Measure of a Song, Part II

Yesterday I discussed the raw feedback statistics for the 2016 NYC Solstice songs.

Before diving into the discussion of individual songs, I wanted to touch upon the overall goals for the music. There are three journeys that Solstice songs need to take people on, and a potential fourth one to consider for next year:

1. Singing Ability

Newcomers who have never sung in public before need to feel comfortable doing so, and slowly feel more comfortable singing songs they’ve never heard the words or melody to. If possible, teach people a bit about how to harmonize or improvise.

2. Emotional state

The opening songs need to make you feel warm, welcome and excited to participate. Later, you need to feel contemplative (and more intellectually engaged with the lyrics), and a bit tranquil/meditative.

Towards the middle, the audience should feel mournful, perhaps a bit alone, but ultimately determined to keep going.

And finally, the ending songs should feel inspirational and exciting.

3. Intellectual journey

Meanwhile, after a couple opening “warm up” songs, the songs should take you on a journey through history and through various concepts. They begin by reflecting on the first hunter gatherers looking up at the night sky. The songs gradually move to focus on the present day understanding of the world.

They tackle the concept of how we come to terms with death and other enormous problems that the world faces. And finally they look to the future, and ask the question: where is our species going? What do we want to become?

4. Metaphorical understanding? (a possible fourth arc)

Solstice-goers tend to be very literal minded. They aren’t comfortable singing songs that they disagree with. And because superstition has often employed vague, fuzzy metaphors to hide in plain sight, current generation Solstice-goers are also suspicious of vague, metaphorical songs that don’t explicitly say what they mean.

As an artist, I think this is… slightly depressing? I think the ability to interpret metaphors and find meaning in them is an important skill – in life in general, and in particular for creating rituals that are more timeless. (I also think the ability to clearly distinguish metaphors and not get them confused is also an important life skill)

So something I’m considering for next year is whether to include an earlier song or two that are explicitly metaphorical, and couple them with explicit stories about the value of interpreting metaphor.

I’m not 100% sure how to do that in a way that doesn’t feel condescending. :p

Song Commentary

What follows are my commentary on each song,

(Each song is followed by 5 numbers, which are the number of “Hateds”, “Dislikes”, “Ehs”, “Likes” and “Loved” responses the song got.)

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (0, 2, 8, 26, 12)

This song seems to do exactly what it’s supposed to: welcome people with something familiar they already know how to sing, that already has been adopted by many people as a lighthearted atheistic hymn. It was in the top 5 “most liked” songs, and for the opening song I think it’s important to have something everyone can be reasonably happy with (as opposed to more polarizing songs people tend to love or hate).

Last year, this got more negative feedback for being nihilistic. This year nobody commented on that. In general it’s not meant to be taken super seriously – at this point in the program people are still settling in and more focused on “feeling comfortable singing” than parsing what the particular lyrics mean.

Unless someone suggests a similarly well-known alternative, I’ll be sticking with this as the NYC opener.

X Days of X-Risk (0, 2, 11, 16, 19)

This song plays on some concepts and in-jokes from the Less Wrong community, and for a long time I was worried about including it in the bigger, general public Solstices. Those fears seem unfounded – some of the most enthusiastic comments I’ve gotten were from people with no connection to Less Wrong, who love the hand waving and silliness.

I think this is a good kind of in-joke, that is comprehensible enough on first glance that it welcomes you into the in-group instead of making you feel excluded.

This song servers a pretty important function as the second song. It makes it clear the Solstice isn’t just a concert – you will be actively engaged, singing, moving your body, participating.

If this song is to be replaced, it needs to be with something similarly silly, and ideally with some kind of hand gestures or excuse to move around a bit. (These traits are far more important than whether the song is on theme)

I got some comments about the final nanites bit going a little too long, and the key being hard for women to sing, which I’ll try to address for next year.

Bring the Light (2, 3, 15, 22, 5)

This has gotten less popular over the years, and someone commented it feels vestigial – it was originally designed to teach people to sing loudly even if they weren’t good at it, and now by the time you’ve sung “Always Look On the Bright Side” and “X Days of X-Risk”, that may be unnecessary.

I got a lot of comments about this song being too repetitive, and I think a major problem is that people only feel allowed to sing the “Bring the Light” line over and over (as opposed to the more interesting “call” lyrics).

If we do it again, I’ll be making sure people feel welcome to sing the whole song. Or, possibly using it’s simplicity to teach more advanced skills (possibly having the audience harmonize on the “Bring the Light” bit?)

Gather Round (1, 5, 18, 15, 6)

The least popular song, by any measure. In its defense, it did better than “Let it Snow” last year, and it was explicitly designed as a replacement that was more on theme and less overplayed in shopping malls. (Let it Snow got a whopping 9 “dislikes”)

It’s a new song that I didn’t do a good job of teaching people, and was a bit too fast to sing easily.

I’d intended the song to be easy to learn (with every section getting repeated twice), but I think it only ended up “easy to learn if you’ve already practiced singing new songs on the fly”. The opening Solstice songs have a higher standard to meet, which is “easy to sing for newcomers who aren’t comfortable singing at all.”

