Bay Solstice 2019 Retrospective

I was the Creative Direc­tor for last year’s Win­ter Sols­tice in the Bay Area. I worked with Nat Kozak and Chel­sea Voss, who were both fo­cused more on lo­gis­tics. Chel­sea was also the offi­cial leader who over­saw both me and Nat and had fi­nal say on dis­putes. (How­ever, I was granted dic­ta­to­rial con­trol over the Sols­tice arc and had fi­nal say in that arena.) I le­git have no idea how any one of us would have pul­led this off with­out the oth­ers; love to both of them and also mas­sive re­spect to Cody Wild, who some­how ran the en­tire thing her­self in 2018.

While I worked with a bunch of other peo­ple on Sols­tice, all opinions ex­pressed here are my own.

Process

Begin­nings & re­search phase

Chel­sea, Nat, and I spent just about a full year prepar­ing for Sols­tice. Our first meet­ing as a group was on Jan­uary 20th, and we re­ceived offi­cial con­fir­ma­tion that we’d be in charge about a month later. In the fol­low­ing month, the three of us had roughly weekly plan­ning meet­ings via video chat. In the first meet­ing, we set goals for what we wanted to have done by the first of April, and af­ter that we checked in reg­u­larly for a while.

My goal by the first of April was to have a rough out­line of the en­tire arc and a plan for how to make the tone be co­her­ent. I also wanted to get a bet­ter han­dle on the task, and to that end I had con­ver­sa­tions with sev­eral pre­vi­ous Sols­tice or­ga­niz­ers and also read as much as I could. This in­cluded Ray’s se­quence on rit­ual, most of the writ­ing on the Sec­u­lar Sols­tice web­site (both the blog and the re­sources sec­tion were use­ful), dis­cus­sions on the Ra­tional Ri­tual Face­book group, and what­ever else I could find.

I also spent a full day listen­ing to ev­ery sin­gle song that had ever been recom­mended for Sols­tice (see be­low) and mak­ing notes on them in a spread­sheet. When I ran out of songs in that refer­ence class, I sorted my iTunes library by most listens and started go­ing through to see if any of those songs might fit. This was quite sur­pris­ingly fruit­ful—I ac­tu­ally ended up us­ing three of the songs that were origi­nally put on my list in this way.

Another thing I did was go around and ask peo­ple what they wanted out of Sols­tice. I got re­sponses that were ac­tu­ally fairly use­ful, like “I lose in­ter­est dur­ing long speeches” and “there should be more sin­ga­longs” and “I like sin­ga­longs but a lot of the songs have re­ally com­pli­cated tunes and I can’t han­dle it.”

I think even with all that re­search and prepa­ra­tion, I still didn’t have a very good sense of the his­tory of Sols­tice. I had only been to two big Bay Area Sols­tices, plus a pri­vate Sols­tice in the woods, plus a short, small, off-the-cuff Sols­tice that Habryka and I ran at my mom’s house in 2018. I wasn’t around for early Sols­tices, and I’d never seen what they were like in Bos­ton, Seat­tle, or New York.

Creat­ing the setlist

The first setlist

I met the April 1st dead­line for hav­ing an out­line of the en­tire arc. I drew up my first setlist in my note­book on a five-hour plane ride. I was tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion more small snip­pets of ad­vice than I can list here, but I can quote the guid­ing goal I referred to through­out the en­tirety of my time work­ing on this Sols­tice:

I want my Sols­tice to be about the bro­ken­ness of the world and the ethos of “some­body has to and no one else will”, but also the fact that even if you ex­er­cise your in­di­vi­d­ual agency to do the most you can, we still might fail.

Below are some sam­ple pages from my note­book, with most names redacted. Note that I didn’t ask any of these peo­ple be­fore as­sign­ing them to songs; this was just idle spec­u­la­tion on a plane ride about who might be able to pull off each song.

Some sam­ple pages from my note­book

After that was a pro­cess of con­stant iter­a­tion.

Run-throughs

We had our first full run-through of the setlist on June 16th. In the two months lead­ing up to this, Chel­sea checked in with me weekly. I had a lot of speeches to write and planned to write one and send it to her each week (which I more or less ac­com­plished). I found this ac­countabil­ity mechanism quite helpful.

The first run-through was just me, Habryka, and Chel­sea. We sat on the floor of my bed­room, played record­ings of the songs to sing along with, and took turns read­ing the speeches. For this run-through, I wrote three new speeches, re-used two ex­ist­ing Sols­tice speeches, and threw in Pale Blue Dot, an abridged ver­sion of the poem Ring Out, Wild Bells, and the Se­quences post On Do­ing The Im­pos­si­ble. After the run-through, which took about two hours (we timed each piece), the three of us de­briefed, and I used the ex­ten­sive notes I took to make changes to the setlist.

I felt burned out af­ter this and had the lux­ury of tak­ing all of July off from Sols­tice work. This was a huge benefit of start­ing so early.

The next run-through was in Septem­ber, sched­uled around the dates when our fea­tured mu­si­cian, Tay­lor (who lives in Ver­mont) would be in town. This was sig­nifi­cantly more in­volved but still fairly in­for­mal. Seven peo­ple par­ti­ci­pated in to­tal (in­clud­ing Ray, who was ex­per­i­ment­ing with pro­jec­tion), we pro­vided our own in­stru­men­ta­tion for most of the songs, and most of the speeches were read by the peo­ple who would even­tu­ally give them. After­wards, each per­son in­di­vi­d­u­ally gave me feed­back, and again, I made sig­nifi­cant changes to the setlist in re­sponse.

Reg­u­lar cowork­ing hours

Around the time of the Septem­ber run-through, things re­ally picked up. Go­ing into crunch time, Chel­sea, Nat, and I set up a reg­u­lar time for Sols­tice cowork­ing. We met for a cou­ple hours ev­ery Mon­day night—that served both as our des­ig­nated time to work on Sols­tice things (since we all also have day jobs) and an op­por­tu­nity for in-per­son com­mu­ni­ca­tion about high-con­text or sen­si­tive top­ics.

Choos­ing performers

Skill level

We put out a call for au­di­tions in Au­gust, but we didn’t pub­li­cize it very well, so we didn’t re­ceive many ap­pli­ca­tions. I re­quired au­di­tions for speak­ers and sin­ga­long vo­cal­ists, but not for in­stru­men­tal­ists—in ret­ro­spect, this was an ob­vi­ous mis­take. I let al­most all of the in­stru­men­tal­ists who ap­plied par­ti­ci­pate in as many songs as they wanted, but there were is­sues with ev­ery­thing from not hav­ing time to re­hearse to not be­ing able to play in the key the vo­cal­ist wanted to dis­agree­ments on chords and time sig­na­tures.

Since we didn’t get enough ap­pli­ca­tions to fill all the slots, I reached out to peo­ple who I already knew were com­pe­tent from see­ing them perform in pre­vi­ous Sols­tices or in other con­texts (such as at jam ses­sions or in the REACH Mu­si­cal Re­vue). This ended up work­ing quite well—I think that ev­ery­one I chose in this way gave a good perfor­mance.

NYC has of­ten hired pro­fes­sional mu­si­ci­ans, rather than hav­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers provide the in­stru­men­ta­tion—a pos­si­bil­ity I knew about but never se­ri­ously con­sid­ered. While I still wouldn’t pay for pro­fes­sional mu­si­ci­ans, I’ve come to un­der­stand bet­ter why some­one might de­cide to do so, af­ter ex­pe­rienc­ing the difficul­ties (men­tioned above) of get­ting am­a­teur mu­si­ci­ans to pro­duce a perfor­mance-ready piece.

On the other hand, a lot of the am­a­teurs did do an ex­cel­lent job! So I think the take­away here is just that it’s im­por­tant to have peo­ple au­di­tion (or be very sure of their com­pe­tence level in some other way) and make sure they’re able to put in the time com­mit­ment to re­hearse.

Ori­en­ta­tion to­wards Sols­tice as a whole

Some­thing I strug­gled with a fair amount was dis­agree­ments about arc co­he­sion vs show­cas­ing tech­ni­cal skill. Arc co­he­sion trumped all other con­cerns for me, with sin­ga­longa­bil­ity a close sec­ond. How­ever, it’s of­ten the case that when singers are given the chance to perform, they want to do some­thing more in­ter­est­ing than just lead the melody of a sin­ga­long, so I was some­times at log­ger­heads with perform­ers who wanted to do more com­plex pieces or in­clude in­tri­cate har­monies. There are some pieces for which I re­gret not be­ing firmer about putting my foot down on this is­sue, and I think that ul­ti­mately it’s prob­a­bly rea­son­able to ex­clude perform­ers on this ba­sis if you can’t come to an agree­ment.

On the flip side, I was ex­tremely grate­ful to the peo­ple whose pieces I cut af­ter the dress re­hearsal, a week be­fore the perfor­mance. I apol­o­gized to all of them and gave them the op­por­tu­nity to con­test the de­ci­sion, but they were all re­ally great about it and said things along the lines of “I care way more about Sols­tice be­ing bet­ter than I do about cash­ing out on the work I did.” To those peo­ple—I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate you, and thank you for be­ing won­der­ful!

Fi­nal preparations

In late Novem­ber we did a walk-through of the venue (im­por­tant for test­ing plane­tar­ium footage and light­ing op­tions), then in early De­cem­ber we had a tech re­hearsal at the plane­tar­ium (mostly for A/​V) and a dress re­hearsal (not at the plane­tar­ium). Much of the benefit here was lo­gis­ti­cal, and I won’t touch on that too much since it’s not my wheelhouse, but it also gave me a chance to see what the fi­nal product would be like. I was origi­nally sup­posed to stop edit­ing the setlist en­tirely on Novem­ber 5th, but in re­al­ity, I made sev­eral changes to the or­der and even cut some pieces in re­sponse to the dress re­hearsal, and the ex­act con­tent of some things was kind of up in the air even on the day of. While I tech­ni­cally missed my dead­line or what­ever, I don’t re­gret that at all—I think my Sols­tice was quite sig­nifi­cantly bet­ter than it would have been if I had stopped iter­at­ing on the setlist a month ear­lier.

Con­sid­er­a­tions for cre­at­ing a setlist

Creat­ing a co­he­sive message

When it came to speeches, I took an arc-first ap­proach. I de­cided what mes­sage fit in ev­ery place in the arc and found a piece that fit there. Only af­ter that did I ap­proach po­ten­tial speak­ers. I ended up us­ing four ex­ist­ing pieces whole­sale; the rest were based on ex­ist­ing pieces but were ei­ther remixed or heav­ily ed­ited by the speaker. The take­away ac­tion item here is to have some­thing very spe­cific in mind for each speech and con­vey­ing that to the speaker. This im­proves co­he­sion while still al­low­ing each speaker to put their own twist on the piece if they so choose.

Ex­am­ples:

  • Tessa remixed Ray’s A Bot­tom­less Pit of Suffer­ing to make more sense in Berkeley (it was origi­nally given in NYC, where it’s very cold) and to have more of her own voice.

  • I had Nate Soares on the docket from quite early on in the pro­cess, but he’s busy ex­ec­u­tive-di­rect­ing MIRI so I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. With his in­put, I chose an old post from his blog for him to read (How We Will Be Mea­sured), and Chel­sea and I ed­ited it to be shorter and more ap­pro­pri­ate as a speech. Nate then made a bunch of his own changes to re­flect the ways his think­ing has changed over the past few years, but ul­ti­mately it was still rec­og­niz­able as the same piece.

  • Though it ended up be­ing cut at the very last minute, Alex Al­tair adapted a scene from HPMoR into a speech, which was pretty cool.

Creat­ing a smooth arc

In or­der to cre­ate a smooth ex­pe­rience, you have to make sure that there are smooth tran­si­tions be­tween the mes­sage, emo­tional tone, and mu­si­cal/​artis­tic feel of each piece and the next. It turns out to be re­ally hard to match these all up. For ex­am­ple, there are some funny/​up­beat/​light-hearted songs about death (e.g. We Will All Go To­gether When We Go), and some fairly se­ri­ous-sound­ing songs about more light-hearted top­ics (e.g. Time Wrote the Rocks). Some songs are up-tempo, some are slow and mourn­ful, some have per­cus­sion, some are performed by choir. There are just a ton of con­sid­er­a­tions. (This is why Ray writes so many of his own songs—that’s the only way you can re­ally have con­trol over the mes­sage, tone, and feel all at once.)

I was aware of all of these con­sid­er­a­tions, and that’s a big part of the rea­son that I made sure to run through each ver­sion of the setlist from start to finish, but I don’t think I quite got it right un­til the fi­nal perfor­mance (even the dress re­hearsal, one week prior, was fairly rocky in this re­gard). And even then there were still a few prob­lems, like the en­ergy drop from Son of Man to Uplift and the en­ergy drop from Sin­gu­lar­ity to Five Thou­sand Years (mak­ing Five Thou­sand Years a rather an­ti­cli­mac­tic fi­nale).

MCing

The pre­vi­ous Sols­tices I had at­tended were just a se­ries of pieces strung to­gether, and the au­di­ence were mostly left to dis­cern the arc on their own. At some point in my re­search, I saw a video clip of Kenzi MCing a Sols­tice, and I im­me­di­ately de­cided I wanted to do that.

In my opinion, there are a ton of ad­van­tages to hav­ing an MC. Here are a cou­ple:

  1. It gives the au­di­ence more in­sight into why each piece was cho­sen and gen­er­ally gives you a chance to tie the arc to­gether more ex­plic­itly.

  2. It al­lows you to make an­nounce­ments dur­ing the pro­gram with­out break­ing im­mer­sion, such as giv­ing trig­ger warn­ings or ask­ing the au­di­ence to hold their ap­plause un­til fur­ther no­tice.

  3. It fills what would oth­er­wise be awk­ward pauses be­tween pieces as perform­ers get on and off the stage.

Post-perfor­mance feedback

About 50 peo­ple filled out the feed­back sur­vey, and their feed­back falls into a few rough cat­e­gories for me:

  1. “This per­son is right and I would change/​tweak this if I had it to do over”

  2. “This feed­back should not be acted upon”

  3. “Feed­back on this is very split, and you can’t win ’em all”

Things I would tweak

Finale

The peak-end rule is re­ally im­por­tant, and my Sols­tice didn’t have a very strong end­ing. I had to go up on­stage and be like, “Okay, now it’s over.” If I had it to do over, I might cut Five Thou­sand Years and end on Sin­gu­lar­ity, which ev­ery­one loved.

Mo­ment of darkness

The mo­ment of dark­ness it­self (two min­utes of silence in the pitch black) got mixed re­views—some peo­ple found it very pow­er­ful, some peo­ple found it ex­is­ten­tially hor­rify­ing and had to dis­tract them­selves, and a lot of peo­ple found it didn’t re­ally land. The main thing I would change here is the way I in­tro­duced it.

I said, “We’re about to sit in silence for two min­utes. If you’re up for it, I want you to look up at the stars, and think of some­one you’ve lost. Some­one whose voice you will never hear again, whose mind is gone from the world for­ever. Give them your grief, yes, but also give them your re­solve.”

In ret­ro­spect, this was far too spe­cific an ask. A lot of peo­ple said that the mo­ment of dark­ness didn’t re­ally land speci­fi­cally be­cause they’d never lost any­one close to them. (I copied the text from the Sols­tice Habryka and I ran in Madi­son, where it worked very well, but where the cir­cum­stances were very differ­ent in quite a num­ber of sig­nifi­cant ways.) If I had it to do over, I would en­courage peo­ple to sit with their feel­ings, wher­ever they were at, rather than pre­scribing some­thing for them to think about.

First speech

I strug­gled for a long time to find or write an ap­pro­pri­ate speech for the first-speech slot in the pro­gram. It was only a day or so be­fore the dress re­hearsal that I set­tled on giv­ing an abridged ver­sion of Nate’s This Is A Dawn. While it had roughly the right mes­sage, I don’t think I my­self was that bought into it, and as a re­sult, peo­ple seemed to find it a bit generic, and not re­ally mean­ingful. I’m not ac­tu­ally sure what in par­tic­u­lar I would do here if I had a do-over, but I do want to high­light that the first-speech slot is quite im­por­tant and I definitely didn’t to­tally nail it.

Feed­back that should not be acted upon

A hope­fully un­con­tro­ver­sial ex­am­ple of this is the per­son who doesn’t like the sound of strummed in­stru­ments, and there­fore gave a low rat­ing to ev­ery song with strummed gui­tars. Sure, this is a valid way to feel, but at the same time, one per­son’s prefer­ence in this area does not mean it makes sense to cut all gui­tars from Sols­tice.

