Boston Solstice 2023 Retrospective

January 1st, 2024
music, solstice
Saturday evening we held another year's secular solstice celebration (2022, 2020, 2019, 2018), and I was again in my music director-ish role. Skyler was the main organizer this time around, with lots of support from Taymon.

Scheduling was a bit tricky, as it always is. The weekends closest to astronomical solstice are usually taken by the Bay Area and NYC, and enough people (especially organizers) would like to attend those that it's better if we don't conflict, and then there's Christmas. We decided to do December 30th this year, which I ended up liking a lot. It meant I could be practicing during Christmas vacation, and I didn't need to be so cautious about getting sick during the event because it wasn't immediately before I was going to see a lot of elderly relatives. Being at New Year's offered some nice hooks for the theme as well.

We hosted in Somerville again, and this time had ~45 people. I arranged the house the same way as I did last year, but this is very close to the maximum number of people it make sense to have in this space. I didn't advertise the event as much as I might have, partly for this reason. One thing we should think about for next year is whether we want a real venue. We used to host these at the MIT chapel, which was a good space, though prohibiting fire and food. Possibly there are other spaces around but could be a good fit? We need something bigger than a house, but not that big: space for 75 should be fine. Really it's better if the space isn't much larger than that, since it feels more communal if you're not rattling around in a big room. Aside from having more space, it would also be nice not to be spending ~6hr reconfiguring our house for maximum capacity and putting it all back again!

There were two sets of slides: one for the musicians and one for the audience. Not everyone could see the projection, since the space has an awkward bend in it, so I put a copy of the slides on my website as a pdf and passed around a link. One of the attendees suggested using the folding couch monitor as well, and set it up with their phone, and I think that ended up being helpful?

Our older two kids were off at a sleepover, but Nora (2.5y) was around for most of it with Julia supervising. Another family also brought their kid (17mo) and we had a room nearby (thanks to currently-elsewhere part-time housemate Andrew) where the two toddlers could hang out as needed. There was also space available upstairs, farther both physically and auditorially, which neither family ended up using. While Julia sang The Next Right Thing her phone with Cocomelon in the nearby room did a good keeping Nora out of trouble. I don't think the kids were disruptive, partly because we were especially careful around the dark and serious portions, but I know this is something that has been tricky for some communities at times. One very tricky part is that it depends so much on the specific kids you have in your community, their general temperaments, and how they're doing that particular evening.

The music was a lot of fun this year: it was mostly songs I already knew, and all of the new songs were ones I liked. Here are the songs we did:

First Half:

  • Still Alive, by Jonathan Coulton
    (mp3)

    The timing on this song is a bit tricky, but enough people knew it to work well. On the other hand, if you don't know the context around it then it's probably pretty confusing what it's doing here.

  • The Circle, by Taylor Smith
    (mp3)

    The last verse is the most straightforward lyrical representation of the astronomical waste argument I know, and while I like the idea of including it there's something about it which comes off as a bit sinister to me?

  • Uplift, by Andrew Eigel
    (mp3)

    The tag as originally written was probably intended to describe the common theme in science fiction of returning to an agrarian society as part of colonizing a new world. Some years we've reinterpreted it as a civilization collapsing just as it was on the edge of expanding into space, but this year we tweaked the lyrics to be a bit more plausible while staying optimistic ("tools make the tools..."; "drones track the herd...").

  • Time Wrote the Rocks, by Cat Faber
    (mp3)

    Lyrics tweaked from the original to shift the focus towards a celebration of the process of learning how we came to be.

  • Song of the Artesian Water, words by Banjo Paterson and music by Anna Tchetchetkine
    (mp3)

    An 1896 poem about drilling wells that Anna set to music. I like how far it is from irony, deeply earnest about the difficulty and importance of the task.

  • Somebody Will, by Sassafrass
    (mp3)

    We've done this song many times, and it's always too hard for the group musically, but it gets closer and closer to something we can manage each year, even as there's some turnover in the attendees. Which itself is solidly on-theme!

    On the other hand the space colonization, complete with physically settling Mars, feels more culturally nerdy than an actual vision of the future? But I do like having a song about working on serious long-term projects you don't expect to be around to see completed.

