John Adams – ‘Nixon In China’

Year: 1987

In 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to China to meet with Mao Zedong in an effort to strengthen relations between the two countries in the later years of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most important diplomatic moments of the 20th century, and it’s the visit that would have defined Nixon if Watergate never happened. It’s the kind of real life epic that could only be captured in an opera.

At least that’s what John Adams thought in 1983 when he began writing the score to his first opera to Alice Goodman’s libretto and Mark Morris’ choreography. Adams wrote the opera by the encouragement of stage director Peter Sellars, who saw the complexities of Nixon’s visit; it could have been an election ploy, a genuine diplomatic mission, or both. However, Adams and Sellars did not want to create another bland satire poking at the easy target of Nixon, an awkward power-hungry stiff who is perhaps the easiest American President to make fun of. The goal of the opera was to explore the humans on both sides of the meeting and to capture the historical moment from those who were actually there. Even the title Nixon in China invokes some involuntary humor – can you imagine Richard Nixon walking around in China? Adams understands what he’s going up against in his attempt to humanize Nixon, and the play’s success is how he often gets close to his goal.

The main characters are Nixon and his wife Pat, Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), and the two advisors of each leader, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. The opera is divided into three acts: Act One details the first night of the visit and the initial meetings between Nixon and Mao, Act Two follows Pat around rural China and exploring everyday Chinese life, and Act Three describes Nixon’s last night in China and everyone’s mixed feelings on the success of the visit.

Nixon in China has always been more influential than acclaimed – its initial reviews were mixed – but over the years it has earned its position as one of America’s most important operas. It is more famous for its existence than its success as an emotional engaging piece of music; few operas are based on a media event that was televised all around the world. Though the opera takes place in China, Adams’ score borrows almost entirely from Philip Glass’ minimalist style and rarely takes on any Oriental influence. That’s where Goodman’s libretto comes in, which is written in rhymed and metered couplets inspired by traditional Chinese poetry and theater.

American operas may not be as established or as grand as its European siblings, but Nixon in China was, and still is, a groundbreaking attempt at turning an old and inaccessible musical style into something modern and, dare I say, relatable? Also, does anyone think the beginning of the opera sounds like Elliott Smith?

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Spoon – “Finer Feelings”

Year: 2007

Album: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Is this Spoon’s best song? It has the usual suspects of a good Spoon song; Britt Daniel’s wordplay sung like a nervous cool-kid junkie (“Memphis comes creeping down my back / Somehow this place tastes just like an attack”), Rob Pope’s lean bass, Jim Eno’s tight no-frills drums, and Eric Harvey’s spacious keys. It’s a song that rewards with each listen, yet it has the instant catchiness that comes from fuzzy noise that only Spoon, and sometimes Wilco, can create. Be damned those who say Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is Daniel’s Billy Joel record (“The Underdog”), this is Spoon true and true, the only band in the world that can try something entirely new and still sound like themselves. All hail Spoon.

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Stevie Wonder – “Village Ghetto Land”

Year: 1976

Album: Songs In The Key Of Life

“Village Ghetto Land” is such a stark point in an otherwise joyous record, but Wonder is no stranger to protest music like this (Innervisions) and he puts his masterful songwriting to good use here. It also sounds like a Final Fantasy song.

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Hank Ballard – “The Twist”

Year: 1959

“Ballard’s ‘The Twist’ (1959) was indeed the first completely alienated dance form. Instead of being part of a pair, line, couple, or group, twisters were dancers who were liberated from stifling community; they were individuals. The twist was a revolutionary force in breaking apart social units and enforcing individualist ideology. Though rock ‘n’ roll music had existed long before this dance, the introduction of the twist was a shift which punctuated a profound new beginning for rock ‘n’ roll: rock as a culturally enforced paradigm, which cut across race and class lines.

“…The pill is widely credited for launching the so-called sexual revolution and for sparking a new era of promiscuity and rebellion against the nuclear family unit and its oppressive gender roles. But the pill and the twist, along with other postindustrial dances, didn’t just encourage more sex without regard for pregnancy; they also parented a new relationship to sex. People engaged in intercourse with lots of different people not because they were newly carefree – there had been sex before this – but because dancing, the ancient ritualistic pantomime of intercourse and intimacy, was now an alienated action; an individualistic task where the participant was required to be alone, in a frenzied, masturbatory state, both highly stimulating and deeply depressing. The void was to be filled with actual fornication. The two phenomenon are therefore related: ‘The Twist’ (1959) made the pill absolutely necessary, while “the pill” (1960) made the world engendered by the twist manageable.”

Censorship Now!! (2015)

Love him or hate him, Svenonius is always entertaining to read.

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Alban Berg – “Wozzeck”

Year: 1925

The best way to experience opera is in person, but the next best thing is to watch the film adaptation with subtitles. This was Berg’s first opera and it was based on Georg Büchner’s incomplete play Woyzeck (which is partly why the film version works). Berg began working on the opera in 1914, but soon he left to fight in World War I and experienced first-hand the desperate humiliation of fighting a war with people you despised. (Berg was also not the easiest guy to get along with, but still.)

Wozzeck is an early example of using Schoenberg-atonality in 20th century opera, and it’s considered a major step in bringing avant garde into the mainstream. The lack of major/minor tonality gives the music an uneasy feel, which Berg used to match his uneasy story of a German town caught up in wartime.

Now that it’s finally snowing a lot on the east coast, it’s a great time to stay in and watch some atonal opera on your computer.

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Blue Scholars – “Sagaba”

Year: 2004

Album: Blue Scholars

I love the theme behind the group’s name: highbrow “blue collar.” Seattle is known for its rich history of guitar-based music, but I need to explore its history of hip-hop and rap.

The remix released one year later on The Long March EP is also good:

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Kamasi Washington – “Final Thought”

Year: 2015

Album: The Epic

I heard a lot from websites/writers/friends that I had to check out Kamasi Washington immediately because he was amazing and he was doing important things in music. Whenever I feel like everyone is telling me to check out something, I usually don’t. That’s why I’m not watching “Masters Of None” or “Making A Murderer” – too much immediate hype turns me off.

Of course I’m also an idiot, so I didn’t bother listening to The Epic when it first came out. If I did, it would have been on my end-of-year albums list.

It’s the kind of album that’s just the right amount of complex and accessible, the kind of jazz album that those who aren’t as well versed in the genre can still pick up on the kind of risks and experiments Washington is doing. It’s bold yet inviting, and now I won’t sleep on any new music from Washington.

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Kathryn Calder – “Five More Years”

Year: 2011

Album: Bright and Vivid

To me this is the kind of music I always think Joanna Newsom should make, but I like Kathryn Calder because she sounds weird and accessible. Calder is a member of the greatest Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers and she used to be in Immaculate Machine.

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