Beethoven, Flaming Tubas And 5,000 Kazoos: Classical Music At Burning Man

September 2, 2015

The well-established soundscape at Burning Man is an audio layer cake of dubstep and techno. More than 60,000 people will gather in the Nevada desert this week for the annual arts festival — and many of them will spend their nights at post-apocalyptic raves, spinning fiery hula hoops and passing ChapStick around the dance floor.

“Eat, sleep, rave, repeat. Eat, sleep, rave, repeat,” was the refrain of one song played all over the playa last year.

But by day, a group of classical musicians were 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,” said Eric Yttri, standing before the group in leopard print leggings. A neuroscience researcher from D.C., out here, Yttri goes by Dr. FireTuba — on account of the flame-throwing sousaphone he plays.

He’s also the conductor of the first-ever string orchestra at Burning Man, which made its debut last year and will return in 2015.

“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,” Dr. FireTuba said. “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 of kids. About two dozen showed up for the first rehearsal. 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 said. “I’m still on cloud nine and can’t believe it worked.”

The founding of the Burning Man orchestra was really an accident. The idea first came to Laura Kaczmerak, a.k.a. Pigtails, a couple of years ago on the playa. Back home in Encinitas, Calif., she works as a commercial pilot and plays violin with the community symphony in Carlsbad.

“I see people with string instruments and other instruments out here, but they play alone,” Pigtails said. “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 listserve.

“Within 24 hours I had 200 hits in my email,” Pigtails said. “So I was thrust into this exciting adventure.”

For 2015, the group has 63 musicians signed up to participate, and they’ve added a wind and brass section: “We’re up to eight flutes, 10 clarinets, two saxes and a lonely French horn player,” Dr. FireTuba says.

Plus: kazoos. Dr. FireTuba and Pigtails had 5,000 made that they’re going to hand out for some audience participation.

“We’ll have a big kazoo chorus for ‘Ode to Joy,'” Dr. FireTuba says.

Dr. FireTuba says he learned some important lessons last year — namely, the need to budget more time for rehearsals. Every time the orchestra messed up and he stopped them to make a correction, he lost 30 seconds waiting for the crowds that had gathered to stop clapping.

“It was like we were the Rolling Stones, except we were playing Beethoven in the desert,” he says.

The group had to withstand some other serious distractions, too. In the same neighborhood where the orchestra rehearsed, gymnasts were practicing flips and splits in aerial silks, there was 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,'” said Noah Crowe, a writer from Ojai, Calif., dismounting the zip line last year as the orchestra began to play Grieg‘s “Morning Mood.” It was Crowe’s fourth year at Burning Man.

“My first year I came out here, it was, ‘Oonst oonst. Mmelemena melemena. Obla obla,'” Crowe said, doing a very convincing impression of the playa techno scene. “And this year, we actually have a diversity of music.”

Crowe has a quick answer to the question, “Why now?”

“Because we’ve grown up. Because the culture is evolving,” Crowe said. “They say the most common misconception about Burning Man is that it’s a festival. When really, 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. It’s gone through this evolution of adolescent angst and blowing stuff up, to teeny-bopper trance rave, to crunk …”

And then to Vivaldi and Grieg.

The classical music choices immediately began to gain traction with the Burning Man crowd. 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 was a far cry from the elite music halls of the traditional classical world, where audiences pay top dollar for tickets, dress in fancy clothes, sit politely and clap at the right time. Here, the rules of classical music might as well have been burned down with the Man.

“Encore, encore, encore, encore,” one audience chanted after the first few pieces. “We’re only halfway through the set,” Dr. FireTuba explained — which sent the crowd into hysterics. When he introduced the next piece, Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile, he said that Beethoven was kind of a burner: “He was a little crazy, he was a little drunk, he was a little rowdy.”

The composer’s music was considered loud and wild for his time, but there was also a profound spiritual side to it. For Dr. FireTuba, that juxtaposition captures the essence of Burning Man. He said some of the burliest men came up to him after the first concert, saying they cried like a baby during the Adagio Cantabile.

“Yes, you can wear the outlandish outfits. You can look big and tough covered in dust,” the conductor said. “But that a piece of music, a couple hundred years old, can move you to tears, is really something special, and is really one of the things I aim to do with this group.”

Dr. FireTuba said he hoped the unconventional context of Burning Man might attract some unforeseen fans, and get them to keep up with classical music when they get home.

“It would be wonderful,” he said, “to get people who think classical music is something for the grandparents and really surprise them.”

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