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Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Beauty of Ambiguity

I love ambiguity. I love it in art of all kinds and in most situations in life. Looking at something, or listening to something that can be preceived in more than one way is something that's very attractive to me. I would much rather have my perception challenged rather than constantly confirmed, would rather be made to think about what I'm seeing, or listening to, or sometimes even what I'm eating, (food can be as ambiguously multi-layered as music or theatre, or literature), than knowing about it in advance. Certainty has its attractions of course - one doesn't want any ambiguity when one is getting on a plane for example, certainty wins hands down in that case, every time.

In general humans are more comfortable in a known environment than in an unknown one. There is a feeling of safety in the known, and in finding your comfortable place in any social situation. This is an evolutionary facet of our humanity and is a construct of our pack animal instincts. This also manifests itself in music, where the known is in general much more popular than the unknown. For much more on this subject, you can read this fascinating book - 'The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Live Without It', by Phillip Ball.

Much music that's popular around the world has little or no ambiguity in it. What you see, or in this case what you hear, is what you get. Which is fine for those that want that, but music which is not obvious gets a very raw deal these days. To some degree it always has, but currently the marketplace has such a stranglehold on popular music that even the limited amount of ambiguity and nuance that previously existed in popular music, has been eradicated as the A&R men and record labels of old have been replaced by institutions that have zero interest in the quality of the product that they host - such as Apple and Spotify. Never has the lowest common denominator been lower than it is now. When something as bland, predictable and dull as Ed Sheeran's music is feted by multitudes, then you know we are definitely in the era of the ordinary, where the obvious is lavishly consumed, and music that has any individuality and danger to it is resolutely pushed to the margins.

But despite its current unpopularity, ambiguity in music should be defended, and resolutely defended! Nuanced thinking, and listening is important, perhaps never more important than it is in these days of lies, spin, mindless consumerism and addiction to technology.

There are so many examples in art of ambiguity, features that make you think, that leave it up to your own imagination and personal outlook and experience as to the meaning of something. Neither in nor out, black nor white, happy or sad - it's this in-between world that is the most fascinating to me. When something can be seen in many different ways. Think of Kubrick's '2001', or David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas'. Or any art in which allegory is used. In any true world of ideas, ambiguity has to play an important role.

I was raised listening to modern jazz, and classical music written around 1880 and onwards, and I was exposed to ambiguous music from an early age, and I didn't hear pop music until I was 13 or so. I've been primed since a young age to appreciate music that could be heard in many different ways. Music can be ambiguous in several ways, but the most common would be harmonically or rhythmically.

Western art music has had ambiguity as part of its makeup even in its earliest manifestations as church music, and some of the harmonies from medieval times can be startling to the ear accustomed to the later codification of harmony in the baroque and classical periods. In the late 19th century the use of dissonance and clouding of key centres came to the forefront of contemporary classical music via Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok. I'm not sure about including someone in this list that might seem to fit the ambiguous bill - Schoenberg. For me Schoenberg's most celebrated works move outside tonality to such an extent that the ambiguity is lost. In the same way that relentlessly consonant music can become cloying after a while, constant dissonance can become aurally monochromatic. For my taste you need the contrasting worlds of both consonance and dissonance in order to allow ambiguity full play in the music.

Here's a fantastic example of the unsettling effect that ambiguous harmony, and in this case tonality, can have on the listener. This is Bela Bartok's 'Boating' from Volume 5 of his Mikrokosmos. The naive childlike three-note figure of the opening is immediately questioned when the right hand plays in a completely different tonality to that of the left. Suddenly we are in a different world, where nothing is certain and one can hear the music in many different ways.

The nursery rhyme opening quality of the opening is challenged almost immediately and the result is unsettling. Of course this kind of ambiguity has long been used by film composers for horror and suspense soundtracks - a childlike song given ominous overtones by the use of dissonance in conjunction with consonance. Film composer's are no fools and have always appreciated the effectiveness of using musical ambiguity to create emotional nuance.

