John Adams Phrygian Gates Analysis Essay

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Richard Nixon’s diplomatic mission to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 was one of the most important political events of the twentieth century, as it marked the first time a U.S. president had visited the emerging superpower since its transformation into a Communist nation. The meetings held between Nixon and his counterpart Mao Zedong were an important part of the former’s strategy of détente with the Communist world. John Adams’s opera Nixon in China—premiered fifteen years later in 1987—was one of the most important musical events of the twentieth century, as it was the composer’s first foray in the world of opera and helped to secure his place as one of the preeminent composers in the United States.

For scholars of diplomacy and political science who wish to examine Nixon’s visit, the amount of secondary source material is almost embarrassing in its magnitude. The landscape is altogether different for those who wish to study Adams’s opera. While there are a number of articles and essays about it, it had not been the subject of extensive, monograph-length discussion. Timothy Johnson’s new book, John Adams’s “Nixon in China”: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives, aims to correct that [End Page 555] deficiency. Johnson had focused his previous work on bridging the gap between music and other disciplines. His first two books—Foundations of Diatonic Theory: A Mathematically Based Approach to Music Fundamentals (Emeryville, CA: Key College Publishing, 2003) and Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2004)—paired music theory with mathematics and baseball history. This new book returns Johnson to an area he began studying more than twenty years ago, when he wrote the first published dissertation on the music of John Adams (“Harmony in the Music of John Adams: From Phrygian Gates to Nixon in China,” Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1991).

In the present book, Johnson sets out “to correlate historical events with those depicted onstage and to highlight the actions, emotions, feelings, and motivations depicted in the opera through music” (p. 5). By and large he succeeds. In comparing historical events to the music, Johnson utilizes two primary methods of musical analysis that focus on metrical dissonance and neo-Riemannian harmonic transformations. When using the former, he borrows from Harald Krebs’s notational system. The choice to analyze Adams’s music as containing metrical dissonance is a wise one given that the composer consistently builds offsetting layers of time into his music. The predilection for this stylistic feature is as evident in his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic as it is in Nixon in China.

The latter method of analysis provides a method through which Adams’s harmonic language can examined both accurately and rewardingly. Adams has a decidedly twentieth-century bent to his harmonic language, yet it defies serial analysis. Rather, he works largely in triads that shift slowly over time to create the foundational building blocks upon which his formal structures rest. The neo-Riemannian analysis is crafted precisely to work with these triads, and Johnson does an excellent job of using the tools of the still-new and exciting system. In examining Richard Nixon’s “News” aria in act 1, scene 1, for instance, Johnson points out the shifts from A-flat major to F minor, back to the original tonality and then to C minor (p. 93). The neo-Riemannian system analyzes these changes as simple transformations from one chord to the next based on common tones. Johnson then combines these transformations with the significance he has attached to each tonality to craft a broader semiotic picture of the aria.

What makes this approach so successful is the fact that the analysis is never opaque. One of the biggest problems of non-traditional methods of analysis is a tendency to delve into self-created analytical methods that leave the reader either unsure of...

Although relatively unknown to music audiences—unlike his orchestral and operatic works—John Adams’s piano music forms an important part of his compositional legacy: China Gates and Phrygian Gates, both from 1977, are regarded as an “opus one” by the composer and critics alike, the “first coherent statements in a new language,” that is, Adams’s personal brand of minimalism.1 This 2007 release of John Adams’s Complete Piano Music—one of Naxos’s bestsellers for that year—marks the second recording of his complete works for piano solo and two pianos.2 In 2004 the Nonesuch label (79699–2) released the first recording of Adams’s complete piano music, devoting three additional tracks to Adams’s Road Movies for piano and violin.3 Van Raat and Van Veen, two award-winning pianists who studied in Amsterdam, collaborate on this recording for the first time (though Van Veen plays the smaller role in the disc, only accompanying Van Raat on the second piano part of Hallelujah Junction).

In China Gates Van Raat clearly delineates the low, resonating pedal tones that signal new beginnings in the music—the “gates” of the title, a term borrowed from electronics to refer to a splicing procedure common to many early minimal works, where a change of mode occurs suddenly and without any type of transition. Although this is the simpler of Adams’s two gate pieces, there are nevertheless some challenges to a good performance. Adams notes that “special attention should be given to equalizing the volume of both hands so that no line is ever louder than another.”4 This is particularly tricky when the patterns from the left hand collide with those of the right, whereby a single note must occasionally be played with both hands.5 One has to take extra effort to play these at the same level as the other notes. Van Raat generally does well at this, despite several moments where some notes distractingly stand out.

Adams’s Phrygian Gates echoes China Gates, though with more grandiose proportions—a three-movement, twenty-five-minute work that requires a great deal of physical endurance.6 Here Van Raat plays a persuasive performance with unwavering intensity from beginning to end, with the proper execution of gate changes, and the constant adjustment of the weight of attacks to account for note collisions, ensuring that “no single note predominates over the others,” except, of course, where noted in the score. Perhaps the most distinguishable features of Van Raat’s performance are the clarity of sound and the sense of direction as Adams’s waveform sounds expand and contract. I find Van Raat’s balance more effective here than in China Gates, with its thinner and more delicate textures.7

Hallelujah Junction, named after a truck stop in the High Sierras on the California- Nevada border, demands great concentration from the performers to accurately execute musical patterns whose slight displacements provide a wonderful acoustic reverberation. While both players’ sensitivity to the rhythmic nuances, balance of parts, stylistic concerns, and textural clarity are superb, Van Raat (or the recording engineer) does not always heed Adams’s dynamic markings. At times, the result falters; in the middle section of the first movement, for example, Van Raat produces a harsh sound that is out of character in the high register (ca. 2′50″). [End Page 393]

American Berserk diverges from the stricter minimalist style in the earlier works, drawing explicitly upon influences as diverse as Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, and jazz.8 Van Raat steers through the work’s intricate rhythms with exceptional poise and offers a convincing interpretation that derives a cohesive whole out of the “unpredictable, bipolar shifts of mood and tempo.”9 He takes full advantage of the extroverted outbursts in the work, several of which are marked with “wild!” and “berserk!” in the score, yet he could provide a greater range of dynamic contrast and expression, especially...


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