A Whale’s Lantern: The Oral History of a Musical Collaboration (part two)

This is the second of two parts of a post about an online musical collaboration project known as A Whale’s Lantern that has been taking place on the Mastodon social networking space (part one is here). Musicians are randomly paired up, and asked to create and record original music and songs. Those songs are then pulled together for an album on Bandcamp.

This oral history project took place in a shared document after the first iteration was completed. A second round, with many more musicians, is now underway, with a new album scheduled to be out before the end of April.

Yesterday, the reflections centered on participants first reactions to the call for collaborations and how they made and nurtured connections with their collaborators. Today, we focus more on the making of music, with both the challenges of online connections (where musicians are not in the same physical space) and the possibilities of this kind of creativity.

You can listen to the first album at Bandcamp. Buying a track will support the artists and the federated and open Mastodon network.


Veronica: I linked my old demos to Robert and he liked them, so it was kinda naturally decided to work on one of them.

Matheus: I am usually compose alone, so yeah, I was very afraid of making mistakes and letting my partner down.

Wendy: I had direction of ‘animals from another planet’. C minor and dark. The first track I produced was sounds from my clarinet rather than a song.

Laura: Kevin had the kernel of the song, but it changed and I heard more than he put in that first outline. I wasn’t sure how he would react to having all new lines in the chorus and bridge sections.

Robert: As soon as the stems arrived  … I was with the art.

Laura: What you write can be deeply personal, and collaborating, especially at a distance, requires trust. I am glad Kevin trusted me to sing. That meant more than he could know.

Matheus: I believe I was the youngest of all of the musicians who were involved in the project, so I was worried I would not be able to reach their level of knowledge or skill.

Veronica: For this particular album, it is fair to say that mainly he (Robert) did all the work, giving a slightly different shape to a song that I simply wrote some time ago.

Mascha (collaborating with Matheus): After exchanging a few emails, I sent him a chord progression and some other guitar recordings with effects on them and then, over the course of the project, we both added tracks and parts etc.

Matheus: I let Mascha come up with some of her ideas before I suggested anything. I think that was a wise decision since the first melodies she released were very original and shaped pretty much everything I came up with later on.

Robert: Veronica’s song that most resonated with me was Blueness. My priority was blending supplemental instrumentation in with the initial folk feel of Veronica’s vocals and melodies, to reflect and expand in the mood.

Mascha (with Matheus): We really started from nothing and co-composed the entire song via email and whatsapp, which was a very interesting experience.

Laura: Timing wasn’t really a problem at all. I think for Kevin, not knowing exactly what I’d do with the guitar foundation, it was the waiting, until I returned the next stage of the song.

Mascha (collaborating with Michael):  Michael sent me a few of his song sketches and I chose one to work with. The acoustic guitar part in the song is still from that first sketch. The idea for the lyrics evolved from me reading a  Wikipedia article on the distant future of the universe.

Michael: Mascha had some lines she invited me to add to. I tried to keep as close to the original as possible, but also try to help it to fit the melody and rhythmic pattern of the song that was developing.


Kevin: Every interaction we had was positive, and constructive, and I never felt as if her musicianship overpowered my ideas for the song.

Mascha: Working with Matheus was very pleasant. He’s really good at giving feedback and evolving ideas.

Matheus: Even though she (Mascha) was very busy, she took the time to answer to all my looong e-mails and messages, giving all the feedback I needed. She deserves a medal for having that much patience with me.

Veronica: Robert tried very hard to keep my vision of the song.

Robert: The easiest part was enjoying the process! Veronica’s capturing of moods is refreshing!

Mascha: Since we (Michael and Mascha) started from a lyric-less song that he had already written, the “come up with a song”-part of the collaboration was quite quick.

Michael: Early on, I decided that finishing the song was way more important than pushing any  particular vision of how I thought it should be. I would suggest ideas if asked, but was willing to let Mascha decide what and how she wanted to contribute, and I would make sure keep from complicating the effort .   

