The well-established soundscape at Burning Man is an audio layer cake of dub step and techno. About 66,000 people gathered in the Nevada desert last week for the annual arts festival – and many of them spent their nights at post-apocalyptic raves, spinning fire hoola hoops, passing chapstick around the dance floor, all while swaying their hips in an inarticulate jive that vaguely mirrored the electronic beat spilling out of the speakers.
“Eat sleep rave repeat. Eat sleep rave repeat,” is the refrain of one song played all over the playa this year. It’s a stereotypical, yet quintessential, sentiment at Burning Man.
But by day, a group of classical musicians are fomenting a quiet rebellion. The soft notes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 could be heard at concerts at Center Camp and the Temple, and during rehearsals in Silicon Village.
“We are going to do that ritardando there,” says Eric Yttri, standing before the group in leopard print leggings. A neuroscience researcher from DC, out here, Yttri goes by Doctor Fire Tuba – on account of the flame-throwing sousaphone he plays. He’s also the conductor of the first ever string orchestra at Burning Man.
“It’s not only a fun release for musicians who don’t get to play much, but it also showcases that Burning Man is more than a party,” he says. “This has a real soul and solace to it.”
They call themselves the Playa Pops Symphony: close to 50 amateur musicians, studio musicians, members of professional orchestras, and even a couple kids. About two dozen show up for the first rehearsal on Tuesday. Dr. FireTuba marveled that it was in tune -- mostly.
“We were making music with a bunch of strangers who just randomly decided to go to a desert designed to kill you and play symphonic music,” he says. “I’m still on cloud nine and can’t believe it worked.”
The group has to overcome some serious distractions though. In the same neighborhood where the orchestra rehearses, gymnasts are practicing flips and splits in aerial silks, there’s a spanking workshop across the street, and a zip line right behind the cello section.
“When I came out here to them practicing I went ‘Oh wow, this is the playground. Everyone’s playing and we all get to play together,’” says Noah Crowe, a writer from Ojai, Calif., dismounting the zip line as the orchestra begins to play Grieg’s morning mood. This is Crowe’s fourth year at Burning Man.
“My first year I came out here, it was 'oonst oonst. Mmelemena melemena. Obla obla,'” Crowe says, doing a very convincing impression of the playa techno scene. “And this year, we actually have a diversity of music.”
I have my own theories about what allowed this to converge now. The size of the event is one – Burning Man attendance has grown significantly in recent years. Maybe now there’s a critical mass of classical musicians coming, enough to form an orchestra. Or, maybe it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: now that folks have figured out how to survive in the desert and make it to the end of the week without starving, there’s more energy to make music and expand culture.
Crowe has a quick answer to the question, “Why now?”
“Because we’ve grown up. Because the culture is evolving. They say the most common misconception about Burning Man is that it’s a festival. When really the org [the Burning Man organization] considers it a city. So as a city, or as a society, we are evolving and enculturating ourselves into having a richer, diversity of experiences,” he says. “It’s gone through this evolution of adolescent angst and blowing stuff up, to teeny bopper trance rave, to crunk, to now.”
To Beethoven and Grieg. These were the picks of the Playa Pops founder, Laura Kaczmerak, a.k.a. Pigtails. Back home in Encinitas, she works as a commercial pilot and plays violin with the community symphony in Carlsbad. She says the start of the Burning Man orchestra was more of an accident.
“I see people with string instruments and other instruments out here, but they play alone,” she says. “I thought, you know, we need to come together.”
She sent an innocent email intended for one Burning Man staffer. It then got forwarded to the entire attendee list serve.
“Within 24 hours I had 200 hits in my email,” says Kaczmerak. “So I was thrust into this exciting adventure.”
And at the group’s debut performance, more than 200 people showed up to listen. Hundreds more came to subsequent concerts. They sat on the ground in the dust or got up and danced as they pleased.
It’s a far cry from the elite music halls of the default world, where audiences pay top dollar for tickets, dress in fancy clothes, sit politely and clap at the right time.
“Encore, encore, encore, encore,” one audience chants after the first few pieces.
“We’re only half way through the set,” Dr. FireTuba explains, sending the crowd into hysterics.
Here, the rules of classical music might as well have been burned down with the Man. The traditional emphasis on perfection is inappropriate out here. It’s not needed for music to touch an audience. Dr. FireTuba explains to the listeners that Beethoven was kind of a burner.
“He was a little crazy, he was a little drunk, he was a little rowdy,” says Dr. FireTuba.
Dr. FireTuba says he hopes a little education like this, and the unconventional context of Burning Man might attract some unforeseen fans to keep up with the genre when they get home.
“It would be wonderful to attract not only people who love classical music,” he says, “but also get people who think classical music is something for the grandparents and really surprise them.”
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED