Author: Robinson McClellan

Terrarium: A New Sphere for Growing Art

A glass ball terrarium

I began this four-part series with a vision of my dream composing job, illustrated in three vignettes. This job would be structured like J.S. Bach’s salaried position as a composer. It would capture the directness and intimacy of the village baker making fresh bread each day for his neighbors. My creations could be met with the intensity of the children running around their brand-new playground in Central Park.

As far as I know, no job exists quite like this. So I am on a mission to create it, for myself and others, via two related initiatives. The first, my email series Life in Septuple Time, seeks a new and better form of social media. The second is a new project to bring us closer to the ideal I imagine—toward a place where, as I said in my first post, “the art and its communities are woven around and within each other… where art is not separate.” Such a thing could take many forms; I hope to make it happen in a new kind of community I am co-creating, called Terrarium.

To begin, let me follow up those three vignettes from my first post with two more, to take that initial vision and to draw it more sharply, more precisely.

Vignette 1

“In the fall of 1904, a farmer was stringing galvanized wire between lines of barbed wire fence… building an elementary telephone network to connect his farm with those of his neighbors. [He] was part of a movement of telephone self-connectors, the telecom DIYers of the first decade of the twentieth century. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce [as the Bell company saw it], but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, “With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young” [emphasis mine].

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another… Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances… “The opening of the new telephone line at Ten Mile,” reported the Macon Democrat, a Missouri newspaper in 1904, “was celebrated with gramophone, violin, banjo, french harp, guitar and organ Friday night.”

—Tim Wu, The Master Switch (Knopf Doubleday)

Vignette 2

In the summer of 2019, six people joined a new kind of discussion process called Terrarium. They are scientists, teachers, musicians, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, writers, each wearing multiple hats in life. They are working parents, caring for ill loved ones, studying for a competitive state licensing exam. They are in four states, three times zones, two countries. Most have never met in person and likely never will. During the weekly Terrarium cycle a wide-ranging discussion unfolds, ignited from two short pieces of writing on the topic they’ve chosen to pursue for this particular Terrarium cycle: the boundary between fake and real. One is about professional mourners in Congo who cry at funerals as a paid service. The other is about art forgery in Europe during the Renaissance.

This group is distinctive for two reasons: First, they interact entirely online, using simple tools outside the purview of Big Social Media. (In this case, Trello software.) Second, the group follows a careful process designed to de-Facebook-ize the rhythm of the discussion. There is no news feed and no ‘Like’ feature, no algorithmic advantage given to the speediest or most upsetting expressions of opinion. As a result of this counter-cultural discussion format, the conversation that emerges is slow, deep, wide-ranging, and non-polemic, despite touching easily polemicized issues like climate change, labor exploitation, forgery, and deepfakes. A sense of civil intimacy grows.

Soon, one of the musicians in the group gets an idea for a new piece of music, one that arises from this particular Terrarium group and speaks to their particular discussion: Several members of the group are concerned about climate change, an issue this particular composer does not feel as worried about as perhaps he should. Just as professional mourners do not feel sad about the specific dead person at a funeral, yet they are able to draw real emotion from a communal sense of grief; likewise this composer respects the concern about climate and is able to tap into the emotions around it. So, he realizes, this places him in a unique position: He can serve as a professional mourner for this group by writing a Lament for Climate Change. His music can help the group to experience, first-hand, one of the topics they have been discussing. The art can help them to feel what it’s like to have a professional do the mourning on their behalf.

A 2013 public domain photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service via Flickr

Yup, that composer is me. This is just one example of the kind of super-specific artwork, tuned to a particular group and a particular topic, that emerges naturally within a Terrarium group. Writing this piece feels very different from any commissioned piece I’ve done. When the piece is finished I will be able to say to my small Terrarium community something deeply special: I made this. For you. I will know exactly who the ‘you’ is, why I wrote this piece for these humans, specifically. If I do a good job, the music will touch my listeners in a direct way, or at least it will deepen our discussion. If my music fails on any level I will be able to ask why, and hear honest answers. Then I’ll have the chance to rework it or try again. I will feel that I am getting closer to the kind of artistic meaning and context I’ve been longing for, and that I suspect other composers—and artists of all kinds—long for, too.

Together, these two vignettes show the special kind of close-knit, human-scale community that can be built across distances of space and schedule that are otherwise too difficult to span. The vignettes show people using basic telecommunications technology that requires no special skill to set up. They show communities free from the colonizing interference of telecommunication monopolies (like Facebook) that extrude our best human raw materials (emotion, relationship, dreaming, longing, making) and then use them to create morally vacuous products for advertisers. And in both vignettes the artistic encounters arise spontaneously; the music has a home and an audience before it is even made.

A close up image of an old wooden telephone with metal ringing bells, a speaker, and a receiver

An old telephone recently encountered by the author in rural Maine.

Let’s Put Art in Second Place… Where It Can Do Its Best Work

The key to bringing art into its most powerful role is to place art-making second in importance to other elements of the community.

One of my key goals is to move art-making down the totem pole, to place it second in importance to other elements of the community. This might sound odd, but it is, I believe, precisely the key to bringing art into its most powerful role, where it can work its magic most deeply. So in this article I will focus more on the Terrarium community itself—how it fosters connection and understanding broadly, beyond the realm of artistic creation—and less on the specific art being created within it, because if the community is working as it is meant to, then the art-making will flourish naturally.

In my work as a composer I feel a painful separation from the human beings I write for. Often, I don’t know who exactly they are, and I don’t feel sure why or even whether they need or want the music I create. It’s wonderful to fulfill commissions and sell my scores to performers; I meet great new friends and people tell me they enjoy hearing my music. Yet I feel disconnected from my listening audiences, and I long for something different. I want small communities where I can live my life in an ongoing everyday way, alongside friends near and far, new and old, learning together about the big issues facing our world—political, economic, scientific. In that context I can tune in deeply to the desires and cares of those humans and make art for them, specifically. As I described in my first post, I believe this works best when I, as artistic creator, can act in the role of servant to the served. And as I discussed in my second post, my long experience making community online tells me that a good place to do all this is on the internet, if we can find better ways of using it, well away from current forms of social media.

So this is a call to action. We don’t need to cultivate an audience, we need to cultivate communities with a larger purview than art alone. Then our music and audience can grow organically from that. In this article, I invite you to help us build this new kind of community and I propose a way to do it: Terrarium.

A Process for Small-Group Discussion

So, what is it? Terrarium is a new process for deep, high-trust, small-group discussion online, structured as a weekly practice. This is a project I’ve been co-creating with Erin Jeanette, my wife and partner in everything. In addition to conceiving many of the fundamental elements, she also came up with the name, which captures the spirit and shape of the project beautifully.

Like my email series Life in Septuple Time, which I described in my third post, Terrarium seeks smaller community, more trust. But whereas my email series is still a form of social media because it’s about broadcast—one person (me) posting outward to a group—Terrarium is, instead, about the group itself. A Terrarium group has a leader who invites the members and serves as coordinator and host. That person’s presence helps to build trust among those who may not already know one another. But the group is not about that person; it’s about the gathering of co-equal members in active dialog with each other.

A stacked hexagonal twists tessellation

A Terrarium group is six people. Their interaction creates a seventh point of energy, the fire at the center, the unique energy and collective insights of that particular group. (Image by Kerstin via Flickr)

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people.

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people. And unlike most social media, including my email list, the process relies on full participation from every member of the group. Here is what Erin Jeanette, my Terrarium co-creator, has to say about the reasons for this:

Group relating, even in its in-person form, is a strange and unwieldy beast. But group relating online…oh, boy! Here’s how I see it: There are some basic ways we ‘show ourselves’ to a group—we say something, we show up, we are silent, we are absent. All of these are valuable communications. In in-person groups, the latter two (silence and absence) are often as evident as the first two (speech and presence). In online relating, silence and absence are still powerful communicators, but it is difficult to notice or mark them in the same way. Consider this—if you had a backyard barbecue and one of your friends lurked outside your garden gate, staring at everyone intently but not coming in, you would notice. It would probably prompt you to ask some questions, both about that person and about you and your barbecue. Yet, on Facebook, people lurk outside your barbecue all the time—that might be the majority of what they do, in fact—but it is harder to mark this and consider its meaning and impact. Some of my contributions to this project are structural and procedural, and are motivated by my desire to invite those shadow-side communications, absence and silence, back into the purview of an explicit meaning-making process.

