Boston Solstice 2019 Retrospective

by jefftkjefftk4 min read15th Dec 20198 comments

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This was the second time we hosted the Boston Secular Solstice at our house ( 2018 retrospective), and my first time running it. I'd been in a "music director" sort of role for Boston Solstices going back to 2013, but with our main organizers now living in the Bay Area I decided to have a go at putting something together myself.

I decided pretty early that I wanted to build something around themes of coordination across boundaries and existential risk. I thought Christmas in the Trenches would potentially be good for the dark portion, either sung solo or read like a poem, as well as maybe reading letters people had sent home from the front.

In September I picked the songs and wrote a new melody for Somebody Will. I recorded rough demos so I could show people how I was thinking the songs would go, and started trying to find people who were interested in helping play and sing. Johnson volunteered to play piano for ~5 songs, we did two unaccompanied, and I did the rest. Unlike previous years I decided not to have a leader for each song, and instead we'd get a group of people to learn all the songs and be distributed around the audience. I felt like this worked pretty well, and made for more of a community sort of feeling. We also got together for a full music rehearsal, something I'd wanted to do in previous years but generally hadn't been able to schedule, and am very glad we did.

About two weeks out I wrote transition words and picked (what I thought) were final readings, and sent around a draft to people for review. Al gave me an enormous number of good suggestions, and in response I completely swapped around the order of songs and wrote new transitions that better showed how everything fit into a coherent whole. Al also found new first-person readings to replace the adapted version of the World on the Brink readings we'd been intending to use. This was incredibly useful, and the to top it off they volunteered to MC, which was awesome.

I tried a new layout, without any board-benches, and I think it worked well:

It helped that we hadn't gotten our Christmas tree yet, so we had a bit of extra space.

Johnson came early and helped set up, which was super helpful. We took the apartment door off its hinges, disassembled the dining room table, moved two futons into the dining room, set up tons of chairs, and generally tried to maximize seating. We put the temporary projector shelf back up, in a different spot this time, and confirmed that the projector was working well.

When it was time to start I realized that my publicity had just listed "7pm" as a start time and not distinguished between "when it's ok to show up" and "when we're going to start". A better way to do this would have been something like "doors open 6:30, solstice starts 7:15".

The program was (plan and words, slides, musician slides):

  • All sing: The X Days of X-Risk by Ray Arnold.
    (mp3)

  • MC: Welcome
    (mp3)

  • All sing: The Wild West is Where I Want to Be by Tom Lehrer, simplified melody.
    (mp3)

  • MC: Introduction to Her Mysteries.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Her Mysteries by Allison Lonsdale.
    (mp3)

  • Reading: The Goddess of Everything Else (Abridged) by Scott Alexander.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Uplift by Andrew Eigel.
    (mp3)

  • MC: Outroduction to Uplift.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: We Will All Go Together When We Go by Tom Lehrer.
    (mp3)

  • Intermission

  • MC: Words on Fire Safety.
    (mp3)

  • MC: Introduction to Somebody Will.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Somebody Will by Ada Palmer simplified melody.
    (mp3)

  • Reading: Henry Williamson's letter home.
    (mp3)

  • Solo: Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon.
    (mp3)

  • Reading: Henry Williamson on the aftermath of the Christmas Truce.
    (mp3)

  • Reading: Joseph Rotblat on the development of nuclear weapons.
    (mp3)

  • Reading: Vadim Orlov on how close we came to nuclear war.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Brighter Than Today by Ray Arnold.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Unison in Harmony by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson.
    (mp3)

  • All Sing: Old Devil Time by Pete Seeger.
    (mp3)

Last time we had little candles that we're pretty hard to light, combined with waiting to start Brighter Than Today until they were all lit. This time we re-lit them during the song, and I got 10-inch tapered candles with holders which were a lot nicer. They're also just bigger, which is nicer. Lily liked setting them up.

The intermission was longer than we'd been thinking (26min) because the plan was for our kids (3y, 5y) to go to bed at intermission, which took longer than we were expecting. But we didn't wan't to start the more serious part of the evening with the potential of loud toothbrushing protests, so we let the intermission run a bit longer than we'd planned while we got them down.

