This post documents various things I thought about as I put together the setlist for NYC’s 2017 Solstice (my first time running a Solstice). I write it in the hopes it will be useful to other people assembling setlists.
I am not trying to write the final word on setlists. I am not even trying to consolidate the state of the art. I am making only a moderate effort to distinguish things specific to New York in 2017 from universal things. I offer this in the hopes it will be useful, but figuring out how to use it is very much left as an exercise for the reader.
Measure before Optimizing
I started with Raymond’s Measure a Song posts (I, II) about the 2016 Solstice. It contained the list of everything we sang the previous year, along with notes about what worked, what didn’t, and what he was thinking of changing.
I paid particular attention to what was at the bottom: Gather Round, Blowin’ in the Wind, Bring the Light, Stopping by Woods and Seasons of Love (almost unchanged by comparison metric). I ultimately dropped four of these songs and shortened the fifth.
This means I implicitly started from the 2016 list and made changes, rather than starting from scratch. From the perspective of all Solstices, this carries a risk of getting caught in a local optimum, but from the perspective of any particular Solstice, it does no harm and saves a lot of work.
Consider the person who walks into Solstice. Possibly straight off the street, possibly from the pre-Solstice party. Either way, from a mundane experience.
We say there’s a past-present-future arc, but people walk in from the present, not the past. We need to get people unstuck from time a little before they can begin that arc. Hence Walk With Me, First Winter and That Problem Solved.
Many people come in having not sung in public since the previous solstice. Or longer, if they’re first-time attendees. We want to coax them into the act. Start with a song they know (Always Look On The Bright Side). Then one to which they already know the melody (Walk With Me). Then one where they just do a simple response (Bring the Light). Then another familiar melody plus a lot of repetition (X Days) and another simple response (When I Die). That’s a lot of easy stuff for warmup. Hopefully when they get to That Problem Solved, they’re ready.
(X Days also prepares people to get up and make hand gestures, but that Chekhov’s gun never fires. Oops.)
Some people come in surrounded by friends. But, at least at a big event like this, some don’t. When you’re surrounded by strangers, it’s natural to be a little defensive. We need people to feel safe enough to open emotionally. Singing in unison is good for this, and it almost doesn’t matter what we sing, provided the songs themselves don’t require deep emotional involvement.
It also helps to explicitly invite people, and celebrate our having gathered together. This is what Let it Snow and Gather Round tried to do. Both were unpopular, hence Walk With Me. I’m still not sure we’ve quite got this part working.
(Fun fact: I came up with the “We’re not dead yet” bit first, and then went looking for songs which invite people on walks, of which there are many.)
Making this our thing
We can also produce a sense of being surrounded by friends by inside references and shibboleths. As Scott wrote:
[In 2012], sitting around Raemon’s house singing the Contract-Drafting Em Song, I got this feeling of “There are only a few hundred people in the world who would possibly enjoy this and they are my people and I love every last one of them.
And then [in 2013], even though the base was a little broader and the songs a little less insular, I still ended out thinking “These are people who are willingly going to an event called a ‘secular solstice ritual’, and they are singing songs which rhyme ‘rarity’ with ‘singularity’, and I am still pretty darned okay with them.”
As hinted, this sort of signaling can backfire on people a little farther out. The lyrics of When I Die got tweaked (“I prefer to” → “There’s a chance I’ll”) to not directly antagonize deathists, while still holding the basic transhumanist viewpoint. I’m hoping the bits of statistics in That Problem Solved straddled this line as well.
It’s the usual broad vs. meaningful trade off. As usual, with skill, you can walk that line some.
And Contract-Drafting Em may yet return, since pulling in the broader spiritual humanist community seems to be a dead project.
Having a deliberate song of dusk (That Problem Solved) is a new thing. The idea is to start out sounding like a song of Light, and then inside the song break in ways we don’t resolve, setting the tone for the rest of solstice.
In the original, the song ended with a strangely harsh Δsus4.11 chord (G, C, F#, high C, with the octave-minus-semitone providing a sort of dissonance). That got dropped in the game of telephone that reached the musicians, but if we’d had more time I’d have put it back. I think it represents the fall of night nicely.
This song also introduces the year’s theme. Since the theme is itself a problem that will take the entire solstice to resolve, this is a good time to introduce it. (Less of an introduction after the speeches about handoff, but introduces it properly, at least.)
The Twilight section is basically the same as 2016. The biggest change was putting Origin of Stories there, and tweaking it to fit. I’ve thought for a while that the opening of Origin of Stories doesn’t quite fit with the feel of Morning, and, while it touches briefly on the future, I think it fits here a lot better.
Probably the biggest changes were here. The Night section is the core of Solstice, and also the most difficult to make work.
I kept Do You Realize. In 2016, I thought that after intermission I’d have a really hard time getting back to ritual headspace, and then halfway into Do You Realize I just was. I don’t understand how that worked, so I didn’t want to mess with it.
Next we need a speech to establish the dark from an intellectual perspective. To explain that yes, things really are that bad. In the past, this has been Beyond the Reach of God. Which works pretty well, but depends on a Tegmark 4 view of consciousness that a lot of people don’t share (including me: I think our experiences make too much sense, and potential calculations having no qualia is a better explanation than anything anthropic, but I digress). Also it has elements that are an attack on religion, and if we’re beating on the outgroup at our most sacred moment then we’re letting our enemies define us.