A more con­tro­ver­sial ex­am­ple, but one that I am still will­ing to stand by pub­li­cly, is the com­mon com­plaint that Son of Man is sex­ist. Look, I’m a woman. Chel­sea is a woman. The per­son who soloed on Son of Man is a woman. My sense is that, while some peo­ple were gen­uinely offended, and that came through in their feed­back, most of the peo­ple who reg­istered com­plaints were just peo­ple who were wor­ried that other peo­ple might have been offended. I con­tinue to think this song is an ex­cel­lent fit for Sols­tice mes­sage-wise and has great en­ergy (it was in­tended to be performed a bit faster but there were some tech­ni­cal difficul­ties with the drums). I would not hes­i­tate to in­clude it again.

Trig­ger­ing content

Eat­ing di­s­or­der trigger

For com­pli­cated rea­sons, there was a brief dis­cus­sion of weight loss at the end of Sols­tice. It was in­tended as a sort of light-hearted post-cred­its piece, but we mishan­dled it, and peo­ple didn’t end up get­ting the chance to leave if the topic was difficult for them. This had sig­nifi­cant nega­tive con­se­quences for some peo­ple, and I sincerely apol­o­gize for that.

We’re tak­ing steps to make sure that fu­ture Bay Sols­tices are more care­ful around sen­si­tive top­ics like this. Spe­cific ac­tion items in­clude pro­vid­ing ver­bal trig­ger warn­ings in ad­di­tion to the ones writ­ten in the pro­gram, and al­low­ing sig­nifi­cantly more time for peo­ple to leave if they need to, in­clud­ing hav­ing some peo­ple planted in the au­di­ence to stand up and leave so that it feels so­cially okay to do so. (Even though I my­self won’t be run­ning Sols­tice next year, I’m in close con­tact with next year’s or­ga­niz­ers and have made at least one of them aware of this.)

Other triggers

On the feed­back form, some peo­ple men­tioned be­ing very up­set by Sols­tice be­cause it re­minded them that they were lonely or felt like they could be ac­com­plish­ing more. I do not think any­thing should change about Sols­tice it­self in re­sponse to this feed­back, be­cause be­ing re­minded that the uni­verse is vast and dark and cold is pretty much the en­tire point of Sols­tice.

Per­haps in the fu­ture it would be good to make it clear to po­ten­tial Sols­tice-go­ers that Sols­tice deals a lot with death, in­di­vi­d­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity, and the vast, un­car­ing uni­verse. Then they can make more of an in­formed choice about whether or not to go, and if they can’t han­dle it, they can’t rea­son­ably blame it on any­one but them­selves.

In­di­vi­d­ual pieces

Raw feedback

(The table be­low has the pieces in chronolog­i­cal or­der of how they ap­peared in the perfor­mance.)

Hat­edDis­likeMe­hLikeLove
1The Cir­cle1361221
2The X days of X-Risk3471614
3To Drive the Cold Win­ter Away01141611
4Bold Orion0142016
5Time Wrote the Rocks0610179
6This is a Dawn (abridged)0012195
7Hard Times Come Again No More0281812
8There Will Come Soft Rain3612119
9Pale Blue Dot0031225
10Star­dust02141314
11Do You Real­ize1461614
12A Bot­tom­less Pit of Suffer­ing1171514
13Bit­ter Wind Lul­laby03111610
14Eu­logy001833
15The Mo­ment of Dark­ness1151517
16Spo­ken Call/​Re­sponse0211187
17We Are the Light2113165
18Light Pol­lu­tion0112193
19End­less Lights0311149
20Brighter Than To­day0121618
21How We Will Be Mea­sured0412158
22Son of Man3610156
23Uplift0171517
24What it means to win126205
25Beau­tiful To­mor­row1371612
26Sin­gu­lar­ity120931
27Five Thou­sand Years2471710
28After-the-Cred­its-Eliezer-Bit865914

At a high level, most peo­ple liked most things! This is heart­en­ing.

Ray and I sorted the pieces four differ­ent ways*, and there were five pieces that clearly came out on top and five that (only a lit­tle bit less) clearly came out at the bot­tom.

