US customs officials think famous pianist's piano has funny smelling glue, so they destroy it

The Guardian's article about pianist Krystian Zimerman's political rant on Sunday at Disney Hall in Los Angeles (he announced that he'd no longer play in the US because of US military policies) contained this interesting tidbit:
At least some of his opprobrium appears to be personal. Shortly after 9/11, his piano was confiscated by customs officials at New York's JFK airport, who thought the glue smelled funny. They subsequently destroyed the instrument.
Polish pianist stops show with anti-US tirade


  1. Next time you reprimand yourself for not traveling light just think of this guy. He borrows piano shells and carries around the guts to install on-site. I’ll bet somedays he has flute-envy.

  2. A few dozen walked out, some of them shouting obscenities.

    “Yes,” Zimerman responded with derision, “some people when they hear the word military start marching.”

    Nice and very appropriate retort.

  3. “…he delivered his tirade “in a quiet but angry voice that did not project well”.”

    From experience, these are the most comprehensive, pointed, and clear headed types of tirades. No one shouts seething anger.

  4. part of me agrees with his sentiments, and I applaud his taking a stand.

    Then I wonder, If he feels that strongly, why did he wait until the middle of a performance to decide to never again play in the states, effective immediately? Why didn’t he just cancel the performance? Even agreeing with him for the most part, I would be rather upset too, if I paid to see a musical performance and got a political tirade.

    Then I wonder, maybe he planned to make this protest all along. Then I just think he’s an ass.

    You really got us good, Krystian. Way to go. Save it for someone else, please.

  5. Let’s not jump to conclusions. The piano destruction might have been perfectly reasonable. I didn’t get a chance to smell the glue, so I won’t make any rash judgments. You should show the same restraint.

    That glue might have smelled REALLY SCARY.

    Since the article doesn’t go into greater detail on the smell, we just can’t know.

  6. They were sniffing the glue. They thought it smelled ‘funny.’ Apparently they had some basis of comparison.

    Perhaps it didn’t smell like the airplane glue they huff in the break room?

  7. What would be awesome is if he insisted on only performing on a crappy little casio keyboard, rather than ship his own piano around with him.

  8. FTA – “For several years he chose to travel with just the mechanical insides of his own piano and install them – he is a master piano repairer, as well as player – inside a Steinway shell he borrowed from the company in New York.

    That’s all kinds of awesomes. Now I’m a fan, don’t give a rat’s ass about his political views.

  9. Perhaps he was just angry when he went on stage. Then, as he played a piano that wasn’t his, and perhaps didn’t live up to his expectations for his instrument, he got angrier. Perhaps he seethed internally until half way through his performance his anger overtook him. It’s a guess.

  10. I have a fair amount of contact with Customs (I have been an attorney for importers for 12 years) and I have to say that if a piano was destroyed over the glue it was because nobody was willing to do a little work to keep it from being destroyed. In other words, on that front I call BS.

    As for the politics mid-concert . . . whatever. Seriously, look at the last election and whether Americans support most of the policies Zimerman is bitching about. They don’t. So, to lecture an American audience about policies that Americans have voted to do away with in the middle of a paid performance is just bad form.

    He should go one better than not performing in the U.S. He should not allow either CDs or downloads of his music into the U.S. That’d really show us.

  11. By the way, just because the glue sniffing incident coincided with 9/11 doesn’t mean the concern was terrorism. Although it is a point too often forgotten, the United States has other laws that are also enforced by Customs. In reference to a piano with “funny smelling” glue I can easily imagine EPA (environmental) laws and DEA (drug) laws being possible concerns of the agents. Not to say that the agents were right or reasonable, but that’s why we have administrative processes in the United States.

  12. The article said that he made his statements “toward the closing stages” of the show. Yet, some commentors transformed this to him walking out in the middle of the concert, apparently to support their own judgmental agenda. It is par for the course for many BB commentors, but I still find it strange. Why twist a story or assume facts to support your opinion?

  13. “They don’t. So, to lecture an American audience about policies that Americans have voted to do away with in the middle of a paid performance is just bad form.”