Terrarium works because it is highly structured. Small-group interaction online is already in the zeitgeist lately, with many people leaving newsfeed-based social media to interact more via Facebook Messenger, SMS group text, WhatsApp, you name it. Even Facebook is re-orienting its main interface around smaller groups. Although small is better, it isn’t, on its own, magic. Even small groups, without deliberate practices and methods to guide them, tend toward the sporadic and superficial. When it comes to getting deep thinking done as a group, grownups need structure. Two places where structured small-group discussion already happens on the internet are in online education (42-page rubric, anyone?) and the small online bible study groups in some megachurches. (No surprise that both arose in communities that value learning and discernment.) But these two types of small group cover limited kinds of content: the course subject matter, the scripture.

By contrast, in Terrarium the topics of discussion are wide open. A Terrarium group can tackle whatever issues or questions its members choose (for example the boundary between fake and real that we are exploring in the group this month) and they can draw material from any source. The topics that tend to interest Erin and me are those with many sides—social, political, artistic, aesthetic, scientific, ethical—all subjects that can become dangerous when some facets are negated or neglected. Or, a Terrarium group could take up a complex problem facing an organization or multi-stakeholder project. Terrarium is a vessel, ready to be filled with the ideas, the cares, and the aspirations of those in a particular group.

Terrarium’s structured process has two core aspects: There is a steady, regular rhythm to all interactions, and that rhythm is very slow. In Terrarium the communication moves, as my partner Erin puts it, “no faster than the speed of human relating.” Joining a Terrarium group means committing to one brief reading and writing task per week, for a pre-set number of weeks. We start with a prompt: two or three pieces of writing, music, or visual art that ignite a theme or topic. Then we each react and respond to each other, following a carefully laid out schedule. We follow the principle that ritual, method, structured practices—liturgies, therapy sessions, rehearsals, classes, and so on—set special conditions where special kinds of thinking and human relating can take place.

Convenience and access are also key.

Convenience and access are also key. Terrarium members can complete their reading and writing task anytime during the week, from any handy device. We are using Trello with its free, user-friendly website and mobile app, though other platforms could work too.

All the other specific details of the Terrarium process (please reach out to me to learn more) also serve to reinforce that slow regular rhythm. For example one unusual detail of the Terrarium process, borrowed from online education, is that all responses are hidden until a designated day and time each week, whereupon they all become visible to the whole group at the same moment. This gives each person the time and space to think their own thoughts without influence from whoever would otherwise have happened to post their response first.

A Spherical Conversation

So, what does it feel like to participate in a Terrarium group? To me, the conversation feels three-dimensional, spherical, like a glass terrarium; the ideas seem to spread outward in all directions. Every thought someone expresses stays present and active within the group’s consciousness. This contrasts with more typical discussions, both online and off, where a linear thread dominates, pushed forward by the more forceful personalities and the more attention-grabbing ideas, while ideas that are less immediately compelling—though often just as valuable—are left aside. How many times have you been in a conversation waiting to present your thought, and by the time you have a chance to speak the topic has moved on?

This inclusive, three-dimensional quality of Terrarium can feel overwhelming. When each set of individual responses is revealed, all six at the same moment, we find that each writer has gone in their own imaginative direction, drawing diverse ideas into the sphere. As a reader it is hard to take them all in, precisely because ideas have not become lost or sidelined; it’s not easy to keep so many things in one’s mind in order to prepare one’s own next response to the group. (There is no obligation to respond to every idea that has been raised, but I personally feel a desire to address as many as I can.)

That added effort is the point. Pondering all these ideas at once and plenty of time to do it, with no one forcing one’s attention toward one idea or another, helps seemingly disparate thoughts connect in one’s mind in unexpected ways, yielding surprising insights. Then, further along in the process, there is a mechanism for reining the conversation back in as a group, to refocus the group understanding via slow consensus-building—perhaps ending up in very different places than any of us expected.

Random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus.

Terrarium’s regular rhythm also improves focus, permission and sharing. In the current internet’s infinite web of nodes and spokes, each pulse of energy—a post, a comment, a share, an email, a blog, a news item—fires at a random moment in the day, rarely predictable. That’s why we use alerts and notifications. But those random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus. This is why I gave my email series Life in Septuple Time a steady beat in 7/8 time, with emails arriving only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, always at 6am. Terrarium likewise follows a steady, scheduled beat. You don’t need notifications when you know exactly when each communication will arrive. Then, at the moment in which you make yourself vulnerable by sharing, you already have the welcome and permission of the group. Your contribution is expected, on schedule; you are not interrupting anyone. Your reward is the true attention of the group. Rather than sending your energy out into the frenzied cacophony of a busy street, you send it into your peaceful back garden.

So. The Terrarium process cultivates depth, self examination, complexity, and nuance. It helps group members sustain equal interest in candor and civility, and to discern the boundaries between productive and destructive honesty. Terrarium brings the benefits of the small group, the ancient home base of human interaction, to the internet, to overcome the barriers of distance and schedule. It’s a structured home in which to build relationships and carry on deep conversations with anyone, anywhere.

Looking Ahead

There are a few options and questions we hope to explore as we continue. Although Terrarium is an online process, it can serve as a parallel online component for in-person groups like choirs and business teams. I believe such groups often lack a place to have certain difficult conversations, to seek understanding in ways that are not possible in person. A Terrarium group can also be closed or open—either remaining completely private to its six members, or finding ways to share insights and materials with others outside the group.

In the future, I imagine a large network of these tiny six-person groups. Terrarium can bring people together from anywhere in the world around a given topic of inquiry, whether or not they already know each other. Groups can remain very small but could be interconnected, for example via individuals rotating from one group to another, getting to know each new group deeply before moving to the next. In a large network like this, ideas and learning would gradually pass from one group to another, spreading insight and knowledge across broad swaths of society.

An Apis florea nest closeup image (showing linked hexagonal structures).

A beehive of interconnected six-sided groups. (Apis florea nest closeup image by Sean Hoyland via the Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid.

Another important question is artist compensation. In my first post I left aside the question of salary, like the one Bach was paid in Weimar for his work as a composer. If art flourishes within an online community like Terrarium, I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid. So far, it feels more like those free Friday-night telephone party-line concerts 100 years ago. But I believe that the organic nature of the art-making in Terrarium, and the felt need for art within such a community, will eventually lead, as the project expands, to the kind of funding needed to support professional art-making.

Finally (for now), if Terrarium communities exist entirely online, then the model of live encounter with art—seeing visual works, hearing aural ones—becomes complicated. Real-time musical performances over the lines can work, like those rural telephone party lines circa 1904, or radio, or today’s live-streamed concerts. Digital images can be vivid. But what kinds of music, what kinds of visual art, thrive best and most naturally on the web? Will visual art created digitally work better than reproductions of paint on canvas? Will recordings of live music satisfy? Do we need to rethink the experience of listening within such online communities, and even the kind of music that works well? There is an excellent article about this on NewMusicBox.

Why We Need This

I am on a mission to help find better ways to build community online—partly out of a sense that we need better communities, and partly from my feeling that with these better communities comes a beautiful new place where artistic creation, including musical composition, can grow. Recall that farmer in 1904:

With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.

Those words beautifully capture the value of the internet, too. The hope I have tried to express in these four NewMusicBox articles this month is that we, like those farmers, will roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves using the simple tools available, instead of relying on big companies whose actions are often guided by incentives other than helping regular people to form genuine connection and community.

For me, new music sometimes feels like that old farm before the telephone came along. We have the internet but we are relying on social media, which is a massive misuse of the internet. Our musical work is the gorgeous farmhouse, the barn, the silo, the fields, the brook, the smell of cut grass, sunset on the creaky porch. But it is also the abandoned wreck, the leaning structure that cannot bear its own weight, the property for which it sometimes feels that there may just be no new use.

Audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other.

Despite all the outreach efforts we in the arts make, audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other. Too many composers, myself included, work in abstraction and isolation, telling ourselves our work has inherent value and that an audience—by which I think we mean a community—will materialize if our music is good enough. I don’t think it works that way; that is not how artists and audiences truly connect. With many lovely exceptions, most of what we musicians in the new music community create reaches other musicians more than it reaches ‘lay’ listeners. We don’t speak often or urgently enough outward, from within the circle of our new music community, to the lay people who might value and love what we create.

A fundamental reason for this problem is, I believe, that there is currently an “in” and an “out” at all. At its most connected and vital, art is the nourishment that flows naturally and easily within an ongoing community where artists coexist with those who do not specialize in a given art, but who appreciate it. Think once more of that village baker in olden times, handing a precious piece of craftsmanship from one human to another, fulfilling a direct need: I made this. For you. This is the elemental interaction in which art plays its greatest role and shines its brightest. It is the quality I feel in writing this new piece, a Lament for Climate Change, for my Terrarium group this summer. This kind of interaction happens, of course, in everyday life in many ways. But our world of organized art-making seems to have come unglued from that core interaction.

I want to reclaim that simple act for new music. I think it’s time for us to get out our old telephone wire, rig up the internet in ways that work best for regular people, and bring the party back to this old farm. Not for a concert once in a while to hear a precious song or two, but to come and live and work and learn together every day, communing around big, vital topics that concern us all. Then, on a Friday night, we can make noise together, musicians and non-musicians side by side, all warming ourselves at the same fire.

Let’s capture and cherish whatever independence and humanity we still can, and ensure that artistic creation and encounter keep a place at the center. That’s what my Life in Septuple Time email series is about. It’s what this Terrarium project is about.

Terrarium is just beginning. If you’d like to join or lead a Terrarium group, or learn more about what we’re doing, please reach out to me. I could not be more excited to see where this can go.

I made this. For you. Anyone. Anywhere. No barriers. Everyone is welcome.

Life in Septuple Time: A Composer Opts In to a Different Sort of Social Media

A street at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on which I calendar grid has been painted showing people walking through various days

In my first post, I presented three vignettes—Bach’s job composing for the Weimar court, a village baker, and a playground designer—as ideal visions of the artist in community. In the community I imagine, artist and audience interact at a small, human scale around shared meaning that goes beyond the art itself. This allows art to grow organically within an environment that already needs it and therefore naturally fosters it and imbues it with meaning. In my second post, I argued that the internet is a good place for this kind of community—if we abandon social media as we know it, and create new, better platforms and processes for building community online.

Alternative social media platforms like Vero and MetaFilter offer something more human-centric and less dangerous than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Likewise, email listservs and small-group communication like SMS group text chat can be useful, though often dysfunctional. But I have not found an option that fits what I need and what I believe others need, particularly as artists helping to build culture-sustaining communities. So in this post and the next one I will present two related experiments I am undertaking, both seeking in different ways to create high-quality, high-trust, human-centric, art-incubating communities on the internet.

The first of these two initiatives, Life in Septuple Time, is a small-scale, private, peaceful social media space I am creating, centered around a thrice-weekly email I send to a limited list of friends and colleagues, with an option for group discussion using Trello software. This project, I hope, points to better ways we can do social media—in small groups with a high degree of trust, made by and for users with simple tools we control ourselves, without the advertising and algorithms that distort context and control, on our behalf, who sees what we share and how we understand each other.

Toward a Better Social Media

I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it).

In my previous post I was defiant about the evils of social media. But I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it). I have a lot of ideas and thoughts to share, and I love learning from other thoughtful people online. Also, I worried about my composerly life. Don’t we composers need to be present on social media these days? Isn’t this one of the vital ways we artists are supposed to reach our audiences? Despite these concerns, it felt good and necessary to leave the Big Social Media platforms. But rather than retreat to a world limited by physical place (as rich in meaning and connection as that can be), I resolved to seek another way to form community online—something better, something human-centric and free from coercion, something owned and operated entirely by human beings whose motives are connection, art, and meaning.

The other thing I abandoned was my good old professional email newsletter, another staple of the composerly life. I typically sent one every six months or so, to many friends and colleagues, with announcements about current projects and upcoming premieres. I received warm responses and it was a nice way to keep in touch with people occasionally. But it had begun to feel empty. It was a big list, including many people I barely knew, whom I had met only in passing. I knew that my newsletter was one of a multitude of similar ones that each person received. And whenever I announced a premiere, only a handful of those on my list lived anywhere nearby. I began to see that my newsletter failed to convey the ongoing story of my work and the things I cared about, the thinking process and context that fed and gave rise to the music I announced in each email, the things that give my work meaning. Without that, I felt more and more that these emails had little real impact, either for myself or my audience.

I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication.

And then there was the subtle sense of coercion I felt in my email newsletters. Though I would send each email with a note that the recipient was welcome to unsubscribe, and I was scrupulous in responding to those requests, the whole practice of publicizing my work this way began to feel like an arm-twist. Unsubscribing from a large company’s marketing email is not hard, but unsubscribing — having to take an action that says “I don’t want to hear from you” — from that nice guy you met at a conference… that’s harder. I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication. If a recipient wanted not to receive my email, I was asking them to confront me with their disinterest, or imagine themselves into a space where I was a faceless spammer. These kinds of emotional and interpersonal gymnastics are not good for our souls.

So with Big Social Media and my email newsletter gone, what in the world was I going to do, as a composer who wants to share his work with others — and composing aside, as a person who wants to interact and share with friends spread far and wide? In my search for alternatives, I was inspired by the model of daily email blogs like Composers Datebook and Seth Godin’s blog. These emails arrive first thing every single day, and each is very short. It’s a format that works well for me as a reader; these are the newsletters I tend to read and remember, the ones I move to the hallowed “Primary” tab in my Gmail inbox. Another trend and model that has been in my mind is the move many people are making away from large-scale social media and toward private, small-group interaction via group text chat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and similar. (Facebook is on-trend in planning to move its design toward private, small-group interaction. That would be great if their entire business model were not so harmful. I’ll be staying away.)

As I planned this new project, I had three goals:

First, I wanted my group of recipients to be small. I was intrigued by Seth Godin’s concept of seeking the “minimum viable audience.” Instead of trying to reach as many people as possible, however superficially, I wanted to seek a smaller group, for a greater chance of connecting deeply. This feels like the opposite of the goals that guided my old efforts.

Many platforms tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Second, I wanted the project to be private, with no public web presence and no possibility of popping up on a web search. Again, this is the opposite of the goals of a traditional blog, with its public URL, seeking to reach as many readers as it can, to be findable in as many ways as possible. Writing platforms like Medium or Substack tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Third, it was important to minimize coercion as much as possible, to proceed with the fullest attainable permission and active acceptance of those who participated. Instead of showing up at someone’s email inbox with my composer party and saying, “Please ignore me or throw me out if you’re not interested,” I would start by assuming disinterest and then ask people to opt in. This would be a party held at my house, with an invite and RSVP. “Let me know if you want to come, and if I don’t hear from you, you need not worry about my party descending on your mental space.” Of course, any invitation from one human to another might inherently carry a hint of obligation, but I would take pains to make clear that this was truly at-will and optional.

My Experimental Solution

With all that in my mind, I sat down in early May and made a list of everyone I knew, and set about narrowing it down. I thought about my relationship with each person and the kinds of things I wanted to share. I tried not to ask myself the traditional questions a composer might in trying to publicize his work. Instead, I asked a human question (but one that has deep impact on art-making): How personal and vulnerable do I feel I can be with this person? At the end of this painstaking process I had only forty percent of the original list.

I sent that much smaller group an email invitation. I told them I was leaving social media, where many of them followed my posts, and ending my old email newsletter that many of them had received. I invited them to my new email series, saying that I would send short emails three times a week, and that if they wanted to join me they would have to actively opt in by replying to say “yes.”