Mascha: I think Michael and I have quite different communication styles, so that was a bit difficult to navigate – I’m very happy that we were able to sort things out, though.

Wendy: The easiest part was jumping in and my two collaborators said, ‘sure.’

Veronica: It’s easy to get lost in the communication via text. At one point, I was realising the difficulty of remote collaboration and thinking: “Hell, that would’ve been way easier to explain in person. …Maybe.”

Wendy: The difficulty was the invisibility of my collaborators and the work of others. I had no sense of what other people were working on. Hugh took my first track and did an amazing remix.

Kevin: Articulating what we were hearing in the mixes — in different headphones and speakers, many miles away, in email conversations — is challenging. I think we were open enough and support enough of each other that it all worked out fine.

Laura: The tables would have been turned 180 degrees if I was the one who had written the underlying chords/skeleton. Then I would have felt the pangs of time and distance.

Matheus: Another thing is that I’ve never recorded anything before, so my tempo was off way too often. The last straw was the Udu (which is the main percussive instrument on the song). The problem with the Udu was that, well, I’m not a percussionist, which means I have focus really hard in order to keep the beat flowing.

Robert: The accents on Veronica’s notes are different in nuance than what people often do in my city, and it was refreshing playing the bass line to be tripped up by “wait, this part at the root feels different than what I initially heard it as,” and then staying true to the space and time of the source music.

Michael: If we had developed the foundation melody jointly, I think there would have been a musical communication that developed through the process of  improvisation and negotiation. Since we began from something I already “completed”, the communication and negotiation of a shared vision had to happen in responding to how the other person had changed the song in ways that we didn’t expect, or didn’t match what we thought was “right”.

Matheus:  It was really nice to see the song developing and in the end it became something that wouldn’t be possible if I had tried making it alone. It was a really eye-opening experience and I felt great through the whole process. I would like to thank Mascha for bringing us together and for being such a great partner. I hope to be a part of the next edition of this project! And bravo to all the other artists, who did a wonderful job with each of their songs!

Thanks for reading and for listening. Now, go make some music! Keep an eye out for the second round of songs for A Whale’s Lantern in a few weeks.

Peace (singing it),

A Whale’s Lantern: The Oral History of a Musical Collaboration (part one)


How best to harness a federated networked space like Mastodon for creativity? Many of us are still figuring out what it means to have our toes in an emerging platform spread out across many “instances” and homes. A Whale’s Lantern, a collaborative music-making venture that unfolded over the final months of 2017, emerged, as so many interesting ideas do, from inquisitive inquiry and open invitation.

What would happen if relative strangers in an openly networked space made music together, virtually and collaboratively, and then published the album togetheron Bandcamp?

Mascha put out that call on Mastodon in late September 2017, and the collective writers of this article responded. A few others were also involved in the early days of collaboration, but for a variety of reasons, including life itself, made deadlines difficult for some collaborators. So eight potential pairings, aiming for eight songs, ended up as four collaborations with four songs (with hopes that those who could not collaborate for this venture might join in future projects).

We are now nearing the end of the second iteration, with a new album due sometime this spring. I’ve been teamed up with an amazing musician and producer, Luka, who is finishing up our track, which he created music for and I wrote lyrics for, and did the main singing on. He may be adding other cool flourishes as well. I get a listen every now and then, and it’s so neat to hear how he is building our song.

This particular oral history, documented through a shared file (and slightly edited for length) of A Whale’s Lantern is an aim to celebrate how it all first came together in the initial gathering, and how it might be a model for other creative collaborations in the federated Mastodon network. You might even call it a jam session of reflections and memory.

In this first part, we share ideas about Invitations and Connections. Tomorrow, in part two, we share ideas about Collaboration and Considerations. Embedded songs are connected to the participants who wrote/performed on them.


Mascha Bartsch:  I posted the toot, so I was just very excited to see whether anyone would actually sign up.

Kevin Hodgson: I’ve done plenty of collaboration projects, including music, but those always stemmed from projects where I mostly knew and interacted regularly with participants. Here, I figured it would be relative strangers, and I felt a little uneasy but excited.

