I am a big fan of English renaissance choral music, particularly sacred polyphony from Tallis and Byrd (and stretching back to Taverner, but he’s not as distinctively polyphonic). One of the best ensembles performing such music is Stile Antico, a group of 13 British singers who do an outstanding job with this music, and whose recordings I have recommended here before. Especially at this time of year, their music really resonates and adds joy and beauty to life.
A couple of weeks ago we got to hear Stile Antico perform live in Milwaukee: Thomas Tallis’ Puer Natus Est mass interspersed with pieces from Byrd, White, and Taverner. The music was gorgeous, the voices delightful, and the artists charming and gracious.
But what really struck me was their method of decentralized coordination. Typically when we think of musical performance beyond, say, a chamber quintet, coordination involves hierarchy in the form of a conductor, to “keep everyone on the same page”. The larger the number of performers doing different things, the harder to coordinate, and therefore the greater need for a conductor … right?
Not so in this case. 13 singers, each with a particular part, bringing a distinctive element to the work. But in some ways the music is simultaneously so lush and yet so spare that if their timing is off, the beauty of the result is diminished. 13 singers with no conductor, and they coordinate by taking their visual and verbal cues from each other in a dynamic and evolutionary manner. This is a vivid example of decentralized coordination.
Of course the goal is harmony (in the general sense). If each individual acts and reacts to the actions of the other individuals in a way that produces a harmonious outcome, that’s beauty. And it’s an emergent outcome; each has his or her own score and acts accordingly, adapting to the actions of the others in a way that creates emergent harmony.
The music metaphor illustrates achieving emergent order through decentralized coordination, and it’s a metaphor for social cooperation too. Adam Smith employs the harmony metaphor for social cooperation in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he invokes harmony as a desirable outcome of social interaction repeatedly (and refers to the music metaphor directly in the last reference). Note the emphasis on harmony as distinct from uniformity — each individual brings personal, private, heterogeneous features to social interaction (whether musical or economic), and they are not the same, not uniform. Each has an incentive, a desire to coordinate, to harmonize; in music it’s finding the complementary notes, in social systems it’s grounded in our innate desire for sympathy and mutual sympathy, according to Smith. Each individual brings something different to the party/performance/market. The most beautiful and sublime outcomes emerge when each acts on its individual traits with a view toward creating harmony and sympathy. And it does not necessarily require the top-down imposition of control or system-wide hierarchy, but can be achieved through decentralized coordination.
Of course there are limits to applying the music metaphor to institutional design and social cooperation, such as the scale/number of actors. But it reminds us of the possibility of cooperation and harmony through decentralized coordination, without the need for imposed system-level control.