The underdetermination of agency by architecture

This glorious passage by the composer Nico Muhly, reflecting on the different ways in which listeners can engage with the same piece of music, works just as well to describe the possibilities opened up by other forms of cultural design:

What is key for me about creating this sort of emotional and sonic architecture is the possibility of listeners having simultaneous but radically different experiences. Picture a relatively famous church somewhere in Northern Europe: you’ll find tourists there, ticking it off a long list of important sites, being vaguely underwhelmed by the frescoes. You’ll have a local worshipper, lighting a candle for a long deceased relative, you’ll have a verger going about his weekly maintenance, you’ll have a couple whose lifelong fantasy was to see this space in the springtime, you’ll have a Dutch art historian with a spooky and potentially kinky relationship with 16th-century depictions of the Annunciation. The building’s architecture allows each of these simultaneous experiences, and no one of them is more ‘correct’ or well informed or meaningful than the others. With music, I want each listener to feel an intensity inside the music, and I only want to provide a few suggestions about where to look for it.

Agency is always underdetermined by architecture. If designers have the ambition of dictating responses to their work, it will produce unintended consequences as people evade and retreat from their diktats. My hunch is that the underlying logic of the structure and agency question is sound but it needs to be adapted for participatory cultural forms such as these.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.