Why this topic

My PhD research is looking at the design of technology to support and facilitate spiritual experiences. People often ask me how I chose my topic, especially considering that I am, basically, agnostic. Here’s the story.

A few years ago I realized a long-held dream: I joined a choir that sings Renaissance sacred polyphony. I have loved early music for as long as I can remember — even in childhood, my favorite Christmas song was the 16th-Century “Coventry Carol” (which isn’t polyphony, but it is early music) — and over the years, I had attended several concerts of Collegium Cantorum, the group I joined. I am not by any means traditionally religious, but this music just speaks to me. I sang with Collegium for five years before moving to the UK to do my PhD, and it was the most joyful and meaningful thing I did outside of work.*

Polyphony is a musical texture in which two or more (usually four to six) independent melodic lines weave in and out to create complex harmonies. For someone raised in the 20th Century, used to having the voices sing the same words more or less together, singing Renaissance polyphony — music written 400 to 600 years ago — is hard.

So I am grateful for the technology that enabled me to learn this glorious but difficult music. A month before the first rehearsal for each concert, the director sent out Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) files to help us learn our parts. But the voices in these MIDIs were quite “computerish”, and all the parts sounded the same. I found it impossible to hear my part, even if I had the sheet music in front of me.

Fortunately, if MIDIs have been coded correctly (and these were), music software can tell the lines apart. So I would import them into the Finale PrintMusic application, set my part to a French horn played loudly and set the other parts to less prominent instruments. This enabled me to pick out my part with no trouble, while also hearing it in the context of the others. I saved the revisions as MP3s and loaded them onto my iPod.

For two months before each concert, I lived with these pieces. I had a handy little gadget that allowed me to play my iPod through my car radio … and I did just that, every chance I got. Any time I had a drive of more than about fifteen minutes, the next concert’s pieces accompanied me. One morning I was listening to my files while driving to a client meeting. It was fairly close to the next concert and I was familiar enough with how my part sounded that I could la-la along without looking at the music. I was driving through Rock Creek Park — a US national park with a lovely parkway running north to south through Washington DC — singing along with my MP3s. Suddenly I found myself covered with goosebumps and feeling intensely connected to everything — cherishing the autumn colors, the flowing stream, the mystery and wonder that this magnificent music evokes in me, and the image of singing this piece with my group for an audience in a space with amazing acoustics. My spirit soared. Thanks to music technology, the DC rush hour didn’t faze me one bit.

When the feeling subsided, I sat back in wonder. “That was a spiritual experience”, I said to myself, “and it was part of my user experience of these technologies.” (These technologies were three pieces of software and three pieces of hardware, not counting the car.)

So when I decided to leave industry and embark on a PhD program, I considered other topics but this one kept whispering insistently in my ear. Spiritual and transcendent experience, it turned out, was the only aspect of user experience that excited and fascinated me enough that I could imagine immersing myself in it for three years (maybe more) of intensive work.

That’s why this topic. :-)


*A few years ago, while I was with Collegium, I participated in the Track Your Happiness survey project, where they text you 2-3 times a day with a link to a set of questions about how happy you are right then and ask you stuff like what you’re doing and where you are and whom you’re with. One of the survey periods happened to coincide with rehearsal season, and it turned out that I was at my happiest by far when I was rehearsing with Collegium. BY FAR.

  1. Dr Nic Yannacopoulos

    Revelation in a 21st century context. This explanation was overdue; the choice of topic had led me to suspect that your declared agnosticism was skin-deep and masked a deep religiosity. Now I understand the choice a little bit better.

  2. thank you for that . . . . I had a similar experience (perhaps) but for me it was Tallis, “Spem in Alium” I am wondering though about how we view ‘new technologies’. If I have such an experience wandering through a cathedral hearing the choir in the ‘real world’, or, sat in my room with headphones on, what is the significance of the difference? I suspect the difference may not matter – which makes me wonder then, if the focus on the new technologies as triggers, is because we suspect we might be able to engineer such transcendence?

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