Veronica: The first time I saw it in September, I thought: “Cool idea! But I’m kinda away from the music right now.” Then I thought: “Hey! I can do that! I’m not particularly skilled but I can do that!”.

Robert Vavra: I saw the potential to contribute … Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity.

Michael Silverstone: I didn’t actually see it, but I heard about it from Kevin.

Wendy Taleo: I didn’t see Mascha first toot. I saw Hugh’s toot that had #musiccollab in it. I checked out that thread and saw Kevin and Laura there who I knew from my open study over the last couple of years.

Matheus Violante: Well, I was new to Mastodon and I am still very inexperienced when it comes to music, so I was like “You know what? It’s time to try something new!”.

Laura Ritchie: I thought: yes, this (Mastodon) is a nice place to be, and why not?

Matheus: I saw the post as an opportunity to integrate with the community and learn how to compose a song with a partner.

Michael:  I’m always delighted to see what happens when working with other motivated people who can do things that complement or go beyond what I can do, so naturally, I was excited to be part of a project like this.


Mascha: I think that it’s important to be aware that collaboration does not always work and that you might be paired up with someone you don’t click with or someone who is unresponsive … I had a pretty relaxed attitude towards the entire project (and my collaborations).

Kevin: I knew that Laura as an amazing musician. So I felt sort of intimidated. Not by her personally. She’s not like that. But by her chops. She’s in another league. So my worry was that I would not be able to contribute in the ways she could contribute.

Laura: I knew Kevin, but we have never met.

Wendy: No concerns really, it would either work out or not. When I looked at Hugh and Lukas profiles it was a bit daunting….they did this for a living.

Mascha: If it works out, great, if it doesn’t, not much would have been lost (except a little bit of my time, but that’s a bearable risk).

Michael: I thought it would be easy to generate ideas and hold a musical conversation. That part proved true.

Veronica: I filled the form and got terrified instantly: “I’ll be paired with a REAL musician and I might let them down.” But I submitted the form anyway and I’m really glad I did.

Robert: My only concern was finding out how to fulfill an artist’s vision that I’ve never met and hadn’t felt the mood of in person!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two of the Oral History of A Whale’s Lantern project.

Peace (singing it),

Song Share: Things I Couldn’t Keep

Rusty Bolts flickr photo by junkyardpatinafan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

A song, for and inspired by Terry Elliott, as well as some other swirling things in my mind I couldn’t keep in the box.

Things I Couldn’t Keep
(for Terry)

(you know) A life goes by in the blink of an eye
and the stories that we tell
Remind us of days — they slip away
I’ll hold on … as tight as hell

(he said) Son, here’s a box of things you’ll need
to navigate the stars
A collection of bolts, sprockets and tools
to remind you … of who you are

A cardboard box — Things unnamed
A quiet voice — An act of faith
His story’s running deep
All these things I couldn’t keep

His treasures, what others throw away
what he knew was still good
the coin of man with steady hands
It’s a life … never understood

For forty years, I watched him walk
watched him pack it all away
Odds and ends into coffee cans
And memories … tucked far away

‘Don’t ever say I gave you nothing,’
my grandaddy speaks through him
I hold on tight to hand me downs
It’s my turn now … to begin again

Peace (singing it),


Six Word Slice of Life: Songs in the Head

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: The last few days, I’ve had three different musical projects in my mind, all different yet all interesting. The first is a collaborative song I am working on with someone I don’t know, through a partnership via the Mastodon social network as part of a second round of a music project known as The Whale’s Lantern. Participants get paired up with others and the task is to write and record a song. My partner is Luka,  a professional musical engineer and musician from the other side of the world (from me). We’re getting to a nearing point with our song, which we are writing and recording remotely. The second is a Christmas song that a friend and I wrote many years ago, but he has always wanted to have it produced rather professionally, so he has been working with a local music producer, and a demo that the producer created of our song (I wrote the lyrics) is stunning. We’re going to see if the two of us can do the main singing on it, but I am skeptical about that. The third is a personal tribute to a CLMOOC friend (who may even read this) who lost someone close, and shared some writing, and I felt inspired to write a song for him, with his words but also expanding the theme of the song a bit. I obsessed over it yesterday for hours, finally getting a demo down. Three songs, tumbling in my head.