    I’m fascinated by what you aren’t saying. Presumably, lecturing an American audience about policies that they vote ‘for’ in the middle of a paid performance is not bad form?

    In other words, its ok to lecture paid audience members if the reasoning is just (if you personally agree with the reason, perhaps)? If so, what does the ‘paid performance’ have to do with it?

    Just agree with conservatives on this one:
    ‘Shut up and sing’ is a perfectly reasonable stance.


  14. Yes I looked it up but, is opprobrium the right word for the circumstance? 50-cent word when a nickel word would do?

  15. I hunted down a couple more articles on this story, he did actually finish the performance. Granted Zimerman isn’t my favorite pianist, but I have no issue with him spouting out whatever he wants at his concert. If some at Disney Hall were upset, I’m sure it has to do with the outrageous ticket prices, not what he actually said. As a long time concert goer to the LA Phil and other classical performances in and about LA, I’m surprised the audience just didn’t drop over in shock that someone actually said something to interrupt their medicated haze that they always seem to be in in LA.

    Unfortunately for me Disney Hall’s prices have prevented me from going since it opened. I’m sure it’s a great place, I miss seeing the LA Phil or other performances every week. The good ole days when I would have $10 in my pocket and bored, and think, “Hey, wonder whats playing tonight?” Drive up and listen to some great music.

  16. RationalPragmatist:

    I paid for an entire performance (hypothetically, since I was not there), so whether it was the middle or “toward the closing stages” is still bad form. Good form would have been an after concert discussion, or a pre-concert discussion.

    Seriously, “judgmental agenda”? In defense of this behavior? That sort of hyperbole is also too typical of BB comments.

  17. As a fellow Zimmerman, as a resident of Poland and expatriate of the US and as someone who thinks that the US’s “safety! safety! safety! no matter what the cost!” attitude is both childish, unreasonable and inevitably doomed to not work out… I applaud Krystian.

    When Obama reigns in the TSA and has them stop acting like God’s own police force, then I will applaud him, too.

  18. I know boingboing has linked to the DEA’s website “Microgram Bulletin” before because of the unique ways people try to smuggle drugs. When you see books or pottery or musical instruments sliced open on the DEA website, with cocaine or heroin inside, realize this: these are the items where the DEA was correct in assuming there was contraband hidden in the items, how many things got destroyed that didn’t have anything hidden in them?

    Imagine you come back from South America, especially Columbia/Bolivia/Peru. . . anything you are carrying will be looked at with suspicion.

  19. Someone should have told him that we have pianos here in the US, he neededn’t bring his own.

    I hope he atleast sent it through as checked baggage, not as carry-on

  20. My goodness, there are some ill-informed posters here. Not to mention reflexive assholes. You know who you are. For the record, I saw Mr. Zimmerman in Seattle last week. At two points in the concert, before beginning pieces, he “ranted” in a political vein. Perfectly reasonable rants, if you ask me. Quiet,pointed, humorous and dignified. And quite on the mark. As for his piano, if you stop and think about it for a moment (I know, that challenges quite a few posters here) it may be eccentric but it makes sense.

    Good concert, btw.

  21. Ironically, If you feel the need to walk around with a US flag draped around your shoulders, Poland is the place to do it. Instead of the insults you’d get in far off places like, oh, canada, the poles would buy you a round.

  22. Apparently he also refused to play in the U.S. until Bush left office. I think this may have been his first tour there in some years.

    And his main reason for walking out was Obama’s decision to go ahead with the missile defense base in Poland, made earlier this month.

    Ostensibly, this is to counteract “Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity”, but since there seems to be very little evidence of any such thing, it’s pretty clear that the Bush admin put the plan in place as part of a policy of hemming in the Russians. Obama, whether he believes his own bullshit about Iranian nuke-tipped ICBMs, is most likely just trying to appease the old guard in Washington, or something. Nevertheless, Zimmerman is (justly) pissed about the U.S., under both Bush and Obama, turning Poland into a pawn in a new cold war against Russia. (The Russians have made it abundantly clear that there are now large numbers of nukes pointing at Poland as a result of this.)