In this next example Coltrane takes the simple song 'Chim Chim Cheree' from Mary Poppins and takes it into a world never envisaged by the Sherman brothers who composed it. The opening see-sawing chords played by McCoy, and the polyrhythmic carpet created by Elvin set the scene for a glimpse of a much darker aural landscape than is the norm for this piece. And in blending the familiar with the unfamiliar in this way Trane allows us to experience a mysterious atmosphere that is just not available in the very consonant original.

As Trane's music evolved in the 60s he moved further and further away from any form of traditional consonance and again, for me, the ambiguity and mystery gets lost as the dissonance increases. We move from a world of either/or, to one of certainty - though admittedly the certainty that Trane was  proclaiming in his final years was far from traditional.

Another aspect of ambiguity that is found in this piece is that of rhythmic ambiguity. Elvin is  suggesting an underlying pulse of two and three simultaneously, while placing a triplet based tattoo on top of that. This polyrhythmic ambiguity is one that originates in much West and North African music, and is a feature of nearly all African-American music. But it is not always as explicitly stated as it is in 'Chim Chim Cheree', and this rhythmic nexus provides the listener with an additional enigmatic musical landscape to explore.

The three and two polyrhythm can be extremely unsettling at times. Here for example Karim Ziad - a drummer originally from Algeria, now living in Paris - performs 'The Joker', a piece based on the dance rhythms of North Africa and which uses this 3/2 contradiction to great effect, both in the underlying groove to the melody, (which itself always has a slightly off-kilter relationship to the groove), and in the drum breaks that open the piece and punctuate the melody. As listener you are constantly torn between the two rhythm and the three, and the way the three rhythm is subdivided and accented adds to the tension between both rhythmic poles.

Miles Davis was of course the king of mystery and ambiguity. And I think this reached its apogee in his music in the second great quintet, with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony. And in the recordings of that group, 'Live at the Plugged Nickel' probably represents the pinnacle of this way of playing. But I'd like to use an example from one the studio recordings that ably demonstrates how well they used both rhythmic and harmonic ambiguity. This is 'Footprints', now of course a classic tune, almost cliched in how often it's played, and often badly played at that. But here it's at its freshest, and is creatively light years away from the usual repetitive, boring versions we are condemned to hear so often at jam sessions. It is after all a simple 3/4 minor blues, (albeit with a haunting melody), but here the quintet not only, via Herbie's comping and Miles and Waynes' solo lines, show a huge range of harmonic colour and contour, but also move between a three pulse and a four pulse with great agility, and sometimes are playing both at the same time, in a spectacular demonstration of how imagination can creatively expand even the simplest material

This period of jazz, with Trane and Miles, and others from this time, is for me the era where the full flowering of the use of ambiguity in both harmony and rhythm was at its peak. The fierce contradictions so often found in this kind of music became less pronounced in later decades, 80s fusion music definitely had a deadening harmonic effect on it, and the Young Lions movement harked back to the Hard Bop era where the music was perhaps more obvious. Perhaps the harmonic and rhythmic tensions in the music of the 60s and 70s was more appropriate to the political and social ferment of those times, and is less representative of the control freakery of our times. I must admit that I do find that a lot of contemporary jazz, while it has explored rhythm in new ways,  is often very dull harmonically - lots of static melodic minor harmony or else indie-rock influenced two or three-chord plodding. In the 70s we seemed to be at a point where harmony was pushed to chromatic breaking point, and sometimes did get broken and explode into the atonal. That moment where the tension between tonality and atonality, and between seemingly competing rhythms, becomes almost unbearable, this is where the beauty of ambiguity shines through the most.

I'm very conscious of this in my own music and here is an example of that. This is a through-composed piece, with no improvisation, based on a Chorinho - a Brazilian song form which is very consonant and based on typical cyclic chord movement. Performed here by Izumi Kimura, the Chorinho melody is repeated over and over, while a commentary takes place in whichever hand is not playing the melody. This commentary is completely at odds with the bouncy diatonic melody. The counterpoint to the melody is both rhythmically and harmonically at variance with the main theme throughout, and ones ear is drawn in different directions all the time.

That pull between the two polarities of consonance and dissonance, between the various rhythms, is the quality of ambiguity that appeals to me so much in music. Either or, this or that - we need more mystery in our lives, in our art, and definitely in our music - I'm searching for it all the time.....

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