To Hear and Hear Again

I first heard Nixon in China my sophomore year of high school. A friend of mine had been turned on to John Adams's Harmonielehre thru one of the Civilization video games, and found the opera at our town's library. She insisted that I listen to it, and it wasn't long before I had memorized the exact rhythm of Nixon's sputtering "News!"s and the chorus's pitter-patter of "pig"s (start at 3'35"). I listened to the entire opera dozens of times, and entered the entire libretto into iTunes by hand.

My freshling year in college, the Metropolitan Opera staged the work, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the simulcast. I dragged along a friend and excitedly talked about it with him during the intermissions. My then bassoon teacher opined that he really only liked one scene from each of the acts, and I boggled. Wasn't the whole thing great?

And then I just kind of . . . stopped.

Oh, I kept listening to Adams, and occasionally I'd recommend Nixon to someone looking for accessible 20th-Century operas. I read Adams's autobiography, and I greatly expanded my knowledge of the Minimalist and post-Minimalist repertoire. I took formal courses in music history and filled in the more modern stretches on my own time (our history curriculum ended around 1950. I have . . . a lot of feelings about this, but I'm going to save them for another day.). But I stopped listening to the work itself. According to my iTunes library, the last time I did so was on the ninth of August, 2012.

Fast forward two years. I couldn't take my entire CD collection with me to California, so I only brought the highlights. Nixon in China made the cut. The CDs sat in their shoebox all the way across the country, and then sat in their shoebox some more while I slowly pieced my apartment together. Two weeks ago, I finally started listening to them all, and Nixon in China was first on the list.

It was a shocking experience.

I used to hear Nixon as a culmination, as a work in which Adams had gone from his early watered-down-Phillip-Glass works to his own mature, fully-fledged compositional voice. Now, it sounds like a beginning. I can tell that it's by the same composer who would one day go on to write "Batter my Heart", but he is so not there yet. It sounds experimental, like he's still fumbling towards the composer he would become.

I can't go back to hearing Nixon the way I used to. I can't un-know Doctor Atomic or A Flowering Tree, can't un-read Hallelujah Junction and the sometimes off-putting attitudes it contains, can't de-nuance my understanding of the context of his music. But I can remember.

Even as I heard the work with completely different ears, I could still remember how I heard it before, and I could feel, acutely, the gap between how I heard it then and how I hear it now.

This isn't always the case. Some things are just too new — I fell in love with Whitelake this past March; there hasn't been enough time yet for me to grow a new set of ears. Some things visit too rarely. Luciano Berio's Sequenza XII has been bouncing around my life for nearly a decade now, but has yet to stay long enough to make a lasting impression. Other things never get far enough away. Paul Hindemith's bassoon sonata*, Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring — these things are never far away. I hear new things each time I listen, but because of this they mutate slowly; they grow as I do, with no sharp breaks or yawning discontinuities. Sometimes, you need to see a valley to tell how far you've come.

I've written before about how music accumulates meaning with repeated hearings, how when you hear a performance of, say, Ludwig van Beethoven's seventh symphony, you're hearing not only that performance, but all the other ones you've ever heard. This is the other side of that. When you listen to a piece you know well, you're also listening back to your own past selves. Nixon in China isn't just a window to all the other times I've heard the opera, it's a window into who I was for all those other listenings.

This is one of the most powerful aspects of music. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my past. I grow, I change, I move on, I forget. It's a continuous process, and it's easy to miss the differences piling up. But then sometimes, when a certain song comes on, I pause. I listen. I wake up. I come back to myself.
*I have come to the conclusion that there just aren't recordings of the Hindemith bassoon sonata that I actually like. This one is pretty good, but it splits the last movement into two tracks; the "Langsam" track has the first section of the second movement, and the "Marsch" track has the last two sections. If you're just listening thru, it doesn't make much of a difference, but I feel compelled to mention it here as a little outpost in the perpetual battle against minor inaccuracies and questionable bibliographic decisions on the internet.