Best-liked:

  1. Eulogy

  2. Singularity

  3. Pale Blue Dot

  4. Brighter Than Today

  5. Bold Orion

Worst-liked:

  1. After-the-Cred­its Eliezer bit

  2. Son of Man

  3. There Will Come Soft Rain

  4. We Are the Light

  5. Light Pollution

Effect of delivery

Some­thing I no­tice that’s in­ter­est­ing (but not that sur­pris­ing) is the large effect that de­liv­ery had on peo­ple’s rat­ings. For ex­am­ple, two of the high­est rated pieces were Sin­gu­lar­ity and Pale Blue Dot. In ad­di­tion to a solid de­liv­ery by Chel­sea, Pale Blue Dot had a back­ing track and cus­tom plane­tar­ium footage. Sin­gu­lar­ity was ex­tremely en­er­getic and fun, and peo­ple had gen­er­ally pos­i­tive af­fect to­wards all of the songs that promi­nently fea­tured Tay­lor be­cause he’s such an ob­vi­ously skil­led mu­si­cian. Brighter Than To­day and Bold Orion were also en­er­getic and very pol­ished perfor­mances.

By con­trast, peo­ple were rel­a­tively luke­warm on End­less Lights and Bit­ter Wind Lul­laby, two Sols­tice sta­ples that I think of as be­ing fairly well-liked in gen­eral. Both of these songs had sig­nifi­cant prob­lems with their ex­e­cu­tion, with the perform­ers hav­ing trou­ble agree­ing on the time sig­na­ture. As a re­sult, it was difficult for peo­ple to sing along, which seems to have made for a nega­tive over­all im­pres­sion.

Ad­dress­ing the elephant in the room

An ad­di­tional thing that peo­ple who at­tended this Sols­tice might want to see ad­dressed is what the heck was up with the Eliezer piece. Even apart from those who found it trig­ger­ing or oth­er­wise in­ap­pro­pri­ate, a lot of peo­ple were just con­fused about why it hap­pened (e.g., sev­eral peo­ple’s re­ac­tion was, “Why is this guy talk­ing to me like I’m his friend, I don’t even know him”). The ex­pla­na­tion is per­haps not all that satis­fy­ing, but I’ll give it any­way.

In early Oc­to­ber, Eliezer con­tacted me ask­ing if he could do a shenani­gan at Sols­tice. He ex­plained his idea to me, and while I didn’t re­ally see how it would fit in, I also didn’t want to re­ject him out of hand.

I talked to a cou­ple peo­ple I trusted about this, and we came to the con­clu­sion that it would be pretty valuable to have Eliezer on­stage. The rea­sons for this were a bit neb­u­lous, but roughly rested on the fol­low­ing:

  • Re­gard­less of any sin­gle com­mu­nity mem­ber’s per­sonal feel­ings on him and his writ­ings, it’s hard to deny that this com­mu­nity would not ex­ist as it does to­day with­out Eliezer. (I, for ex­am­ple, came in through a chance en­counter with HPMOR in high school, and ba­si­cally ev­ery as­pect of my cur­rent life is a di­rect re­sult of that en­counter.)

  • Eliezer has in­creas­ingly re­treated from pub­lic life over the past few years, and this has re­sulted in some feel­ings of aban­don­ment on the part of the com­mu­nity.

  • Hav­ing Eliezer on­stage dur­ing Sols­tice would show his im­plicit sup­port for the com­mu­nity and the event; fol­low­ing the above, it would re­mind the au­di­ence of what brought us all to­gether and that we haven’t been aban­doned by our founders.

Based on this rea­son­ing, it was hav­ing Eliezer on­stage that mat­tered, and the con­tent of his piece wasn’t re­ally rele­vant. The eat­ing di­s­or­der trig­ger was hon­estly not some­thing I even con­sid­ered un­til some­one men­tioned it af­ter the dress re­hearsal. It was at that point that I de­cided to move the piece to be ‘post-cred­its’ (it had pre­vi­ously been early in the pro­gram proper), to make it opt-out for peo­ple un­com­fortable with the topic, but as men­tioned above, I failed to han­dle this cor­rectly.

It’s also worth not­ing that, while more peo­ple hated the Eliezer bit than hated any other piece, there were also a fair num­ber of peo­ple who loved it (if you sort by the raw num­ber of Loves, it comes dead mid­dle). So it was in fact not uni­ver­sally re­viled (lots of peo­ple found it hilar­i­ous or heart­warm­ing); it was just very po­lariz­ing.