I also shared some of the themes and interests I planned to discuss in my emails, including:

  • How the modes of communication we use drive what we think and do, as much as the content of our communication.
  • How the technology we use (any tool) affects the meaning of our creative work in tricky ways.
  • What is art for? No seriously, what is it for?
  • Democratizing creative work: whys and hows (drawing from my composition teaching).
  • Creating useful things for other people, and witnessing them being used, is a core human need. When not met, it can cause deep pain.
  • Is it possible for an idea, a person, or a group to achieve broad cultural impact by being nice, by truly and completely avoiding the denigration of some other idea, person, or group?
  • Computers will never think like people, but as they get smarter they can serve us as powerful tools to help us in our human-style thinking and creativity.

In an email-averse world, I did not think many people would want three emails each week, even short ones. But people said “yes!” And in much bigger numbers than I had expected — over half of those I had invited accepted my invitation. It felt confirming to receive those “yeses,” and because I had already narrowed the list to a small number, the ending total — about twenty percent of my starting list — did not feel like too many for my goal to stay small. I have chosen not to give the exact number, with its whiff of “how many social media followers do you have?” I think many people, including myself, are sensitive to how many social media connections other people have, and how many contacts in general. Knowing these numbers invites comparison and, potentially, feelings of envy or pity. When I have mentioned my rather average number of Facebook friends to others, sometimes they say “wow that’s a lot” a little wistfully — but just as often I have seen people with many times more than I have. These numbers feel meaningless because they depend on how one seeks and accepts friends; some people limit their list to people they know well, others keep a broader list. If someone else were to start an email series like mine, I would not want them to be comparing the numbers. Perhaps a larger or smaller number suits them. What is important to me in this project is the relationship I have with each person, and the kind of communication and community I want to foster.

Those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in.

It’s also important that those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in. When someone chose not to participate, I was a little sad. (I’m only human.) But I was also glad because it meant, to me, that my plan was working, that the trust was strengthened. If there were a sense of obligation or coercion beyond my initial invitation, it would change what I chose to share, the way I could talk to people, and the way they would hear me, even what they would hear. So I am deeply grateful to my opt-outs. (Of course, the party continues and they are always warmly invited to drop by.)

Perhaps the best part of the experience, so far, is that many people have told me that they are not only interested in reading my email content, they are also interested in the project as a project. They see that it is an experiment in communication and they want to witness it and find out how it feels to be part of it. Many have told me that they would love to do something similar, to share their own thoughts and work with their own group. Already, a good friend who is on my list has begun a similar email series with the same opt-in “yes” requirement. The single proudest moment so far was when he cited my email series, in the invitation he sent, as part of his inspiration for starting his own. The more who do so—the more my experiment invites others to share their honest and vulnerable selves with trusted others—the happier I’ll be.

If it Ain’t Got that Swing… Life in Septuple Time

One more important element: I wanted my project to have an interesting rhythm and a steady beat. I have talked a lot here about social relationships and communication dynamics. But I am a composer, and I know how important rhythm is to our experience of the world. This is not just for fun (though it is fun, I think) — it’s important because of the way it affects my readers’ experience of my emails. If each email is predictable, if you can tap your foot to them, then each encounter feels calmer and more welcome, less of an interruption. Because everyone involved—the whole ensemble—can feel the beat, knows when it will land.

The daily email blog model, sending a short email every single day, felt too monotonous (a 365/4 time signature?), and I thought it would be too much to handle both for me and my readers. So I decided it should go out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, first thing in the morning always at the same time, 6am. I sent this to those on my list:

MWF makes the schedule easy to remember, and I like the spiky rhythm it gives to our 7-day week: 2 days, 2 days, 3 days; 7/8 time, two short beats and then a long, count it out loud 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, easy breezy like this …Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance.

We already live life in septuple time, week by week. I wish every week were as fun as that Dave Brubeck song, and I hope my emails will add a gentle off-kilter beat to your weeks.

Let’s call this project: Life in Septuple Time.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week, sharing ideas on the themes I mentioned above. Topics range from geometric cuts I made in a slice of watermelon, to dilemmas I struggle with, to announcements of the latest premieres of my music. The people on my list respond to me individually by email to share related ideas, to offer their opinions or reactions to what I shared. It’s like a private blog with active commenting.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week.

With these guiding elements working together, my hopes for this project have been fulfilled so far. It’s so much better than anything I experienced on social media or with my old email newsletter. I reach people now. They read what I write. They might skip a day or a week, and that’s fine. What matters is that I have their permission and their attention. My community learns about me as an artist, and I learn about them — their lives, their needs, and what concerns they want our shared art to address. I can weave an ongoing story they can follow, make their own sense of, and respond to. It feels analogous to what I do as a composer, a sort of ongoing composition-in-email (in 7/8 time of course), which in turn fosters my musical composition. (I still announce my premieres and publications.)

Trello as Private Social Media Platform

As I knew I would, I soon began to crave discussion not just between me and each individual, but between these wonderful people I had gathered. I wanted group interaction and sharing, a sort of… what shall we call it… a media that is social. A better social media, without the intermediaries of advertisers and algorithms controlling who sees what. (It might seem a bit odd, because it’s a social media centered around me. I ask my list to suggest topics for me to write about, but mostly they have been happy for me to share my thoughts as I please).

I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out.

And so, I looked for an online platform that felt peaceful, where people could comment but where the layout and pace could be measured and relaxed. I settled on Trello, the popular project-management software. I invited those on my list to join me on the Life in Septuple Time Trello board, and about a quarter of them have joined (the rest opt to participate by email only). It has become a lovely private online community, by and for its participants, hosted by a human (me), no data gathering or algorithms needed. I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out. When someone comments, then I know they’re there — not because I gathered data on them and encroached on their personhood, but because they exercised their humanity and free will to let me know they are present.

Our Trello board for Life in Septuple Time looks like this. Each card is one of my MWF emails. People comment in the cards and chat with each other. I use colored labels to track the themes (mentioned earlier) that we cover in each discussion card.

The Trello board for Life in Septuple Time

Some Questions

What does success look like for a project like this? Does such a thing scale up? Can it? Should it? If I am not seeking a larger audience, where does this go next? What are the goals?

If I get to know a thoughtful person who wants to join, I am glad to add them. (The point is trust, not smallness for its own sake.) But my main goal, my hope, is that more people will start their own projects like this, tailored to suit them. It doesn’t have to be done the way I’ve done it, for example the MWF rhythm might be too frequent, or not frequent enough. The friend I mentioned who has started his own email list is doing it on a once-weekly basis, not thrice weekly like mine.

There are many friends whose thoughts I would gladly receive in a similar mode. I dream of a series of Trello boards (or some other suitable platform) each containing the universe of one friend’s thoughts and interests which I could follow and visit. Sounds like Facebook? On the surface, perhaps. But fundamentally, it’s a different orientation and feeling. I keep bugging my list, encouraging others to start their own series like this. I’ll join them all.

Piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms.

Would there eventually be too many to keep up with? Maybe, but unlikely. Many of the people on my list have told me they don’t want to broadcast in this way, that being in the audience feels just fine. Keeping the series going, keeping the beat steady, is much more involved than posting on Facebook, more like running a blog. It’s a commitment. Others have told me they are interested in trying something similar, but they don’t have the time. So maybe it could be more like Facebook, where everyone piles in and competes for attention! Let’s fire up some algorithms to drive engagement! Ha. To me, that piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms. So, asking for real: How could everyone who wants to do so produce such a thing, all those whose lives are too busy or otherwise impeded? And if there got to be many of these invitations, how could everyone keep up with everyone? I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I’m working on it and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

One more question for now: How will I become the World-Famous Composer I clearly deserve to be, if I stop broadcasting my work to lots of people? How will anyone know about my work if I ditch big email newsletters and avoid all mainstream social media platforms? If I instead share my thoughts privately with only a few people? Isn’t that just me, um, having friends? What happens to my Big Composer Dream?!? I hope you can hear the wink in my questions.

Fame starts small if it starts at all.

I have answers, and without the wink. First, I have my good old composerly website. It maintains a professional public presence, and people use it to purchase music for performance. Much more important, however, I’ve learned—slowly—that fame starts small if it starts at all. If my music inspires a few people and they pass it on to someone else, then perhaps someday down the line I might gain influence and reputation. But that secondary stage is… secondary. I haven’t done the first part yet, until now. I always thought I was doing it, but I wasn’t. And it’s already giving me at least 80% of the joy that fame would offer, possibly 101%. Because the joy lies in connecting with others in a genuine way.

A group of people standing in the middle of the street taking photos of oncoming vehicles.

The “Manhattan Solstice,” when the sunset aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. Viewed from West 79th Street & Columbus Avenue. (Photo by Robinson McClellan)

Not Far Enough Yet

So. My email series Life in Septuple Time tackles some of the problems with online interaction that I feel. But it’s still social media, in the sense that it primarily involves one person broadcasting outward to a group. I hope I am doing it in a healthier, more positive way than it was possible to do using Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. But ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community. That’s why I added the Trello board as a miniature private social media space for those on my email list. It’s great, and I will keep doing it, but it’s still just broadcast, and it’s only Phase One of the larger plan I have in mind.

Ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community.

Here’s what I ultimately crave: small, co-equal groups that include art-markers serving those who are happy to be their audience, a group gathered around shared meaning bigger than the art itself, where learning and art can grow organically. Next target: reshaping the broadcast structure of social media to create something quite different. This brings us to the second initiative I am co-creating, Terrarium, which I’ll talk about it in the next post. Stay tuned!

The Internet is Great, We’re Just Not Using it Right

An array of twelve flowerpots with budding plants

Americans idealize what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas,” a space where every member of society is, by right, free to peddle his creed. Yet the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries. We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard.

—Tim Wu in The Master Switch

In my first post I proposed that the internet provides fertile soil to grow intimate, genuine communities and to foster a connected, organic kind of art-making within such communities. I want to talk more about how important the internet is to this vision, and why.

The internet is great. We’re just not using it right.

We don’t need digital detox.

We don’t need digital detox. Or more accurately, we do need a detox, but we have misidentified the toxin. Interacting online is not inherently poisonous, and online interactions are no less meaningful than talking face to face. Different, yes, but just as valuable. If we experience problems relating to each other online, I believe it’s because we’re doing it wrong.

To my mind, there are two main challenges facing us in our interactions and communities on the internet: The first is the overwhelming amount of choice. The second is the ubiquity and malignancy of the big social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We can solve the choice problem. And we can abandon — note that I say abandon, not reform or regulate — the social media platforms which dominate and poison our online experience. Then we can begin reclaiming better ways to interact online and building new ones, as I will discuss in the next two posts. If we do these things, I think the internet can be a much happier place.

A collage of cards on each of which is printed a single word:

Image by Gerd Altmann (Geralt) via Pixabay

Choices, Choices!

A serious problem with the internet is that it opens the door to so much wonderful information and friendship that it makes it harder to choose. This is solvable if we are tough and honest with ourselves, and with each other, about making choices and saying ‘no.’ If the internet shows us more stuff, but we commit to saying ‘yes’ only to that which our human minds can successfully and fully attend, it means saying ‘no’ to more. It’s painful to live with the knowledge that there are amazing things we will never know about because we have said no. But I believe we must each be bold and proud about being choosy. If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

I try to practice what I preach. The main news I read regularly is The Economist (because it feels centrist and I like the dry humor). Even the one magazine is too much information for my poor brain — I barely get through each week’s issue (I’m currently three weeks behind). I also follow the RSS feeds of a few blogs and news sources, but I usually skip The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all the rest of them. So I miss out on things. It’s painful but it feels good to make these hard necessary choices, because it means that for what I do take in, I can attend to fully. To be fully engaged, to sit down and have a good meal, feels so much better than to taste from a continuous stream of samples, none of which stay long enough for me to be nourished.

amanita phalloides (young)

Two young specimens of amanita phalloides, commonly known as “the death cap,” which is perhaps the world’s most poisonous mushroom. (Photo by Stanislaw Skowron from the Wikimedia Commons)

Toxic! Wait, Social Media is Not the Internet

Many people spend most of their internet time on social media, so it is easy to conflate the two. Social media is literally embedded in our online experience — those three familiar little icons for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on nearly every web site, every brochure and sign. But these platforms are not the internet itself. Far from it.

From 2006 until earlier this year, I was a steady Facebook user (I was also on Instagram and Twitter but didn’t post much). In the past few years I have disliked these platforms more and more. Lovely interactions take place, but overall, it didn’t feel good. I have been reading books by Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu and others about the harmful effects of the ad-based business model behind Facebook (including Instagram), Google, and Twitter. The business model depends on controlling our behavior and thinking for the benefit of their only paying customers, the advertisers. The structure of the underlying design bends our interactions toward the nasty and superficial, because these are the most profitable for advertisers. I don’t like being used. I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

So for me, and I believe for many, the internet is drastically happier when we stay off social media. It’s important to know what’s a toxin and what’s a carrier. When possible we don’t dispense with contaminated water, we root out the contaminant. We refresh the stream. I recently left all mainstream social media, and I know many others who have left. I am hoping for a mass exodus.

I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

Perhaps influenced by these problems of too much choice and manipulative social media, many mistrust the internet as a whole. You’ll hear people say things like: “Interacting online is great, but if you want to really connect with someone it’s better in person.” Certainly, there is no replacement for sitting across from a warm human being, from sharing one’s time and one’s life with living, breathing people. And there are pitfalls to written communication, times when it’s better to talk it out in person or over the phone, as you’ll know if you’ve ever sent an email when you’re angry.

But at the same time that we collectively misuse and underestimate the internet, I think we overestimate in-person interaction.

A raven with a key in its mouth sits atop an empty open birdcage on a shoreline from which a dove is seen flying away and a balloon is also visible in the distance.

Image by Ria Sopala (pixundfertig) via Pixabay

Physical Place is Exclusive

We may not notice the ways in which being together, face to face, is limited, exclusive, and shuts out possibility. Anyone too far away is left out. And by too far away, we often mean away from the place where ‘the’ discussion is happening, too far from centers of privilege. Those with physical and mobility limitations are left out of in-person relating more than those without them usually notice. Those whose lives are busy with family and work obligations are often left out. And those who are paid less for their work often need to work more hours to support themselves, and so have fewer free hours for face-to-face relating. People who earn less can be disproportionately left out.

Even when physical presence is possible, in-person interactions are exclusive by personality and communication style. Interacting face to face favors the neurotypical and those whose speech is typical and fluent, while those with different social skill sets are often left out of the discussion. Highly structured discussion methods can help with these problems, but you can see where I’m going. In-person relating can be great, but it’s not automatically better.

The Internet Can be a Profound and Joyful Place

On the internet, different dynamics exist. Not lesser or better, but different and, I believe, equal. Online communications — when handled with care — offer a remedy to the exclusivity of in-person interactions.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person. Different kinds of people shine forth and different kinds of conversations take place. The online world used to be more exclusive than the face-to-face world because access to internet-enabled devices was limited. But that is quickly changing. Over half of the globe, at many economic levels, can text, chat and watch videos on their phones (a blessing in places where literacy rates are low) — more all the time. It’s almost as easy for someone in Philadelphia to chat with someone across town as in rural Africa (where, despite setbacks, internet access is growing rapidly… Facebook is trying to help with that, but for mostly the wrong reasons). When such connections prevail, two people very different in experience and perspective can, potentially, learn in fresh and valuable ways from each other.

Young uniformed Ugandan students sitting in front of computer terminals.

A solar computer class in a rural community in the Mukono District of Uganda sponsored by the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organization and the Maendeleo Foundation Uganda. Additional information about this initiative is available on a 2014 blog post by Robert Kibaya, Executive Director and Founder of the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organisation. (This above photo is reproduced here with the permission of Kibaya and Asia Kamukama, Executive Director of the Maendeleo Foundation.)

For some, online interaction will never feel, or be, equal to talking in person. I don’t seek to convince anyone to give up what they love for something they don’t trust or enjoy. But I think there is an undue bias against online communication, reinforced by the flawed forms of it that currently dominate our consciousness, and maintained by the fact that most forms of in-person exclusivity are hard to notice.

It might sound overstated to say that chatting by text can be just as good as chatting in person (though different). But this is not a radical argument, it’s a conservative one. It’s about reclaiming ancient and fundamental forms of human relating — meaningful, intimate conversations, old-fashioned communities — and pushing our technology forward to do this better, online. It’s about using some of the earliest and simplest online tools like email and discussion forums and blogs, things that already work well, and seeking new ways of using them, as well as new methods and tools, that might work even better.