People also commented it came too late to serve as the “welcome to Solstice! Join us and sing!” vibe that it was intended to have. Ironically, since it was a new and slightly-harder-to-sing song, it wasn’t able to work as the opening song. (In a few years if the song is better known it could potentially be the first or second song).

I tentatively plan to give it one more year to earn it’s place, and will be moving it up one slot (before Bring the Light) so it at least serves as the “begin a journey through history song.”)

Aside: The marijuana reference was unintentional. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it in once I noticed it. Some people thought it was funny in a good way, slightly more people thought it was distracting, so I’m probably changing it. But Solstice hipsters who were amused can still know in their heart of hearts that the line is a pot reference and giggle furtively.

When I Die (0, 1, 10, 17, 20)

Similar to X Days of X-Risk, this song is full of injokes but manages to be super popular among all kinds of people. It’s in the top 5 favorite songs no matter how you rank them.

Unfortunately Solstice has a lot of songs about death, so in years when death isn’t the major theme, I’ll probably skip it. But I’m super glad the song exists.

Bitter Wind Lullaby (1, 2, 7, 14, 22)

Not universally liked (it’s roughly in the middle when likes and loves were rated equally – it doesn’t click with some people), but one of the “most loved” songs that has produced the strongest emotional reactions in the Solstice.

It plays a key role in the intellectual, musical and emotional journeys (and I think would play a role in the metaphorical-understanding journey as well). It’s easy to sing along, but introduces harder tasks like “sing a chorus you’ve heard neither the words nor melody too before.”

It transitions us into the more contemplative songs of the second half, encouraging people to engage their brain more. It introduces a core Solstice theme of “grappling with problems you don’t even have the tools to understand yet”, as well as “having a reason to begin pursuing truth and understanding.”

It can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on what subthemes we’re focusing on.

I have two concerns about the song:

  1. It paints ancient people as a bit more ignorant/helpless than they necessarily were. (I think this is okay, since ancient people varied in their helplessness, but veers into not-okay territory if other stories and songs do that too)
  2. It feels like a “soloist” song, which can make it hard to tell when the audience is supposed to participate. In the future I plan to explicitly delineate when a song is solo and non-solo. (Also, some people have avoided including this song in their solstices because they didn’t have a strong soloist, which I think is unfortunate. It’s a beautiful folk song that works fine as something everyone just sings together)

Chasing Patterns (0, 2, 10, 21, 12)

This song met with lukewarm reviews when I first introduced it, and I’m really glad I stuck with it. It’s still not the most popular, but not everything can be, and does a good job of continuing the intellectual and musical journey that Bitter Wind Lullaby begins.

The most fun I’ve ever had with this song is singing in small groups of people who are all skilled improvisers, who did lots of clever harmonies, wordless chants, and alternate phrasings. I’m still hoping to one day figure out how to scale that up to a 200-person audience without getting muddled. Unfortunately it’s a much harder problem.

Time Wrote the Rocks (2, 1, 3, 22, 21)

This song is neck-in-neck with Brighter Than Today for the overall most popular song in every ranking system.

Many people expressed frustration but grudging acceptance of the lyric changes, while still overall appreciating its message. (This is basically my own take as well)

Going forward, this song is going to be the “climax of Act I” song. To that effect, it’ll need to be a bit more singalong and a little more epic sounding than it was this year (This year it was more quiet and folksy, with some vocal flourishes that were a bit hard to follow sometimes).

Bring the Light Reprise (2, 2, 14, 24, 5)

Oddly, despite many people complaining it was too repetitive and unnecessary, this song is… slightly higher ranked than Bring the Light classic? That surprised me.

In any case, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again – I only did it this year because I realized at the last minute that I needed a speech to come after Time Wrote the Rocks, and then I needed some other song to finish Act I. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to plan well enough in advance to have a more thematic finisher.

Some people commented they liked the reprise lyrics better than the original lyrics, so we might try just doing the reprise lyrics during the opening song slot.

Do You Realize (0, 4, 10, 17, 15)

Some people love this song and think it’s beautiful, some find it a little weird or cheesy. Overall though, it is one of the songs that does produce a strong emotional reaction in a fair number of people, and is overall fairly popular.

Blowing in the Wind (2, 5, 12, 18, 7)

This makes me sad, because I personally love the arrangement Phil worked out, and this is the one song that singlehandedly sums up all the bad things about the world that I want Solstice to confront. I’m not sure what a good replacement is, but it’s been among the less popular for years and I’ll likely try something else next year.

Many comments specifically focused on the change to minor key. Phil’s arrangement was musically clever, in that it kept almost the entire melody from the original version (sometimes taking what would be a major note, but framing it differently in a minor chord). This didn’t work all the time though, so a few notes are straight-up shifted to major. This resulted in a particularly confusing version.

