David Clarke

Ambiguity and Beyond: Theories of Musical Meaning and Their (Non-)Application to Music post-1950

That meaning is inherently unstable or ambiguous is not only a well-rehearsed tenet of post-structuralism, but also a facet of Nattiez’s tripartitional model for music semiology. Nattiez showed how configurations of meaning may manifest differently across the spheres of musical creation (poietic level) and perception (esthesic level), and that these again may not be coterminous with meanings inferable from the musical work considered in its (neutral level) material manifestation or trace (typically accessed through its notated score).
One diagnosis of what is going on with ‘difficult-to-analyse’ works of the post-war avant garde is that this situation of semiotic ambiguity is pushed to an unprecedented extreme. On the one hand rationalised or arcane processes at the poietic level (e.g. the multiple-serialist techniques of Boulez, or Maxwell Davies’s use of magic squares) find no counterpart at the esthesic level: as Lerdahl has (contentiously) claimed, such music pushes beyond a listener’s cognitive constraints; hence the parameters for analysis may become correspondingly attenuated. On the other hand, in works that embrace indeterminacy the question of what – in Nattiez’s terms – constitutes the material trace (and hence neutral level) that gives the work a stable identity – is itself under question. Under such conditions, what are we meant to be analysing?
And in such cases, ‘ambiguity’ may be too understated a term. After all, ambiguity is a value ascribed to many classic works in the Western canon, and may positively indicate pathways for, rather than be an obstacle to, analysis. However, in the semiotic dislocations of much modernist music the very point may be to push beyond what can be symbolised (cognitively or analytically) – which begs the question of what kind of analytical metalanguage we can use. Perhaps schemes such as Nattiez’s need to be overwritten in psychoanalytic terms that express the schisms in the composing and listening subject, and the movements of desire.