    Also, it’s not like he ended the concert, or like he’s cancelled the tour or anything. He gave people what they paid for, then told them he wouldn’t be back, and explaineed why.

  23. Sk,
    Shut up and sing is the full extent of what I paid for. Now shut up and sing. That goes for Charlton Heston (RIP) and this guy. Just because you are a good performer doesn’t mean I give a rat’s ass about your politics.

    Also, MurrayHenson, safety, safety whatever the cost is more reasonable when it is reduced to possible drug interdiction at the border. I would like to know what the process was with his piano before I fault Customs for it. And when you cross an international border (except for some European borders, for the moment) law enforcement does have essentially absolute authority. It has to do with sovereignty.

    Finally, Kid Geezer, “perfectly reasonable rants, if you ask me. Quiet,pointed, humorous and dignified. And quite on the mark” actually does not describe a “rant.”

  24. D,

    If you have anything new to contribute, go right ahead. You’re becoming repetitive.

  25. Kieran,
    I guess I had been assuming that the Polish government was supportive of the missile defense base. Is that not correct? In that case, Obama made a big error.

    On the other hand, if the elected representatives of the Polish state want the shield, they may have decided that Poland is, was, and will be subject to the whims of Russia, and rather than being made a pawn of, they want to have a prayer to avoid a fourth partition.

    Reasonable people can argue both sides of that issue, but it seems to me that Poland is a functioning republic and that the electorate and government should have at least as much say as a pianist with an attitude.

  26. tokin42: Go for it. While Poland’s government is pretty friendly with the US, the natives would assume that you are (not that you actually are, mind you) an arrogant American.

    I’ve ran into plenty of people who were more than happy to point out the various flaws of Americans and America. That being said, I’ve also ran into plenty of people who were interested in hearing what I thought of Poland, why I moved, etc. But they don’t like being preached to or looked down upon; Poles really dislike it when a non-Pole disses their country.

  27. down with free speech! how dare this guy exercise his right to an opinion that doesn’t coincide with mine. what an ass!

    but seriously, you are paying to see his performance, whatever he chooses that to be. if you dislike the content of the show you are free to complain and not go to any of his future performances. that’s you exercising your own right to free speech and personal autonomy, just like he is.


    If you want to get technical and legal about it, there is presumably an element of false advertising inherent in making political speeches when people paid to hear a piano concert. Zimerman is selling a service here. If you came to my office and paid me $500 to write a brief in an hour and I gave you 50 minutes worth of a brief and 10 minutes worth of my thoughts on unrelated topics, you’d be peeved.

    So, at the risk of being chastised for not bringing enough intellectual variation to the table (speaking of free speech), I reiterate that paid performances should be . . . paid performances. Zimerman can believe anything in the world, but when people are paying him to do something else, it is not appropriate for him to be airing those views. He doesn’t lose the right to hold them. There is a time and a place for everything, and his was the wrong time in the wrong place.

    Sheesh. If he had done the exact same thing but espoused the need for America to continue to destroy Iraq for no apparent reason people would be all over him.

    1. D,

      Why don’t you take the afternoon off and research the meaning of the French idiom ‘belle marquise’.

      1. D aka Chicago D,

        Now it appears that you’re going to have to explain why you’ve been posting under several user names if you want your account reinstated.


    Then I wonder, maybe he planned to make this protest all along. Then I just think he’s an ass.

    So… you’re only down with spontaneous protest, I suppose? Yeah, what an ass, doesn’t he know that no matter how tired the world is of our imperial bullshit, they should all just sit quietly while our guns are pressed to their collective heads?

    When are all these pesky foreigners going to just get in line like WE do? I mean, (cough)… sitting on our hands in this country has certainly done “wonders” for us, that’s for sure.

  30. D: What Antinous said. (Your argument still seems to boil down to “he should just shut up and play”.)

    And you’re rght, the ruling party in Poland agreed to the missile base. And I’m sure that Zimmerman is exercising his right to criticise them for that.

    Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that Poland asked the U.S. for the base – rather, I suspect the Bush admin had to “shop around” Eastern Europe to find countries with governments who hated the Russians enough to agree to it.