  • Lucifer, words by Robery Browning and Don Simpson, music by Don Simpson
    (mp3)

    Skyler played guitar on one, which freed me up to play low whistle. I'd be excited to do more of this, on various instruments, if anyone else wanted to accompany some of the songs next year?

Second half:
  • Chasing Patterns, by Ray Arnold
    (mp3)

    This was our first year trying with this with two leaders, one for the "call" and one for the "response", another choice I'm happy with. We also marked the two sections on the slides, and while we planned to divide the room we forgot and people just chose their own group, which was fine.

  • Beautiful Tomorrow, words by Yuri Entin, music by Evgeny Krylatov, and translation by Anna Tchetchetkine and the Bayesian Choir.
    (mp3)

    This is the theme from a futuristic Soviet TV show. Unfortunately the original uses a 21-note range, which is wide for a group and doesn't fit my voice in the key we were planning. I was hoping to find someone else to lead it, but didn't get a volunteer so I ended up leading. I narrowed the range by dropping down on the second "tomorrow" of the chorus, which works but dulls the emotional impact a bit.

  • The Next Right Thing, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
    (mp3)

    Adapting this was a bit tricky. The canonical version has many parts that are less 'sung' than 'sobbed', it goes up a half step over the course of a series of complex chords partway through, and if you look online for recordings to see how others have approached it you just get a lot of (a) karaokes of the canonical version and (b) an unrelated country song. We did find one, which is fine for what it's trying to be, but wasn't close enough to what I was going for to really be useful.

    Regardless, the combination of dark and determined fits the situation very well, and I'm glad I got to a version that would work for my skills as an accompanist and for the group's skills at picking up new melodies on the fly.

  • Hymn to Breaking Strain, words by Rudyard Kipling, music by Leslie Fish
    (mp3)

    This was our second time singing this a cappella in the darkest part of the evening, which I think fits the feeling we're going for pretty well.

  • Brighter than Today, by Ray Arnold
    (mp3)

    After lots of discussion we ended up sticking with the 2013 version for the second verse, though we did switch to doing the choruses the newer way with more variation.

  • The Mary Ellen Carter, by Stan Rogers
    (mp3)

    I've known this song for a long time, but it wasn't until Skyler listed it for this year that I realized how good a fit it was for the event.

  • Try Everything, by Sia, Tor Hermansen, and Mikkel Eriksen
    (mp3)

    The timing on this song is tricky, deceptively so given how straightforward the melody and chords are. We mostly got it right, though there were a few rocky bits.

  • Level Up, by Vienna Teng
    (mp3)

    Our second time with the gospel-inspired genre swap. I'm still unhappy with how much I rush it: I really want it around 85-90bpm for a less frantic feeling, but you can hear me repeatedly letting the tempo get away from me and then pulling it back in.

  • Old Devil Time, by Pete Seeger
    (mp3)

    Boston solstice's traditional ending song. My first time trying it on guitar, which felt maybe a bit more communal to me than the piano accompaniment I've previously done? Last year for some reason I ended up doing just piano/keyboard, and while that's one less thing to worry about technically I'm glad I decided to do about half of the songs on guitar this year.

I also have the raw multitrack recordings if anyone wants to play with them; let me know! Though they may not be very useful, since for most of the mixes above I was happiest relying almost entirely on the two room mics.

Most of the songs are me on guitar or piano (plus occasionally foot drums and weirder electronic things), with several different folks (thanks Alex, Feather, Joel, and Julia!) taking a turn leading the singing, and Charlie played flute on many songs as inspiration struck. I managed to get in one rehearsal with each musician and/or singer, and we ran a few things through before the audience arrived, but overall this was a pretty minimally-rehearsed event.

One idea that came up when hanging out after was that it could be fun to get together and sing some of the solstice canon at some point, just hanging out in someone's living room with instruments. If this is something that sounds fun to you let me know, and I might schedule something in a few months?

Let me know if there's anything you especially liked or didn't like, so we can do better next year! Critical feedback is especially welcome. We've made a feedback form, or comments are good too!

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