So I believe that if we find better ways to use the internet, then more people can enjoy more and better conversations. With more people. Of more kinds. In more places. With people they could otherwise never reach. They can form friendships they could not have otherwise. These friendships can coalesce into communities that can help make the world a better place. This is already happening, and it needs to happen more.

My Life is Better Because of the Internet

The network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide.

All this comes directly from my own long-time experience. Both professionally and personally, the network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide. First, there’s my family: after college I moved across the country from where I grew up; not an uncommon thing for my demographic. So common, in fact, so normalized, that the pain of it is often overlooked. There was a real loss there, a lack of being part of one another’s lives. But I barely registered the emotional toll consciously until years later. Technology has helped. Texting has brought us closer, video calls mean my toddler can picture the new toy his grandparents got for their cat yesterday. The internet doesn’t fix the separation, but it heals it partway.

The internet has also been at the center of my creative and employed life. I worked for a tech company for eight years remotely. I build online courses with a friend and colleague on the opposite coast. In those cases, I meet in person once in a while with my colleagues, and it’s fun and it deepens the bond. But the relationship thrives primarily online.

My work that happens entirely online is just as deep, demonstrating what I think the internet is good for: equality of access and greater connection and community. I worked on the team that created The Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online, where my daily tasks were highly tactile: I sat in the Morgan’s vault, paging through Mozart and Schumann manuscripts to capture their often confusing pagination for those who could not, like me, see them in the flesh. It’s the best of the internet: connection, democratization, reducing the inherent exclusivity of those physical manuscripts. Yes, the online viewer cannot, as I could, touch the very same paper Mozart had touched (well, not without an appointment and a plane ticket). So there is a loss. But the gain is that they can now have a personal encounter with these composers, and maybe even sense Mozart’s personality in the way he shaped each note.

Robin Muir-Miller

Robin Muir-Miller (1934-2019)

For me, the universe is divided: my little universe of physical proximity and my online universe.

Deep relationships based on written correspondence are as old as pen and paper. The internet can only make this kind of bond easier and more likely. In 2009 I heard from a poet in Australia, Robin Muir-Miller, who had found my compositions on my website. She liked my music, and I liked her poetry. We began exchanging emails about our work and before long we began collaborating as lyricist and composer. Over the course of ten years and many collaborations, we became close friends. She was in her 70s when we met, and confined to a wheelchair by her worsening MS. She became less and less able to read and type on her computer, and she died this past spring. So she was cut off from people physically, and email opened a door. We never met, never even spoke on the phone. It was a relationship between people who would never have met any other way and whose perspectives and interests matched each other unusually closely (despite some heated arguments, from which we both learned a lot). Our collaboration led to the large-scale work This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age, premiered in Toronto in 2010, which is for me one of our best and most important works. I wrote about the piece for NewMusicBox in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

All of these examples are about reducing exclusivity and increasing connection and access. I want the world to lay wide open for every thoughtful soul who wants to participate. For me, the universe is divided: On the one hand my little universe of physical proximity, beautiful environs full of tactile experiences, face-to-face human intimacy, not much commuting or traveling, time freed up for living and being. On the other hand my online universe, a rich tapestry of close friendships, interesting interactions, unexpected confluences, joyful professional and artistic opportunities. My iPhone is a happy place. Everything that happens on it is about learning, creating, and human relating. I don’t need a digital detox.

Numerous cartoon renderings of various people showing lines connecting them all to each other.

Image by Gordon Johnson (GDJ) via Pixabay

Let’s Build Better Tools for Being Human Online

I have two specific goals, and I have launched initiatives to test these goals in practice. I’ll talk about those projects in my next two posts, but here is a bit about the goals.

I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it.

First, I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it. I have left the big social media platforms and I have invited others to join me. But instead of receding to my local corner, hemmed in by physical proximity, I’m looking for a place online for lay people of every sort and from every possible place, experts together with non-experts in any given topic (see Post 1 for more about experts and non-experts), to share and discuss and learn from each other within new communities. Sites like do not fit the bill because they exclude. I appreciate alternative social media options like MetaFilter and Vero, but I want specific qualities that these platforms don’t focus on in the ways I seek. I also want something different from the ways in which listservs and most online discussion forums work. I am looking for communities that are deliberately small (I love that MetaFilter values this too) — in some cases under ten people per group, in other cases perhaps a few hundred. I believe participation must be rooted in values of opting in, mutual free will, disclosure and permission. Communication online also benefits from being highly structured, with timed and scheduled interactions, in the manner of therapy groups and some online education methods. I also think social media and most current online interaction has the wrong rhythm and that this is a serious flaw — I’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.

Second, I’m an artist and, as I discussed in my first post, I seek a model in which art-making is intimate, on a person-to-person to scale. Where art is organic, growing from interactions that are already taking place about something beyond the art itself. Where art is a secondary but vital element within a community that exists for some other purpose. Where art functions by serving to express and teach the values that guide a community.

These two goals support one another. If we can find ways to push the internet forward and away from ad-based social media, then we can use it to reclaim the intimacy and strength of ancient and proven forms of human relating in small groups. When art naturally has something to serve beyond itself, it grows organically and naturally, imbued with the deep meanings of the community context in which it serves. Such art does not need to seek an audience. It has its home before it is made, and is made because it has a home.

Let’s Grow Art Organically in Small Batches

A child wandering around sculptures of hippopotami and a fake rowboat in Central Park's Safari Playground. (photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy)

“On Friday, March 2, 1714, His Serene Highness the Reigning Duke most graciously conferred upon the quondam Court Organist Bach, at his most humble request, the title of Concertmaster” with the duty to “perform new works monthly.” Thus, the Weimar court capelle hired J.S. Bach to compose and present a substantial new church piece every four weeks. For his first piece written on the job, Bach played lead violin.

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.”

For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.” I have always allowed this notion to remain vague in my mind — a rose-tinted ideal in which I would belong to some lovely community, whose purpose was larger than music itself, that would pay me a full-time salary to write music on a weekly or monthly basis. I know, Bach was constantly frustrated with his various employers, and he wasn’t always paid to write music specifically. At Weimar it only happened because he asked for that duty to be included in his contract. So it’s an idealized notion. But there’s something about its essentials, its bare bones, that appeals to me.

I recently sat down to define Bach’s job as precisely as I could, as a thought experiment: Does such a job exist today in some form? Could it, perhaps in some different context? Where do I apply?

Here’s my abstracted definition of Bach’s job at Weimar:

  • an institution/community whose primary purpose is something other than the production or presentation of artistic works, yet devotes a significant portion of its operating budget to pay a permanent full-time salary to an artist;
  • part of this artist’s job is to provide largish-scale creations on a regular and frequent basis as a *service* to the institution;
  • the service is *secondary* to the main purpose of the institution, but important enough to justify the large expense of a full-time salary;
  • the main purpose of this service is to express the communal values of the institution for the benefit and instruction of its members, *internally* (and secondarily for the institution’s reputation within the larger society);
  • Serene Highness not required, but large budget helpful.

Can you think of a job like this, in recent times? I can’t, not in the domains I know. Mainline churches? Organists often create service music, either as written compositions or as improvisations, but the creation of original music itself is not usually a contracted job requirement as far as I know. Maybe some very big churches outside the mainline denominations have salaried positions like this? Non-profit arts sector, or entertainment industry? Nope, per first line of the definition. Internal PR people in large corporate HR departments? Do advertising creatives fit parts of this definition? Possibly higher education, sort of, back in its glory days, if you focus on the non-teaching duties? There’s the U.S. Poet Laureate, but the salary seems like more of an honorarium. The UK has the Master of the Queen’s Music, one solitary composer at a time. Otherwise I’m drawing a blank.

I asked friends and colleagues about this, and the consensus seems to be that while there are many kinds of creative work that share aspects of my definition, there is no job quite like it — particularly the specific requirement to create new art regularly. A friend suggested the most surprising example, and perhaps the closest to my definition of Bach’s job. It’s this guy, the DJ for the Denver Broncos and Nuggets.

