It Is What You Think It Is

Never vague. Always ambiguous
—Claude Debussy

When Debussy articulated this motto, he was throwing down an intellectual gauntlet. The distinction between vagueness and ambiguity might appear remarkably subtle, but truly they are worlds apart. Art that is vague expresses nothing well, whereas ambiguous creations have many possible modes of interpretation. This latter paradigm ideally allows the audience to experience a rich emotional world.

It can be difficult for artists to truly embrace the fact that their work may contain multiple meanings. We are constantly reaching towards clarity of expression, towards music that exactly conveys our initial impetus. However, music is an inherently ambiguous art form in that it only can convey specific denotative meaning through evoking associative meaning. When we hear music, we immediately process its emotional content, whereas when we perceive other art forms the inherent clear meaning has a mediating effect—we first see a square or triangle or face, and only then do we begin to react to it. This phenomenon is why Romantic philosophers believed that music was a direct evocation of the Will, the highest of all the arts, the only art form that can express the ineffable.

This musical gift also creates difficulty for the composer. While our art has the ability to move listeners in ways that other arts cannot, we are limited in our ability to express specific images. Programmatic music only works in that the music clearly expresses something, but the exact idea being expressed can only be conveyed through the supplied text. That is to say, listeners hear flowing arpeggios as representing motion, but whether that motion is Gretchen’s spinning wheel or the Miller’s brook depends on the associated text. Bird calls are still bird calls and country dances are still country dances but, in general, program music only truly works if the listener knows the program.

I am thinking about musical ambiguity right now because as my nonopera in an invented language tours, I’m trying to decide how much information I want to give the audience. Personally, I’m happy to not say anything and to let the listeners perceive whatever they want through the music. But some audience members want more—they want to know my interpretation. It appears to them that I am trying to convey something specific and they would prefer to know what that is. For the second of the first two performances, I explained a bit more in my pre-performance talk and now I’m grappling with whether this will be enough for the last performances.

I like the idea that every member of the audience may come to their own conclusions. To me, this possibility presents a richness of interpretation—the ambiguity derives from the ability of the work to express multiple thoughts at once. In that sense, every listener hears a unique performance, an individual art work that they create in reaction to the performed music. The music is what the listener perceives, no matter who the listener is and no matter how much differentiation exists between individuals. If the music is clearly ambiguous, then this fractured perception is an asset. But it simply may be vague.

2 thoughts on “It Is What You Think It Is

  1. Phil Fried

    “..but the exact idea being expressed can only be conveyed through the supplied text…”

    I disagree.

    That is only partially true and then only if there is no visual component to the work. The revealing of action or inaction, emotion or stasis can be shown visually, with underscoring or not.

    Many directors have made careers visually reinterpreting songs, opera, etc. into brand new works. This is done by creating new visual scenarios.

    On the subject of text perhaps you are not considering that many vocal based works and some instrumental works as well have stage directions, or what amounts to stage directions, that can completely undercut the text and change its meaning. That is there can be more than one layer of text in a work.

    There is nothing wrong with creating work that does not take advantage of the above but I just don’t find text limiting.

    Reply
  2. Mark Winges

    David:
    Enjoyed the post.But some audience members want more—they want to know my interpretation. I’ve struggled with this as well, and I’m very reluctant to go very far down that path, whether it’s for my choral or instrumental works. If I have an “interpretation”, it’s probably more as a listener than as a composer, and I really don’t want my listening to define another person’s.
    As a composer, I dearly want the same thing you mention: a surface on which a listener will meet me halfway and bring themselves to the music they are hearing. The music must be precise (non-vague) enough to make the listener want to do that. It must be non-vague enough so that there’s some response (emotional, intellectual, whatever), but just as you, I hope that it’s ambiguous enough that many different responses will all seem equally valid to different people.
    As for trying to satisfy the audience members who “want more”, I try to turn the focus back on the performers and the sounds they make. That’s the way into the music (the audience isn’t going to sit there looking at the score, they’re going to hear it), and it’s often the basic reason you wrote the piece anyway. After all, if you didn’t think it was cool / interesting to have some solo singers who do some moving around with some visual stuff going on, you certainly wouldn’t have written your (non-)opera.
    I also think intent is overrated. Of course, intent is vital when we’re composing (your clarity of expression, towards music that exactly conveys our initial impetus), but once the music starts sounding in real time, I think our intent isn’t so important. In other words, what may be important to us may not be important to someone else. Just like life.
    Mark Winges

    Reply

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