Six Word Slice of Life Songs

Peace (sounds like),

A Whale’s Lantern: Musical Collaboration Across a Network

Whales Lantern

For the last six months or so, I have been writing in and exploring around Mastodon, a federated social networking space that is free from corporate structure. Federated means there is no one central server or space where people are located. Instead, there are “instances” where people connect to and write from (instances are hosted by individuals and most instances have a theme). All instances can share across the larger Mastodon network. I know that will sound confusing. Upshot for me: it’s becoming a neat, creative, connected space that is more than just an alternative to Twitter.

In late September, someone in the Mastodon timeline put out a call for musicians to collaborate together for an album project.  They hoped to leverage the connected element of common interests into a music project. I took the plunge, and became part of what is now known as A Whale’s Lantern project — a collaboration of musicians who have made music through the Mastodon network.

While I didn’t know who I would be partnered with, as names were drawn randomly, it turns out I was paired with a friend from other connected spaces: Laura Ritchie. She’s a cellist and music teacher and wide-range thinker.


Yesterday, our “album” was released on Bandcamp. Laura and I worked on a song that I wrote called I Fall Apart (Like Stars in the Night) and the whole group of us, including some of who didn’t get time to finish their collaboration, are in the midst of writing up our reflections. Collaboratively, of course, and hopefully, it will be published in a Mastodon open journal called Kintsugi in the future.

Check out A Whale’s Lantern: Flight into the Nebula.

Peace (listening to the muse),

Making Music: Street Feet Beat

I’ve been listening to LCD Soundsystem and paying attention to how James Murphy builds songs off hooks and synths. The other week, I jumped into one of my favorite music programs (Soundtrap) and began building a song, imagining people walking down a city street with all the hustle and bustle, and destinations in mind. The pauses are moments of waiting for the street lights to change for crossing.

I called it Move Your Feet to the Beat of the Street.

Peace (in the groove),

Making Music: Worlds Fall Apart

Worlds Fall Apart

I was following a number of threaded discussions over the weekend on Twitter, about Twitter. Concerns about its negative elements (trolls, privacy, etc.) versus its positive elements (connections, discussions, etc.) continue to play out in all sorts of ways.

My friend, Sherri S., wrote a blog post response to George S.’s observations that criticized Twitter as a narrowing space of echo bubbles we create for ourselves (I’m summarizing my reading of his points), and I found her deep dive interesting. So I took her words for a walk in a remix version (which sparked its own discussion on Saturday about the value and rationale of remix).

And that conversations lingered in my mind, as I sat down to do some songwriting yesterday. I can hear it in the lyrics of this new song — Worlds Fall Apart — about the idea of starting over, and building something new.

The song is also on Soundcloud.

Maybe I had Mastodon, and its federated ideas of freedom from corporate control of social media spaces, on my mind as I was writing. Or maybe it was the watching of the first Mad Max with my son the other night.

This is the second Making Music post this week. I have at least one more coming. I’m suddenly finding myself back to some songwriting and thinking about music making, at least for a bit.

Peace (arrives in rubble),

Making Music: Compass Pointed North

Lyrics from Compass Demo

I challenged myself yesterday. I had about one hour alone with an empty house. Could I write and record a new song in that time?

I grabbed my guitar and sheet of paper, sat on the floor, and started writing. What came out was this song: My Compass Pointed North. It may nor may not be inspired by the images of the mass evacuation going on down south right now. I quickly set up my microphone and recorded a demo. It came out OK, I think.

You can also listen on Soundcloud.