Even if you can’t think of a job exactly like this, what comes close? Does such a thing appeal to you — in most or all of those particulars — or is it just me? Please use the comments liberally. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

The remains of J.S. Bach's residence in Weimar.

The remains of J.S. Bach’s residence in Weimar (which, though the full building was mostly destroyed, is the only known surviving residence of J.S. Bach). Photo from the discontinued creative commons photo sharing site Panoramio.

I Made This. For You.

I made this bread.
I made this music.
For you.

A single simple interaction, a direct gift from one human to another. To me that is the creation of music, and many other things, at its best. As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction. I write to fulfill commissions, but often I am still not quite sure who exactly, which specific human beings, I am writing for. As that realization has grown, I feel more and more pain.

As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction.

I am on a mission to recapture that core interaction, that directness. I want to find the specific people I should be writing for, and to listen to them deeply. I want to write for them, to tune my music to their desires and needs and hopes, as specifically as possible.

The Artist in Community: Vignettes to Capture a Notion 

In this post I will explore the notion of Bach’s job further. What is it that makes me want a job like that? For now I will set aside the question of drawing a regular salary for creative work, although that is very important. The aspect of the job that draws me most powerfully is my longing to serve as an artist within a cohesive community, writing music for a purpose larger than the music itself. To get at that quality, here are two additional vignettes or visions that capture a kind of community where I believe art-making can flourish in beautiful ways. I invite you to read each vignette for its own sake but none of the three, including the Bach example, is a complete model on its own. Between them they capture something of the quality of interaction between artist and community that I seek.

Reckoning Desire (a short story)

There’s a short story I adore: Dalet the Thief, from The Book of the Unknown by Jonathon Keats, twelve fables of reimagined Kabbalistic saints ($5 on Kindle).

The story is about a village that has become so rich that no one bothers to practice their trades anymore. Avram the baker, Dov the shoemaker… everyone spends their time showing off expensive trinkets to each other. Dalet the town thief (his job considered vital to the functioning of the village) could be rich too, but he lacks ambition. He doesn’t steal the things people actually want. Gradually, Dalet learns to see the true desires that burn in everything, and then begins to share his newfound knowledge with others.

From my favorite scene, in which Dalet negotiates a deal with the town baker:

Avram added another gulden, and then several more. At last he emptied his purse. But it was like casting stars into sunlight. Poor Avram, his reckoning was all wrong: In matters of desire, no quantity is greater than one.

Soon, taught by Dalet to respond to desire, Avram finds himself baking again. For the first time in years, the scent of fresh-baked bread fills the village, and a long line of neighbors and friends winds to his door.

I re-read this story recently after almost ten years. At the moment when Avram begins to bake, I suddenly broke down in tears. It took me a while to figure out what had prompted those tears: I think it was a longing to connect, as deeply and directly as Avram does, with my own village, with my own small community of people who truly desire what I make. I feel like a wandering minstrel, with no village of that kind to call my own. I don’t think I will find my village until I too, like Dalet and Avram, learn to see the desires burning in those around me — and to respond.

If you read the story, I’d love to know what you think of it.

The cover of the paperback edition of Jonathon Keats's The Book of the Unknown.

A New Playground in Central Park

Our favorite playground was closed all winter for a major renovation. It’s open again now, and it’s glorious. Where we once struggled with clanky structures too high for little kids, we now lounge on rubberized hills you can’t fall off of, and the old embattled hippos look refreshed and ready for action.

The day it reopened, they were still putting on the finishing touches. Two Central Park Conservancy officials were walking around inspecting every detail, directing their crew in the placement of each final shrub, with a care and specificity that made me suspect they had a creative stake in it. They told me they’re landscape architects and that they had co-designed the new playground. It’s their brainchild, their work of art.

My toddler and I were there again later the same day (yep that’s the drill). I recognized one of the landscape architects I’d met earlier, now there in civilian clothes with her own kids. She said she had sat on a bench for a while just watching all the children as they discovered her creation, as they found marvelous ways to enjoy it, some she had planned and some she hadn’t foreseen.

What a lovely moment for an artist, to sit quietly by while one’s newest work brings joy to the humans it was made for.

The Bach example and these two additional examples emphasize a distinction I believe is vital—that the art-making not exist separately, but within a sense of motivation and meaning that holds the community together and that transcends the art itself. As my friend Ishmael Wallace put it, this involves not only artist and audience but a third presence: their union itself.

If the art I create stays too much within a circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

Professional sharing within a given domain, such as new music, is vital; without the support and companionship of fellow composers and performers, I could not have become the composer I now am. But for me, if the art I create stays too much within that circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself. I believe we should find ways for artists and their audiences, two complimentary energies and interests, to interact closely with each other for mutual expansion and learning.

Likewise in every domain, from science to health to economics: not only experts talking to other experts in secret languages, as sustaining and necessary as that is, but also experts talking to lay people, translating and transferring their knowledge constantly and clearly. That helps us all to understand the complex and subtle things of life as far as we’re able, and to make better decisions as a society.

If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself.

I think the relationship of expert to layperson, artist to audience, works well when the expert or artist acts, somewhat like Bach, in the role of servant to the served. In that context the art or subject matter naturally takes on and communicates things of emotional and personal meaning, naturally connects directly with regular, everyday people who themselves do not want to make that thing. While I also believe that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to make art in the domains that inspire them, this does not mean everyone needs to or wants to become a professional in a given domain. I cannot bake an incredible loaf of bread, and it’s not something I feel a passion to learn. But I am grateful to enjoy one made for me by a skilled expert. The more I can connect with other people with a complimentary energy to my own in a given domain — to be the audience to an expert, or to serve as an expert and artist to an audience — the better.

Three different loaves of grain bread from Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy.

Franziskaner-loaf and rye whole-grain tin loaf baked by Franziskaner bakery in Bozen, Italy. (Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash.)

I am excited to find more ways to grow art this way: organically, in small gardens, perhaps without the fertilizers of commissions, fundraising, patronage, or crowdfunding.

I think the relationship of artist to audience, works well when the artist acts in the role of servant to the served.

In all three examples I love how closely the art and its communities are woven around and within each other, the intense bonds between creators and appreciators (and those who are both).​ I long for that kind of community, that kind of integration, where art is not separate.

Let’s Grow Art Online

Where can we find fertile soil to grow art in this way? I think the internet is a good place. If we’re using the internet in the right ways, we can be intimate with each other about things like politics and art. We can learn from those far away and those different from ourselves. We can build friendships with people we would never encounter otherwise. And we can do all this without the often-unseen biases and limitations of access that are imposed by physical place (over half the globe now has regular internet access… not nearly enough but growing quickly). I believe this must happen entirely away from ad-based social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I suspect it works best in online spaces we make and control ourselves, at small scale, using simple tools.

In my upcoming posts I’ll talk about how I believe this can work well, and I’ll present two current projects in which I am beginning to build the kind of online community I have in mind.

Nuclear Introspection: A Cantata for Contemplation

In 2009, I worked closely with Australian poet Robin Muir-Miller to create This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age. The piece blends the rich Old Testament imagery and evocative language of Muir-Miller’s poem “Morning Glory: Radiant Night” (set for tenor and bass soloists and a small group of instruments) with the “O Antiphons,” a series of seven texts that have been sung in churches during Advent for centuries (set for choir). The cantata examines nuclear proliferation in light of some of the deep myths and symbols of Western culture.

In April 2010, the Toronto Choral Artists (Mark Vuorinen, director) premiered the work at the Music Gallery in Toronto. Video footage, plot overview, and a link to more information appear at the conclusion of this article.—RM

Nuclear proliferation has terrified me ever since I was a child. Growing up in the 1980s during the latter stages of the Cold War, I remember the nightmare-inducing specters of nuclear winter, fallout shelters, and radiation sickness. And I once lived through a viewing, at age 8 or so, of that awful movie The Day After.

As I grew older I began to understand nuclear energy’s two-sided nature. The perils of nuclear bombs and accidents are clear, but those same bombs may have prevented the Cold War from becoming hot, and the benefits of nuclear medicine and power are real: one tiny power plant at Indian Point on the Hudson River can provide a third of New York City’s electricity—the scale of that approaches the magical.

