appear to be floating on my palm. I snacked on Chopin chocolates while sitting on Chopin musical benches, which, at the press of a button, would play 30 second clips of his compositions. I watched presidential campaign commercials on loop, not in interest of the historic election, but because the ads were often scored by Chopin etudes and preludes. When given the choice of city transit cards, I chose the commemorative Chopin design. I toured the Chopin museum, joined a busload of French tourists and made my pilgrimage to his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, then was nearly kicked out for sitting at the piano while a Portuguese man snapped photos of me pretending to be Freddie. I treated the Chopin kiosk on Nowy Swiat like my own personal church. I would sit in the only chair in the corner, hands folded piously in my lap as I watched Chopin videos play for hours. They broadcasted everything in there, from a music video re-enacting the destruction of Chopin’s piano to Latin dancers tangoing across Chopin airport to a waltz remix. I bought books and CDs knowing all proceeds went to the Chopin Institute, and traipsed around Warsaw with armfuls of brochures and tourist maps with names like “Chopin’s Warsaw” or “In Chopin’s Footsteps.” And I walked in his footsteps, let me tell you. I saw his sister’s apartment, his university, his heart in the Holy Cross church. On SundaysI would attend the Chopin concerts at Lazienki Park with eager dedication. There, I would lie on the grass and close my eyes and half-expect to see visions of wiry hair and a crooked nose. I felt like a child on Halloween, running from neighborhood to neighborhood collecting as many treats as I could and gobbling them up in quick succession.

But within three weeks, the queasiness set in. It began when I saw a tourist in a gift shop unwrap a Chopin truffle, sniff it, then put it back on the shelf for someone else to buy. It was then that I thought Varsovians might not be as stoked on Chopin as all the publicity made them out to be. Maybe Chopin is for them what Pier 39 is to San Franciscans, or Times Square is to New Yorkers. Maybe what began as a crest of Polish culture has become as ubiquitous and unoriginal as an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt. No matter how remarkable a historical icon is, if you are bombarded by it, and if you see it tainted by ravenous tourists, it begins to lose its appeal. And maybe it was the same with Chopin.

My own Chopin binge had left me feeling a bit perverse. I once saw a poster that was nothing more than a sketch of an eyeball and I knew instantly that it was Chopin’s eyeball. I don’t know that I would recognize my own mother’s eyeball, yet there I was, snapping a photo of Chopin’s graphite eye to add to my collection.

For my last few days in Warsaw, I decided to take it easy on the Chopinafilia. I resisted the urge to photograph every concert poster I saw. I didn’t obsessively replay the musical benches and I stopped admiring my Chopin transit card before going to bed at night. Instead of following his two hundred year old footsteps in my now-tattered shoes, I spent time visiting non-Chopin museums, attending film festivals instead of music festivals, strolling through Lazienki Park on weekdays rather than concert weekends, and glumly preparing myself to say good-bye to what had quickly become my new home.

I spent my last night in Warsaw sharing hot fudge sundaes with my roommates at Wedel Chocolate Shop in the city center. Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” came on the café radio, prompting two Polish women in a booth next to ours to chat about an upcoming Chopin festival that would last 31 days and feature over 2,000 performers. Overhearing this, I smiled to myself, realizing at once that I could finally understand words like “twothousand” and “performers” and “fantastic!” and that I could welcome Chopin back into my diet. Chopin’s year was not just for tourists. On the contrary, it provoked in the locals the same thrill that I had experienced when stammering out grammatically atrocious requests for concert tickets at the beginning of my stay. Perhaps the Varsovians I passed in the street had been speaking about Chopin’s year this whole time, it just took me six weeks to understand.

After taking one last stroll around Centrum, my roommates and I approached the tram platform for our final ride back to our apartment. To their confusion, I didn’t board the tram, but opted for the hour-long walk home instead. It was late, and I had a flight the next morning, but this was my last night in Warsaw in 2010, His Year. Marszalkowska Street was lined with fresh Chopin posters advertising the next wave of concerts and exhibits in his memory, and I couldn’t leave Warsaw without relishing the scene.

Yes, plastering his face all over the city might be overkill. But even after these centuries, even after partitions and wars that took Poland off the map, even after this city was systematically destroyed then systematically rebuilt, Chopin’s music still echoes in its parks and halls. His heart still rests in Warsaw. And these days, back home in my Chopinless town, I wonder if mine does too.

Nothing but the Truthiness: Colbert, Vachhani, and The Facebook Revolution

Note: I wrote this essay in 2007, shortly after a classroom discussion in my second week as a freshman Berkeley. A professor had our class read a New Yorker article  that suggests that Facebook has spawned a generation of awkward hermits that need to re-learn the value of basic social skills. My professor had an especially negative view of Facebook, insisting that it breeds social lethargy and political passivity (“passive” is always a buzzword directed at young people during an election season).

