A glass ball terrarium
Terrarium: A New Sphere for Growing Art

Terrarium: A New Sphere for Growing Art

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.

The 2013 Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park

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.


Robinson McClellan‘s music has been performed and commissioned widely. His choral music is published by E.C. Schirmer, Augsburg Fortress, and See-a-Dot. He has been awarded artist residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo, and he earned his doctorate in composition from the Yale School of Music / Institute of Sacred Music. He works in product development, user care/feeding, and instructional design for music and education companies. He founded and directs ComposerCraft, a workshop for young composers. ravelledmusic.wordpress.com/music-for-youwww.robinsonmcclellan.com


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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