Nuclear energy’s inherent two-sidedness led to a series of dilemmas for me, as—I have learned—it has also done for countless others. When I first set out to compose a piece of music about the topic, that double nature baffled me from the start: if my piece simply railed against nuclear energy, that would feel superficial; but I did not intend to promote it, either. I wanted my music to reflect the complexity of the issue, but I felt daunted by it.

In preparing to write the piece I found a book called In Mortal Hands by Stephanie Cooke. Her careful recounting of the history of nuclear energy made clear to me that it represents not only a practical and political dilemma but also an existential and spiritual issue on a truly Biblical scale. To paraphrase one of the Antiphon texts used in the cantata: we have opened something that can literally destroy us, and we can never put it back again. Right here in our own modern, scientific age, we had thirsted for knowledge and were then saddled with the responsibility of new, God-like powers placed suddenly at our disposal to do both good and evil. It reminded me of a very famous story, from a very famous book….And so in our early discussions about the cantata, the poet Robin Muir-Miller suggested using a poem of hers that blends imagery of the Garden of Eden and spreading mushrooms of destruction and grief (see the plot overview below).

Of course Muir-Miller and I were not the first to apply religious imagery to nuclear energy; after all, the first test of a nuclear weapon was called “Trinity.” And Cooke’s recounting of recent history itself sounded Biblical. As her title implies, we mortals carry inherent limitations of perspective, we make mistakes, and we act from a muddle of conflicting primal urges: ambition, safety, curiosity, and so on. Cooke’s harrowing tales of theft, innocent oversight, poor planning, and greed showed me that as mortals we are simply not equipped to handle the immense volubility or vast timeframe of nuclear energy—the waste of which, to take one example, will last for the beyond-Biblical figure of 10,000 generations (that’s a lot of begats), far longer than the very containers we have devised to keep it away from living things.

Armed with a modest understanding of the subject, I tackled the cantata. I worked closely with the poet, whose textual and musical insights helped build a piece with many layers of meaning, imagery, and symbol. Those layers would, we hoped, emulate and reflect the complexity of nuclear energy itself, through a symbolic language that could transcend the more usual kind of practical and political rhetoric. Mark Vuorinen and the Toronto Choral Artists premiered the cantata almost one year ago, and all of us—poet, composer, and performers—experienced a sense of creative accomplishment.

Then, suddenly, the disaster in Japan led me into to another dilemma, deeper than the one I had faced initially in trying to do justice to a complex issue. Despite the cantata’s success, its premiere had occurred in a vacuum. I had hoped it would encourage discussion of the issue, but nuclear issues were not “current” a year ago: it had been a long time since Chernobyl, and although President Obama was talking about a nuclear-free world, the issue was not penetrating the headlines.

Now, with the unfolding horror at Fukushima, a unique opportunity had arrived for this piece to serve, as I had intended, as a spark for contemplation and discussion. But I struggled with the problem: would highlighting my cantata at a time like this seem disrespectful to those who have lost loved ones and who are now living in great fear? I wanted the cantata to foster discussion, but without being callous. I posted the video on Facebook and reminded my friends and colleagues about it—sharing with them my uncertainty—but hesitated to do more. Once again, the complexity of nuclear energy was baffling me.

Gradually, things became clearer to me. There is a fine line between the genuine desire to turn horror to a good purpose and the urge to draw yet more attention to a subject that is already so raw. But as painful as it is, Fukushima presents an opportunity, indeed a responsibility, for each of us to think deeply and hard about what it means to embrace and use nuclear energy. It is not easy, in the course of daily life, to engage in deep, personal, reflective thought on such matters. But I believe that if enough people took on such reflection, it could lead eventually to concrete, life-saving change. (I am not wise enough to know exactly what form that change should take, but I do know that it should unequivocally include the prevention of new disasters—no matter how unlikely an earthquake on the Hudson might seem.)

My cantata offers a way to approach the deeper emotions of the issue from a contemplative perspective, where genuine respect and acknowledgment of present suffering can blend with constructive hopefulness for the future, providing an emotional foundation for future practical efforts to avoid such accidents.

In a year or two, the world’s attention will have moved away from the urgent questions raised by Fukushima, and we will continue with policies that set the scene for future disasters. Therefore I feel that far from showing disrespect, the nature of this cantata and the spirit in which it was created make it a powerful means to show and magnify precisely the deep respect and attention we need at this moment.

I recently learned of the latest way in which the cantata has come up against nuclear energy’s inherent dilemmas. The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, a wonderful choir in Richland, Washington, wants to perform the piece in the famous Hanford B Reactor nearby, alongside related works by Reginald Unterseher and others. The B Reactor was built for the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s and produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. It was shut down in the 1960s and is now in the process of becoming a National Parks site and museum.

The choir has everything in place to perform this healing music in the B Reactor—except permission from the Department of Energy, which oversees the site. Once more, honest mortals are facing nuclear energy’s two-sided nature: should we open ourselves to explore this complex problem more deeply through the arts, or might that merely lead to more confusion, hurt, and conflict? Shall we risk introspection and contemplation, or shall we uphold safety and respect?

The performers and I are now awaiting a decision from the DOE: will they allow a performance of this cantata at such a uniquely meaningful place, and at such a uniquely meaningful time?


This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age

Full video, complete libretto, and audio samples are available here.


Plot Overview and Characters

The cantata begins in the Garden of Eden. Human beings, seeking new knowledge and egged on by our twin the Serpent, create a lawless and unstoppable fungus. The story leads through the ensuing conflagration to utter grief, fused with new understanding and chastened joy.

In Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf, each character has its own distinct instrument and melody: the cat is a clarinet with a slinking melody, Peter is the orchestra’s string section with a joyful romping tune, and so on. This cantata works the same way, though some of the ‘characters’ are actually things or symbols taking active roles in the story.

Here are the six characters/symbols in the cantata and how they define the story, with a few excerpts from Robin Muir-Miller’s poem “Morning Glory: Radiant Night.”

  1. We begin in the original GARDEN of Eden (harp). Muir-Miller’s poem brings us directly into this unthinkably beautiful place:

    Glory’s lavished
    over the shale –
    a gauzed and
    shimmering hush.

  2. In the Garden we meet ADAM (viola), who represents all humankind:

    Adam the dust
    sifts quickening wind
    through his shadowy sighs;

  3. Soon the SERPENT (flute) arrives—Adam’s twin, but more knowing:

    Hissing its wisdom and
    sloughing its wiles,

  4. Together, Adam and the Serpent transgress the Garden’s laws, mutating to become MUSHROOM (french horn), the spreading fungus of nuclear destruction:


    Strains of a murmuring
    fungus explode into
    garish babbling moonblooms.

    of mushrooms
    plunders across
    the planet’s

  5. Mushroom leads resistlessly to all-consuming ARSON (double bass and viola). Where the original Garden once lay, we now find ourselves instead

    In a crimson country garden,
    gashed by a ravishing flashback,
    arson-blossoms rasp and hollow
    the evening’s hallowed aurora.

  6. After destruction comes NEW WISDOM (the choir), the voice of the people. The Old Testament refrain sung earlier by the boy sopranos, “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3), becomes more universal now, sung and played by everyone together: “Our delight shall be in the fear of the Lord; we shall fear the Lord”.

The hope of this cantata is that we will continue to fear, but now more responsibly, like chastened children who have grown up too quickly. We will fear not only God’s destructive potential but also the God-like power we have created for ourselves—we will fear in a profoundly new, profoundly respectful way.

(poem extracts © Robin Muir-Miller)

I am eager for this music, with all of the dilemmas that brought it to life, to spark feedback and discussion. Please write to me at [email protected] with your comments, queries, corrections, and critiques.


Robinson McClellan

Robinson McClellan‘s music is commissioned and performed widely. He has done residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, where he completed this cantata in March 2010. His published scholarly writing is on piobaireachd, a type of Gaelic bagpipe music; this rarely heard music has also been a major inspiration in his creative work. Robin teaches music history, theory, and world music at St. Francis College, Rutgers University, and the Lucy Moses School. In May he will receive his doctorate in composition from the Yale School of Music and Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Robin lives in New York City where he likes to take pictures and walk in Riverside Park.