It Is What You Think It Is
“Never vague. Always ambiguous”
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.