    Put another way, in the Polish government’s case, the motivation is simple Russophobia. In the U.S. government’s case, the motivation was clearly the maintenance of U.S. global supremacy (a publicly stated goal of the neocons) by keeping potential opposition (in this case Russia) contained.

    And Zimmerman has every right to speak out against that.

  31. if you want to hire him to perform only what you want to hear, you should contact his agent and make the necessary arrangements. you should probably supply a playlist as well. here’s a hint: expect to pay a substantially higher ticket price.

    you paid to see a concert. what that concert consists of is up to the producers and performers of the show. it is not up to the audience to decide, except in their exercising their preferences by not buying tickets to any subsequent shows.

    also, many performers speak during their performances. most people consider that a good thing. i am fairly certain you wouldn’t be griping nearly as much if he had told a story about how much he loves america and how it has transformed his country for the better.

  32. …people paid to hear a piano concert.

    Yes, and they got one. The politics was a freebie. Sheesh, indeed.

  33. I, for one, am glad our diligent public servants are protecting us from these godless piano-wielding foreigners.

  34. D,

    Anyone paying you $500 an hour to write a brief is getting a much worse deal than Zimmerman’s patrons. Did their ticket state ‘music only’? Is any between-song chatter by a musician somehow offensive and actionable? Is he under some obligation to play a minimum number of songs, or a prescribed time limit, so that he was cheating the customers that were so offended they had to march out?

    Artists own the stage. If you don’t like it, boo, leave, don’t come back, etc. Artists don’t owe their audience a thing. If they displease so many people that they don’t have viable careers, they are free to do so. I suspect that for most of Zimmerman’s fans this was no surprise and didn’t detract from and maybe enhanced, his performance.

  35. the public gets what they deserve
    not what they demand
    unless we all decide to be
    a business, not a band

    – Agent Orange, Breakdown lyrics

  36. Cowicide #40
    “o… you’re only down with spontaneous protest, I suppose? Yeah, what an ass, doesn’t he know that no matter how tired the world is of our imperial bullshit, they should all just sit quietly while our guns are pressed to their collective heads?”

    Not exactly. What I mean is that if he felt so strongly, he shouldn’t have held the performance in the first place. Perhaps he was on tour and already committed by the time he learned of the news that set him off in this way, so he decided it was not reasonable to cancel within a few weeks of the performance. Fine. In that case he should have just played the performance and gone home to never come back again, if that’s how he feels. He could even have made his comments at the end, or even the beginning, of the performance, and not disrupted it. “In the closing stages” is a little vague, so I don’t know if that means the last five minutes or last thirty minutes. Either way: *groan*.

    I say “ass” because he is directing his anger at people who have no relation to the source of his anger. A nation is not it’s government. This is a crappy way to treat one’s public. Now if Obama were actually in the crowd…


    I get it. Just remember your collective enlightened stance when some a-hole performer gets up and says things that you *don’t* agree with.

    Go ahead, try to find just one post on Boing Boing where free speech is attacked because it’s a “conservative” stance or what not.

    In the meantime, chew on this oxycontin laced donut:


    A nation is not it’s government

    We tend to make the opposite claim here in the USA and I’m sticking with it. While I have no allusions that the elite have tried their damnedest to ignore the American populace… I do take responsibility for both Bush and Obama admin policies because I’m a United States citizen and, as such, I am empowered to a certain degree (up to this point anyway).

    We haven’t done enough as U.S. citizens and we are to blame. At the same time, we can also pat ourselves on our collective backs for our successes as well. If the American citizenry didn’t help steer this ship to some degree, believe me… things would be much worse right now in the civil rights territory, etc. and we would be blowing up far more shit worldwide.

    American citizens are nuts, if we lost all control of this ship entirely… things would get violent here at home. They rightfully still fear the bewildered herd. I think many people who are part of nearly all U.S. political spectrums can shine their guns to that one.

    “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth [muthafuckas].” – Abraham Lincoln

  39. D:
    I’d just suggest you boycott artists that disagree with you. The position that an artist’s role in society includes commenting on it is one that has a very long history. You are certainly not going to convince me that it is an artists’ obligation to sterilize his product so that it can be consumed without having thoughts that the audience finds unpleasant.

