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Lecture/Presentation/Talk

Ron Alexander Memorial Lectures in Musicology: Lisa Cooper Vest

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Topic: “Poland is a Nation of People Who Are Pursuing Education!”: Contemporary Music as Cultural Outreach in the Polish People’s Republic

Abstract: In 1958, the Culture Commission of the Polish United Workers’ Party held a conference about the role and function of culture in paving the “Polish Road to Socialism,” the goal that had driven Party Secretary Władysław Gomułka’s revolutionary bid for power in 1956. Never afraid to answer the demands of one slogan with yet another slogan, Party officials at this conference coined a phrase that would continue to be associated with Gomułka’s leadership throughout the 1960s: “Poland is a Nation of People Who Are Pursuing Education!” (“Polska krajem ludzi kształcących się!”). While political leaders surely did not imagine this national “education” to include avant-garde music, I will demonstrate in this talk that Polish composers, artists, and intellectuals were able to work within the logics of the Party’s cultural policies to frame contemporary musical experimentation as a form of “cultural outreach” (upowszechnienie kultury). 

The key to this discursive (re)framing lay in artists’ and intellectuals’ insistence that the Polish nation included more than one audience of people who were “pursuing education.” They characterized themselves as an audience of experts who needed to learn about contemporary developments in artistic production. Such developments would have been dismissed as Western “formalism” just a few years earlier, but members of the artist-intellectual class were able after 1956 to argue that their experimentation would serve both their own education and the cultural progress of the Polish nation as a whole. In this latter promise lay the key to obtaining creative and financial support from the Party-State leadership, and honoring that promise required constant negotiation. By examining two elite cultural institutions — the Polish Radio Experimental Studio and the music journal Ruch Muzyczny (The Musical Movement) — I explore the creative possibilities that became available to artists and intellectuals who were “pursuing education” during the Gomułka era, but I also demonstrate the complex demands that Party and State leadership placed on these institutions. If elite cultural production could not demonstrate sufficient outreach support for a broader national progress, then the political apparatus reserved the right to initiate course correction via censorship, reallocation of resources, and institutional reorganization. 

Lisa Cooper Vest is a musicologist whose work is focused on the aesthetic and political contexts of the post-WWII Polish musical avant-garde. Her work is situated within the field of Cold War studies, as she considers the effects of political ideologies upon musical culture and its meanings. Vest is particularly interested in the complicated power relationships that animated the field of cultural production in Communist Bloc nations, and the ways in which artists and intellectuals were able to wield the promise of progress in order to generate consensus across generational, political, and aesthetic divides. Her research on these topics also informs her approach in the classroom, where she encourages her students to think about how music has affected (and is currently affecting) political discourse, and also how music functions as political discourse, shaping perceptions of such fundamental concepts as nation, gender, class, and race.

Lisa Cooper Vest’s 2020 book, Awangarda: Tradition and Modernity in Postwar Polish Music, explores the ways in which the Polish avant-garde was actually perceived as a manifestation of Polish cultural tradition, and thus as a movement with the potential to stimulate cultural progress and to enhance Poland’s international cultural prestige. Based on this potential, artists, intellectuals, and State officials were able to articulate shared goals and strategies for the institutional support and promotion of Polish avant-garde music. Additionally, Vest has presented on issues of voice and gender in Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1968 opera The Devils of Loudun, and she has published about educational initiatives within the Polish Composers’ Union in the late 1950s. Her research and writing has been funded by grants from the Fulbright Hays program, PEO International, the Mellon Foundation, and Indiana University.

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  • Free admission
  • Note that Stanford University guidelines now state that masks are no longer required, but are strongly recommended. We encourage you to continue wearing masks for the comfort of our patrons, staff, and artists. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is no longer required.

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