Sum­mary of takeaways

This is just all of the take­aways from the main body of this post, in the or­der that they ap­peared.

  • Start­ing a year in ad­vance and test­ing and iter­at­ing of­ten makes for a re­ally good fi­nal product but also burns you out like hell. I think this was ul­ti­mately definitely worth it, but if I was told I had to do an­other year of this I would prob­a­bly flee the coun­try.

  • De­cid­ing on a cen­tral theme/​the­sis for your Sols­tice early on is re­ally im­por­tant.

  • Set a reg­u­lar time to work on Sols­tice things so that they don’t slip through the cracks, es­pe­cially if you have a full-time job. It’s best if you can meet with other peo­ple reg­u­larly for this pur­pose, be­cause ac­countabil­ity.

  • While hiring pro­fes­sional mu­si­ci­ans may be eas­ier, there are enough skil­led mu­si­ci­ans in the Bay Area ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity that I think it’s worth­while to go that route, es­pe­cially since this makes it feel more like a com­mu­nity event. Just make sure that peo­ple au­di­tion (or are known to be skil­led and easy to work with) and can com­mit to re­hears­ing with each other.

  • Choose speak­ers and other perform­ers largely based on their skill level, but it’s also im­por­tant to make sure that they’re value-al­igned with you when it comes to the Sols­tice you’re cre­at­ing to­gether.

  • It’s okay to iter­ate on the con­tent un­til the very last minute so long as ev­ery­one is on the same page /​ no one is thrown off or blind-sided by the late changes.

  • If you want your arc to be re­ally co­he­sive, you need to ex­ert cen­tral­ized con­trol over each piece rather than just leav­ing perform­ers to do their own thing.

  • It’s re­ally hard to cre­ate a smooth arc over all the di­men­sions that mat­ter. If you can write your own songs or work with a friend who can write origi­nal songs, this is a huge as­set.

  • MCing is great.

  • Not all feed­back should be acted upon.

  • Pay at­ten­tion to the peak-end rule.

  • Po­ten­tially trig­ger­ing top­ics should be han­dled more care­fully than they were by me. It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to have a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity to make an in­formed choice about what they’re ex­posed to.

  • De­liv­ery/​ex­e­cu­tion of pieces is just as im­por­tant as (if not more im­por­tant than) the se­man­tic con­tent and the fit in the arc.

Resources

Setlist spreadsheet

I love spread­sheets with a pas­sion, and I found keep­ing all of the rele­vant ma­te­rial in one place to be enor­mously helpful both for me and for com­mu­ni­ca­tion pur­poses. (When­ever some­one had a ques­tion about the arc, the perform­ers, or any­thing, we could just pull up the spread­sheet, and even make a copy of it to see how chang­ing the or­der of the pieces would feel.)

Here is a tem­plate for the spread­sheet I used. Let me know if any­thing is un­clear!

Masterlist of Sols­tice materials

Daniel Speyer runs the Sec­u­lar Sols­tice GitHub page, which is a use­ful re­source, but it’s also very hard to edit—es­pe­cially if, like me, you’re not a pro­gram­mer and don’t know how to use GitHub in gen­eral. The Gi­ant Epic Ra­tion­al­ist Sols­tice Filk spread­sheet is like­wise a use­ful re­source, but it’s kind of a mess. So I made my own spread­sheet, which is pub­li­cly ed­itable and in­cor­po­rates ev­ery song, poem, story, and speech from the above two repos­i­to­ries. (Apolo­gies to Daniel Speyer and to any­one who sees this as pol­lut­ing the com­mons by in­stan­ti­at­ing too many com­pet­ing pro­jects.)


* The sort­ing al­gorithms we used were the fol­low­ing:

  1. % Pos­i­tive : (Liked + Loved) /​ (To­tal re­sponses)

  2. Over­all-Liked : (Liked + Loved) – (Dis­liked + Hated)

  3. Weighted : (2.25*Loved + Liked) – (2.25*Hated + Dis­liked)

  4. Loved : Raw num­ber of ’Love’s


Thanks to Ray Arnold, Nat Kozak, and Chel­sea Voss for their in­put and ed­its.