    The consumer does not get to design the product he purchases, merely decide whether or not he wants to purchase it. Zimmerman was selling tickets to a Zimmerman concert, whose content was Zimmerman’s to design.

  40. Thank God someone’s sense of outrage is still sparking. Thanks to a steady lifelong diet of sensationalist media, mine has long since given up the ghost.

  41. Separate the issues and then rational handling becomes “less impossible” As in :

    A performer appears to demonstrate free political speech. A government agency appears as if it uses poorly defined logic to declare something as warranting destruction.

    Persons with little to no direct involvement make commentary on the merits of that performer and the government agency actions. So far the details seem pretty much as above. Yet the old phrase about what dwells in details seems understated here.

    I’d like to see a bit more transparency of the exact government involvement/s and a transcript of the performer’s remarks before I would presume any understanding of what and why both things happened.

  42. I agree with Anon at 2:14 – artists are people, you know, not jukeboxes. He has a right to speak his mind from the one platform he has. You have the right not to fucking go.

    Also, for those of you who feel his behaviour was somewhere on the rude-unproductive spectrum, bear in mind that one does not become a top-level pianist without spending unbelievable amounts of time in the single-minded pursuit of perfection. This man has spent five to eight hours a day, probably from a very young age, practicing the piano. He has also clawed his way to the top of a very competitive, cutthroat profession. This does things to your personality.

  43. The piano was a Steinway, unless otherwise noted, manufactured in Queens, New York City.
    All pianos (all things) have a smell. Most of the smell can be attributed to the varnish.
    What kind of ass-hole reasoning is “smells funny”? Define a “funny smell”?
    Their frigging logic in destroying the piano, was that the pianist was smuggling some controlled substance in the glue of the piano. Un-frigging-believable.
    The problem is that in the US, we give ignorant ass holes carte-blanche to make all kinds of decisions that affect people’s lives, with zero accountability. The lack of accountability is the problem.
    Had been the guitar some acid head rock star that “smelled funny” (a worthless stick of wood with strings as far as I’m concerned), something customs agents are more familiar with, there would have been no issue.
    The US is fast becoming a country like was the Soviet Union in its milder period (Brezhnev era). Wake up and get the government off your back!

  44. One of my biggest pet peeves is, as an American, being ranted at by others for things that I didn’t vote for and am doing my best to stop. One of the others is when citizens of other countries bellow their disdain at my country for things that their own government has done.

    It’s not like the US invaded Poland and started setting up military installations. These things are decided in negotiation. You don’t like it? Talk to the people on your side of that negotiation table.

    And this is my essential take on all the Muslim anger as well. Don’t like Baywatch? Then get your cable company not to run it. Don’t come to my country and blow people up.

    Even in a highly globalized world, unless someone is forcefully invading your country, your problems are almost entirely local.

  45. Ask anyone who plays an instrument other than piano if they would like to use a different borrowed instrument for each concert…
    To make a piano sound brighter, one technique is to lacquer the felt hammers. The strong smell of volatile organic chemicals lingers for days.


    Don’t like Baywatch? Then get your cable company not to run it. Don’t come to my country and blow people up.

    Except nobody blows up anybody else because they watch Baywatch. It nearly always has to do with… occupation. There’s some good books and great research into this area or you can continue to walk in the dark; it’s up to you. Check out the book Dying to Win if you get a chance.

  47. Regarding that the glue may have been bad due to EPA concerns and not wanting the stuff imported into the US:

    It’s a STEINWAY. They’re made in New York. I’m sure that, like all fine furniture, it’s hide glue. Yes, it has a distinctive smell. The customs agents probably have never smelled anything but synthetic glues in cheap furniture.

  48. this also goes to show how one bad or over-zealous employee can ruin an experience (like going through customs or flying on an airplane, etc. etc.) for someone and make someone want to boycott that company, or country in this case. i sympathize with his views, but am also suspicious of Russia as another commenter insinuated. but then i maintain a healthy suspicion of the U.S. as well. we lived in world compromised by human nature after all.

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