John Adams's Nixon in China: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives. By Timothy A. Johnson. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. [xv, 278 p. ISBN 9781409426820. $99.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
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 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 shiftslowly 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 crafta broader semiotic picture of the aria.
What makes this approach so successful is the fact that the analysis is never opaque. …