I begged to differ, and the debate that followed ultimately led to this essay.

Do remember that I wrote this back in 2007, before Facebook had “Pages,” or “Likes.” Back when it had a measly 49 million users, as opposed to 2012’s over 1 billion users.


I’ll be the first to admit it: the ubiquity of Facebook is fairly annoying. That said, I greedily indulge in its social juiciness on a daily basis. I am not quite as obnoxious about it as many of my Facebooking comrades: I resist the urge to drag my twenty-inch monitor to class and plug it into the nearest power strip for uninterrupted networking. But when I get home, I love to inspect the latest Facebook climate, a ritual that is nothing more than brainless and unproductive, right?

It’s easy to criticize such an attention vacuum if you’re not part of it. An article appearing in The New Yorker just last month suggests that Facebook is fathering a generation of antisocial birdbrains. Unfortunately, many of Facebook’s harshest critics have not actually been on the website. They do not know what is actually brewing past the log-in page of a 49 million-user empire. And, unless they’re avid readers of Google news, they probably have no idea that Facebook is the current breeding ground for a small-scale political revolution.

On October 16, Comedy Central’s infamous satirist and faux-news reporter Stephen Colbert announced his plans to run for president. Sort of. He is only running in one state (South Carolina, his home-state) as both a Republican and a Democrat. Raj Vachhani, a sophomore at the succinctly-named Loveless Academic Magnet Program High School, seized the opportunity to create a Facebook group of Colbert ’08 supporters. The group—“1,000,000 strong for Stephen T Colbert”—is a clever parody of the Obama supporters’ own “One Million Strong for Barack.”

Overnight, Vachhani, who will not even be old enough to vote in the ’08 election, became a Facebook celebrity, and, most likely, one of the youngest and most valuable assets to Colbert’s “campaign.” Though Facebook does not keep statistics for the growth-rate of groups, Vachhani’s is clearly among the fastest-growing ever on Facebook. The group reached one million members within just ten days of its creation. A number of members, including myself, stayed up until 2:56 A.M. on October 26th to see it hit the million mark (a bonding event that comically resulted in another group called, “I was there when the 1,000,000 for Colbert hit a million”). While a few other organizations on Facebook have more members (“The Largest Facebook Group Ever” has over 1.2 million users), Vachhani’s is both the largest political group and the largest group tribute to a person. And it continues to grow at an incredible rate, with over 1,185,000 members on its twelfth day. “One Million Strong for Barack,” now nine months old, has yet to exceed 400,000 members.

Vachhani, impressed with the group’s popularity, is using the exposure to encourage young people to vote. A link to Rock the Vote voter registration forms has resulted in over 5,360 registrations in just ten days. This enthusiasm shows that Colbert’s “phony” campaign and Vachhani’s entertainment-based group are actually making an impact on Colbert fans (better known as the Colbert Nation).

Stephen Colbert is known for creating cult movements in his name. Last year, he was temporarily banned from Wikipedia after he convinced his audience to vandalize the website’s articles. He also coined the term “truthiness” (describing claims that are passed off as fact without regard to evidence) which was named “Word of the Year” by both the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster, and has become a slang staple in the Colbert Nation. Colbert understands the value of television as a medium through which to influence and inspire youth. But this time, Colbert’s cause has both the support of his television audience, and the free Internet publicity that Facebook’s vast social networking provides. Colbert’s campaign highlights the potential of these two major avenues of media as tools to generate social assembly at faster rates than ever before, and may eventually provide a solution to the political apathy of the younger demographic.

Members of “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T Colbert” generally admit that Colbert will not win the election, let alone the state of South Carolina. However, they remain inspired by his boldness, and seem to appreciate the distraction from media saturated with information (much of it only speculative “truthiness”) about the real frontrunners. Tyler Morehart, a hopeful Colbert supporter, told me, “I am voting for Stephen Colbert, I promise you. . . . He might not win; Hell, he will not win, but a strong showing might turn Stephen’s head and make him think about actually running in ’12. Let’s hope and pray that he is the person to finally turn the American government around!”

Colbert’s ridiculous, perhaps sarcastic, decision to participate in the presidential election adds much-needed humor and life to a political institution that has otherwise become washed-up and tedious. Yet the most useful consequence of his decision was accidental: his surging online support has demonstrated the value of Facebook as the youth’s political medium. Facebook is more than just “poking,” photos, messages, and wall posts. It is a significant force in the modern youth culture. It is a place for youth to connect, communicate, and, in a case such as this, create momentum where the misinformed critics least expect it. Rather than bemoan our chosen medium as distracting, numbing, and impairing, the older generation must come to understand Facebook’s underlying potential. Behind the computer screen, we’re not just tapping away: we’re starting a revolution.