Starting right in with X Days of X-Risk worked well: the song is easy to sing because everyone already knows the melody, it feels light any funny despite the content, and at least this year it was right on theme. Favorite quote of the evening: "If you had asked me yesterday whether I would have enjoyed humorous songs about existential risk I would have said no."

The projector was flaky, cutting out several times during the evening, and partway through the second half switching into a mode where it no longer showed the bottom part of the slides. I had backup slides at jefftk.com/solstice and some people followed along on their phones, which meant the songs didn't fall apart during the times it cut out.

Last year we put intermission food in a side room, which had only one door, which became a bottleneck. This year we put food in the kitchen, which has two doors and let people cycle through.

As with last year, people wanted to hang out afterwards for a while talking, which was nice. One downside of the MIT Chapel had been that we had to leave right away, which tended to break things up.

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Thank you so much for organizing this! I had a great time.

Things I enjoyed:

  • The theme of the evening came through really well. The transitions from WWI to the Cold War felt smooth and seamless.
  • I’m glad the song lyrics were online as a backup when the projector was having problems
  • I thought the seating and candles worked very well, it was cozy and intimate without being overly crowded.
  • I loved all the readings. The Goddess of Everything Else is an old favorite, and the story of Christmas in France feels incredibly appropriate for Secular Solstice — both tragic and hopeful.
  • Julia’s solo was beautiful and very moving.

From my perspective as someone sitting toward the back of the room, I wish there had been one song leader with a mic. I could hear the instruments well, but it felt like the people around me were singing to three different tunes, which made it difficult to sing along, especially as I’d never heard several of the songs. I think having no leader works for commonly known songs (like X Days of X-Risk, or Here Comes the Sun), but for uncommon songs, maybe:

  1. Have someone on a mic,
  2. Have someone sing the first verse solo first to give everyone the tune, or
  3. Make the more difficult songs solos.

Overall, though, it was moving and great, and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Thanks for the writeup!

Unlike previous years I decided not to have a leader for each song, and instead we'd get a group of people to learn all the songs and be distributed around the audience. I felt like this worked pretty well, and made for more of a community sort of feeling.

In the past couple weeks, I had some thoughts in a similar vein, which I think you might have some relevant experience about.

I've observed (and organized) a lot of work going into songleaders and instrumentation for Solstice. This definitely seemed necessary for big solstices in the early years, especially because LessWrongfolk aren't really filtered for musical competence and having strong songleaders is important.

But a result of this has been something of an impression that "the point of Solstice is Big High Effort musical productions", which was actually kinda the opposite of my original intention. 

High church is a nice aesthetic on it's own – there's a bunch of value in in a coordinated display of a community's best. But, there's also something nice and communal about "actually we just created the music together." This seems pretty straightforward for the singing. One thing I'm wondering is whether it applies to instrumentation.

In the past few weeks I've been to some Solstice practice sessions where the person-who-was-supposed-to-do-instrumentation-for-a-given-song wasn't there, and instead some-other-person did it. And... well, they basically just did it on the fly pretty fine.

I've been to folk-circle type events where, like, 7 people with guitars will follow along with the chords and improvise along with whoever is nominally performing a song. Those events have tended to be small (less than 40 people?) and tended to have particularly high musical skill. But it seems in principle like that might scale up fine to a larger room. 

Do you think it'd work to have 250 people in a room, with the lyrics and chords displayed, and with a range of people with guitars or other portable instruments, with a range of skills, at least some of whom know the song well on that instrument? Probably with some kind of norm like "songs should start with accompaniment from people who are high-skill and/or know the song well, and lower-skill people join in once they get a sense of the song's vibe"

Knobs you could tweak on this concept include:

  • maybe there still exists a dedicated instrumentalist assigned to each song, sitting in a central location
  • maybe that person has a mic so they are disproportionately audible.
  • still perhaps having some dedicated performance pieces in the middle

I definitely don't think this would have worked 9 years ago but I think might work in the Bay now. (I'd definitely have a few practice meetups beforehand where people who wanted to learn the songs could do so)

One of the potential goals here isn't just for the experience of the people on that particular year, but for a long game of "create a more musical culture." If participating in Solstice instrumentation has a high barrier to entry, then only people who are already particularly competent are likely to see it as an aspiration. A lower bar for participation might initially produce worse sounding results, but longterm result in a community with more instrumentalists who are encouraged to level up, eventually allowing for some interesting improvisational arrangements. (compare to how, when secular solstice first started, I think the overall singing competence of the community was much lower than it is now)

I think something like what you're describing would work best with very well known songs, or with musicians who are very good at listening and following. But I suspect that any songs people were muddling through would be pretty painful to the people without instruments.

There are a lot of aesthetics a solstice could have, but I like it best when it can make the full arc down through dark-and-serious. And I think that's not really compatible with a room full of people with instruments.

Nod. Yes to be clear I was imagining this coming alongside some stabilization of songs into a dedicated canon. (which I think we’re closer to now)

I think I was also implicitly assuming a first skill of ‘know when you know enough about what you’re doing to know when to be silent or soft.‘ I think this usually (at events I’ve been to) has been modulated by people naturally being scared of embarrassing themselves. I agree that someone not having that and some dunning-Krueger could be quite bad, esp. for the middle act.

It also does seem fine for the middle act to just be more explicitly rehearsed/perfromance-piece-y, while leaving the final upbeat songs more of an ‘everyone can join in’ thing.

 

i had so much fun !! this was my first solstice and it was a really gr8 experience. i would've killed for sheet music (hymnal style) tho i know plenty of the songs probably dont have sheet music available. all in all a really gr8 event that i hope ill be able to make next year. also, ill be at the downtown amherst contra on jan 15 :D

If someone wanted to volunteer to make sheet music for next year I'd be happy to get them the songs well enough in advance. But it would likely be a lot of transcribing...

I am not the OP.

The mp3 file player popped out over the words, so here are the obscured sections. (Complete with a sentence that isn't covered, so it's clear where this all fits in.) The end of each section, and the start of the next, is marked by a picture. The first section is right before the fourth picture. There are 3 sections.


"

1.

The program was (plan and words, slides, musician slides):

  • All sing: The X Days of X-Risk by Ray Arnold.
    (mp3)
  • MC: Welcome
    (mp3)
  • All sing: The Wild West is Where I Want to Be by Tom Lehrer, simplified melody.
    (mp3)
  • MC: Introduction to Her Mysteries.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Her Mysteries by Allison Lonsdale.
    (mp3)
  • Reading: The Goddess of Everything Else (Abridged) by Scott Alexander.
    (mp3)

2.

  • All Sing: Uplift by Andrew Eigel.
    (mp3)
  • MC: Outroduction to Uplift.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: We Will All Go Together When We Go by Tom Lehrer.
    (mp3)
  • Intermission
  • MC: Words on Fire Safety.
    (mp3)
  • MC: Introduction to Somebody Will.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Somebody Will by Ada Palmer simplified melody.
    (mp3)
  • Reading: Henry Williamson's letter home.
    (mp3)
  • Solo: Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon.
    (mp3)
  • Reading: Henry Williamson on the aftermath of the Christmas Truce.
    (mp3)
  • Reading: Joseph Rotblat on the development of nuclear weapons.
    (mp3)

3.

  • Reading: Vadim Orlov on how close we came to nuclear war.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Brighter Than Today by Ray Arnold.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Unison in Harmony by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Old Devil Time by Pete Seeger.
    (mp3)

Last time we had little candles that we're pretty hard to light,

"*


*Quotation marks were used because indenting to indicate a quote gets rid of the bulleted formatting, like so:

  • All Sing: Unison in Harmony by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson.
    (mp3)
  • All Sing: Old Devil Time by Pete Seeger.
    (mp3)
All Sing: Unison in Harmony by Coope, Boyes, and Simpson.
(mp3)
All Sing: Old Devil Time by Pete Seeger.
(mp3)

What browser are you using? Testing in Chrome, Safari, and Firefox on both desktop and mobile views I'm not seeing the audio player covering the text.