There aren’t a lot of speeches that can take this slot. You Can’t Save Them All did, and did it well, but I’m not sure anyone besides Miranda can give that one.
So I wrote No Royal Road. Both to replace Beyond the Reach, and because it was a message I thought needed sending. Far too many people say “X doesn’t work so we need to embrace Y” without noticing that Y doesn’t work either.
Next up was Voicing of Fear, replacing Stopping By Woods. Stopping By Woods has always been a controversial song, and among the less popular by any metric. To my mind, it doesn’t quite work. There is no canonical, correct interpretation of what it means. There are many meanings you can read into it, but reading meanings into things is not our sacred value. If anything, carefully restraining from that is our sacred value. Which is not to say that you should never, ever do so, but you do need to keep the ability to refrain sharp. So going the other way at a sacred moment is rather discordant.
But I loved the music. In fact, my original plan for Voicing of Fear was to leave the music unchanged and just replace the words. But people would hear familiar music and be jolted by new words, and even after the jolt wore off they’d be judging the new lyrics by Frost’s standards. So new music, imitating the old. The imitation wandered a fair bit away from the original.
Apart from all that, Voicing of Fear is a doubling down on darkness. It is possible that at some point we’ll need to restrain ourselves on that, but I don’t think we’re there yet. (I would worry about things going overly long, but that’s a different potential problem.)
Stopping By Woods was a small, personal song, and Voicing of Feat is a big, global song. Blowin’ in the Wind was a big, global song, so I needed to replace it with a small personal one to maintain balance. I’m not good at writing small personal stuff, so I looked for something already there and found A Little Echo.
I did swap out some lyrics in A Little Echo. The original made it very explicit that the little metal circle was an Alcor pendant. That struck me as insufficiently timeless. And the optimistic tone around it suggested that members of our community are expected to be optimistic about cryonics, which is not something we should be suggesting. So I wrote vaguer lyrics, which could fit either cryonics or entrusting yourself to a deity in ancient times, since both represent the best available longshot.
My first rewrite described the circle as having “a name of power” inscribed, which still fits the ambiguity. I changed it back to “some little words” because to an audience member who hadn’t thought of cryonics, “a name of power” would sound like an outright endorsement of religion. These songs will sound different to different people, and it’s important to consider as many of them as possible.
At first, I put A Little Echo before Voicing of Fear. That made a slightly smoother arc. But Voicing of Fear follows No Royal Road a lot more smoothly from an intellectual perspective. That was the bigger effect, so it dominated.
The two replacements have two additional benefits. They take away context: producing a sense of timelessness and leaving people to grapple with ideas in their purer form. Also, it replaces outsider songs with solstice-specific songs. Ideally, I would like a solstice entirely made of our own music, but failing that I would like to see the Night section, in which we have journeyed farthest from the mundane to do so.
The transition from night to morning is a space a single song wide. And we have two songs to go there. And they’re both too good to cut.
The original concept was that Endless Lights could replace Brighter Than Today, precisely because we liked Brighter Than Today so much and we need to develop the skill of giving up our sacred things. But this is not a skill we want to practice every year.
(We did consider letting this be the year to cut Brighter Than Today, but ultimately decided it didn’t mesh well with being the year of transition, with messages of continuity.)
So we have two songs, both beloved. Both begin in the darkness and transition into the light, which means that neither can come after the other.
My first plan had been to modify one of them to begin less darkly. Eventually to modify both, and years could alternate: one song in full followed by one song reduced. It’s not clear if this can be done, much less if I can do it. As events fell out, I never really tried.
Another plan, devised at the last minute, was to split Endless Light in half, and put the first verse at the end of the Twilight section. It was a little too last minute for such a big change. I do want to try that next year.
What we went with was Brighter Than Today first, and then use the visuals to suggest a smoother arc than that actually forms.
Why Brighter Than Today first? Because the opening of Endless Lights isn’t all that dark if it’s not made so by context. It shows a woman close to death, yes, but after a long life, with mind intact, and surrounded by grandchildren who love and respect her. By the standards of most of history, that wasn’t tragedy: that was winning.
Also the ending of Brighter Than Today has a potentially metaphorical rising to the stars, whereas Endless Lights ends on an explicit space station.
As for the images, we end Brighter Than Today with the sun cracking the horizon and declare the dawn has begun. The remaining images show the sun rising through the easternmost sky. I’m not sure this 100% worked, but it felt less jerky than it might have.
Morning is not only a return to light. It is also a return to the ordinary world. The imagery shows a cityscape, for the first time, a truly familiar view. And with it, a return to familiar music. The Beatles. As mundane as it gets.
Here Comes The Sun is a shallow song. No strong emotion. No challenging ideas. It’s a chance to catch your breath.
Here And Now is a surprisingly load-bearing song. It was written to fill a gap and it’s still the only one of its kind. What A Wonderful World comes close, but it’s not specifically modern enough.
(Also I find the persistence of Star Wars quietly hilareous).
I swapped in Forever Young over Seasons of Love. People are getting tired of the latter, and the former introduces transhumanism in a very gentle way.
It’s worth noting that the light of morning is different from the light we began with. It has come through the Darkness and been shaped by the experience. It is older, wiser, tougher… Most of the songs from the first section wouldn’t fit here.
The Days to Come
Uplift into Five Thousand Years. Simple enough.
It is kind of strange that nobody has experimented with any other combination. Starwind Rising, perhaps. Ah, well. Maybe some other year. This one works well.