If we do this again, we’ll most likely shift the song thoroughly into the minor key, so there are no surprises. (An alternative is returning to the original key, but in past years when we did that, we got a different set of complaints – that the song felt too upbeat and out of place to fit into the darker section of the evening)

Stopping in the Woods (1, 7, 12, 16, 9)

This is the most interestingly unpopular song to me. A lot of feedback was something to the effect of “I don’t understand what this song was about or why it was there.” This is the song that most motivated me to consider “explicitly discussing metaphor at Solstice” thing.

To me, this song is both literal and metaphorical. I, Raymond Arnold, literally go walking in the woods, in the snow, to think about all the problems facing the world (i.e. the ones we talked about one song previously, in “Blowin’ in the Wind”). The final line of the song “and miles to go before I sleep” is how I feel about how far we have to go before our world is safe and fair.

Metaphorically, in my mind, this song is essentially about the woman in Bitter Wind March (a song which comes right after). Her child has died. She’s emotionally numb from the loss, physically numb from the cold. She’s walking alone in the woods, an odd mix of quiet tranquility and emptiness. She considers literally stopping, lying down in the cold and not getting up.

But she doesn’t. She keeps walking. There are miles left to go, and she doesn’t give up. And in the following song, Bitter Wind March, she joins the project that will become Stonehenge – dragging 8000 pound stones hundreds of miles, to build a monument that can accurately predict when winter will come, beginning the human journey of understanding the cosmos so that we can plan our future.

The thing though, is that while this is my interpretation, there are tons of other ways you could find meaning in this song.

Bitter Wind March (1, 2, 8, 14, 21)

This song generally succeeded at its goal of being a deeper, darker version of Bitter Wind Blown. Not much else to say.

Endless Lights (0, 2, 7, 18, 18)

I made a questionable decision with this song, which I *think* accomplished the goal I wanted, but maybe needs another year to fine-tune.

The original chorus was “Hundreds of Thousands of Radiant Lights” instead of “Endless Lights”, which was faster paced, more fun to sing. But I wanted a place during Solstice where people could sing out long, powerful notes in harmony. I also wanted the song to have a more distinct verse/chorus divide. At least some people who were skeptical about that reported it went well.

Will leave the song as-is for next year, but try to arrange the harmonies so that they’re less muddled, and easier for the audience to latch onto and sing.

Brighter Than Today (1, 1, 4, 15, 24)

Overall most popular and most loved song. Doesn’t work for all people but I’m not sure it’s possible write a song that’ll highly resonate with everyone.

Seasons of Love (2, 3, 12, 17, 11)

This was among the less popular and controversial songs, and I think this is basically a matter of “some people love Rent, and some people hate it or at least are sick of it.”

This was still relatively well received (it was maybe in the lower third of songs) but I’ll probably rotate in another “warm, fun, well known togetherness songs” to replace this next year. Choices include Lean on Me, which is also really easy to sing, and Forever Young, which is less easy but also touches on some deeper issues.

Here and Now (1, 1, 5, 23, 12)

Last year this got a lukewarm response, but I’m glad I kept it around. This year people seemed to have a lot of fun with it. I’m probably holding NY Solstice a week before Star Wars comes out next year, so I will have to play around with the lyrics a bit. 😛

Here Comes the Sun (0, 0, 7, 27, 10)

Second most-liked song of the event, and a solid mid-ranked song in the weighted sorting. Does exactly what it’s supposed to.

Uplift (0, 1, 6, 16, 19)

In the top-5 weighted sorting. Solid finisher. I was super pleased with our arrangement this year, with the escalating instrumentation.

Five Thousand Years (0, 3, 4, 27, 11)

I used to worry about this song being “too much overt futurism, which not everyone is behind.” I’m less concerned now about that now – no one has complained about that for a while, and the song is reasonably popular as Solstice songs go. But it’s not one of the most loved songs. (Whereas Uplift is, and it might be better to just stop there). The last song of an event should be something that leaves everyone excited.

A counterpoint is that I really like having the Solstice ending with an explicit look to the future. I think the naturally tendency over time for the New York Solstice to shift towards more familiar, present day topics, and having a final song that unambiguously looks into the far future help provides an anchor to keep the event true to it’s “Past into Present into Future” theme.

A counter-counter-point is that unless the event does more to build up to that far future theme, it feels tacked-on-at-the-end. This year our dominant theme was Smallpox Eradication, which didn’t lend itself as well to that.

Another counter-counter point is that while Five Thousand Years is the only explicit look into the far future, plenty of other songs touch upon similar themes to the point where it seems sort of superfluous.

I’m not quite sure how to resolve all that, and will be mulling it over for next year.

I did get one comment that “the song was good, but existentially terrifying” and would have preferred to have a warmer, lighter song afterwards to end on. It wasn’t the intent of the song to be scary, but I could understand how it’d feel that way, especially in years when it’s not discussed earlier in the event to ease people into it.

Something Timeless


That’s all for now. Over the next year I’ll be discussing some of the specifics issues highlighted in this post. Hope this was helpful both to let people know what sort of thought process goes into the New York Solstice, and provide some help to organizers deciding how to approach the songlists at their own events.