Peace (sounds in the air),

#CLMOOC: Where Color and Music and Collaboration Mix

Color collaboration

In an email this week to Karon, Wendy and Ron, I noted that if this project I am describing here were all that came out of CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) for me this summer, I would be quite content and satisfied. (Happily, there is much much more coming out of CLMOOC this summer). These three friends of mine all collaborated with me on a musical piece called Coloring the Muse that arose from the theme of art and coloring during the first Make Cycle, and then was transformed by our collaboration.

Let me explain .. but first, let me share the project itself ..

This project all began with our explorations of color in the first Make Cycle of CLMOOC. Much of that Make Cycle centered on the Collaborative Coloring Book project. At one point, though, Karon and others, in our Google Community, shared some links that connected the color spectrum to the music spectrum, linking how we hear sounds to how we perceive colors. I found that fascinating, and began to think about how one might “paint” with colors to make music.

I tinkered a little bit with a melody line, based on some color patterns, and shared it back. Karon, whose CLMOOC connection I appreciate each summer, took that melody and used a music compositional software program called Noteflight to begin the process of composing a song, with harmonies and variations. The software program does kick out an audio file, so we could hear the parts in progress.

But I wondered if we might take the song into Soundtrap for some live collaborative recording. So I did, and I invited Karon and Ron (whose many talents include art and music via keyboards and programming) and Wendy (also a talented artist and musician). Soundtrap allows for distant, and global, collaboration on musical tracks. Ron is from the Netherlands, Wendy is from Australia and Karon and I are in the US. Perfect.

Color Muse, in Soundtrap

As I began laying the first tracks, though, I kept the main melody line and some of the harmony ideas, but didn’t exactly follow Karon’s compositional ideas. Instead, we played with the song, using Karon’s ideas of variations as a springboard, weaving percussion and counter-melodies throughout. I added some alto sax after Karon wrote out the parts, riffing off the main line at times, and using some sound effects to create a layered variation. There’s even a bit of planned dissonance, creating tension. The ending of the song is a piano part that Karon composed, but the track is actually the compositional software’s version of the piano, with Wendy’s clarinet as melodic accompaniment.

I also knew that I wanted to use the song as the soundtrack to a video with color, and I spent some time trying to find a way to do that. I could have done something more original myself, with iMovie or something, but I had this vision for an idea that I could not create myself, with colors dancing in time to the music. I ended up at a site called RenderForest, which has some neat templates but it is rather expensive to use if you want a video without their intrusive watermarks. I did find a coupon to discount it, and plunged to pay, since I really felt driven to have this color visualization be the visual for the music inspired by color spectrums.

That’s not all … Wendy has now taken the song, pushed it through another remix program, and then created her own video version of the song and its colors. And Ron wrote about an earlier project of his, connecting music to color, and shapes.

This is what CLMOOC is all about — emergent ideas that become the source for collaboration and creativity, following our passions through connections.

Peace (sounds like),

Book Review: Anatomy of a Song

Here’s a book that hit a number of buttons for me. It’s about music. It’s about songwriting. It’s an oral history project. It’s an inside look at how creative people are creative. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits by Marc Meyers is apparently a riff off a Wall Street Journal column he wrote, diving deep into songwriting by interviewing the writers, producers, engineers and musicians behind some iconic music. (I didn’t know WSJ had a music column, did you?)

I really enjoyed Meyer’s approach here, as he brings the voices behind the scenes up in the mix, so to speak. I knew most of the songs, but not all, and he stops at REM’s Losing My Religion, arguing that 25 years have to go by before one really knows if a song reaches iconic status. I’m fine with that.

It’s intriguing to hear the stories behind the songs, of where the inspirational lines may have come from or where the melody or harmony originated, and the process that goes into the writing, recording and engineering of songs that become the soundtrack of our lives.

Anatomy of a Song covers quite a bit of ground — there are 45 chapters, sort of like a 45 spinning on your old record player — from Lawdy Miss Clawdy by Lloyd Price to You Really Got Me by the Kinks to The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff to Heart of Glass by Blondie to Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and more. You might quibble with his selection, but I didn’t mind.

Peace (inside the songs of our lives),