I Played Violin in a String Orchestra in the Desert

One of the expressed goals of Burning Man is to create a temporary community in the desert, a place that is by nature inhospitable to life. No matter where you come from or what experience you have, everyone is dealing with the harsh conditions of a foreign and challenging environment. It’s no wonder people share the wine. Music is one way to help deal with the vast emptiness, as it adds another layer of beauty to this otherworldly landscape surrounding Black Rock City, Nevada. This year, I had the opportunity to play violin in a string orchestra on the playa, aptly named The Playa Pops Symphony, which embodied a very real and successful experiment in temporary musical community.

I am a professional musician, a violinist and violist. I play and teach music for a living. I played in string orchestras throughout my school years and occasionally in professional situations like recordings and various live performances. None of those experiences were quite like playing with the Playa Pops Symphony. I first heard about the orchestra from my wife who had read about it in the Jack Rabbit Speaks Newsletter. She knows I love both the burner ethos and any excuse to share music with others. An opportunity to combine two things I love? Sign me up.  I checked out the article and sent an email explaining my ability level and expressing my desire to play first violin.  Later, I received a link to a blog where I found the music.  I printed it out, three hole punched it (like a former orchestra assistant), and listened to recordings of the music in order to practice ahead of time.  Lucky for me, the arrangements were not that difficult, so I did not spend too much time before leaving for Nevada.  I had plenty of other things to prepare for a week of living in the desert, like finding the right instrument.

The desert is about the worst place on earth to take a violin. There are wide swings in temperature and almost no humidity. These conditions will wreak havoc on wood. The only other two environments that might be worse would be the dry arctic poles and the steamy jungle. Last year, my friend let me take her violin to Burning Man, so I asked if I could do that again this year. She agreed, and I was relieved that I would not have to bring my baby violin to the playa. I “burnered” the instrument up by attaching a string of LED lights to it.  I also put a pick-up on it so that I could plug into a sound system and compete/collaborate with the amplified music that is the norm at the festival.  I made sure I had a humidifier to try to beat the dry.  I also packed it in a sturdy but light case with back pack straps because I was going to be my own roadie for these shows and performances.  Radical self-reliance. Isn’t that the story of most musicians?

The worst part about Black Rock City is the transportation.  You’d think someone would have built a subway by now. Seriously, the best way to get around is by bike.  I knew ahead of time that every performance and rehearsal would require strapping my instrument, stand, and music to my back, along with my camel back “go bag” (all the essentials for festival survival), and peddling to and fro. I even practiced this a few times at home by biking to a musical gig down the street. A few weeks before I left,  I disassembled and boxed up my $60 beater mountain bike and shipped it out on the community truck.  I did such a good job of taking it apart that when I got out there, I couldn’t get it back together again on multiple attempts.  Luckily, I have an awesome, supportive wife who had a bike that she let me borrow. There were also community bikes, the Yellow Bikes that are actually green.

It was 10AM on the second day of the festival when we all congregated for the first rehearsal.  We huddled under a shade structure next to the road.  The sun was terrible!  Everyone nervously made introductions, and the violins sorted out who was in the first and second sections. We were a bunch of orchestra dorks afterall, so we had some social anxiety to overcome. It was easy enough to spot the woman who organized this, Pigtails; she was the one with multicolored pigtails.  This woman was sweet enough to make nametags for everyone.  The conductor arrived in his leopard print tights.  This burner orchestra had a decidedly lax dress code of which I approved.  No shirt, no shoes, no pants?  No problem! Soon, he raised his baton, and we began the first piece, “Morning Mood,” by Edvard Grieg.  By the time we finished, there was already an audience, and even though I thought it was a little rough, they were clapping.  This was the first of many happy burner audiences.

The first rehearsal rolled along fine. The conducting was clear and the musical intent was shining through each piece. Afterwards, we split into sectionals. Miss Ripley was our fearless section leader/concert mistress. Coincidentally, I met her at a Honk! a few years back, a music festival of community wind bands in Austin, when she performed with Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. What, a  violinist in a marching band?  She was born for this string orchestra. She started our sectional by making sure that we all had time to go over every piece because she wanted to be thorough.  Be still my beating heart!  I found her dedication sexy.

That sort of dedication was demonstrated multiple times by my fellow musicians throughout the event. We had another rehearsal and five performances over the next five days.  Almost every member made it to all the scheduled events.  Sure, the party stole a few of our members for a while, but the cats came back eventually.  Yes, the third performance was at the temple in the middle of the playa during a pretty serious dust storm, but we braved the wind to play at the most sacred of spaces at the festival. Who wouldn’t want to keep playing after the rehearsals were met with jubilant audiences that wanted more?  Not to mention that the first performance was attended by hundreds of people who were shouting “Encore!” halfway through the set.

The orchestra is comprised of people from all walks of life and various experience levels. Some, like myself and Miss Ripley, were professional musicians.  Our conductor, Dr. Fire Tuba, was a neuroscience researcher who also played a flame-throwing sousaphone.  Some of our members hadn’t played in a group like this in years. As was often the case at Burning Man, these participants were from all over the world.  France and Sweden were well  represented.  A couple of our members were children. I made a point to ask them to not forget what a beautiful thing they were experiencing, since they were the people in the group who would potentially remember this the longest.

I will not forget the joy that we inspired in so many people. The audiences were fabulous. I suppose it would be a surprise that a bunch of dirty, rowdy party-folk did not need any instructions on how to listen quietly while we performed delicate classical music on acoustic instruments.  Perhaps it would be a surprise to the sort of person who laments the lack of respect for fine music in society today, but our presentation lacked any high brow superiority that is typical of that sort of person.  I mean, we were playing in the dust, and some of us were half-naked ourselves. There was very little pretense separating the performers and audience, so we gained their respect immediately.  It didn’t hurt that we were the only orchestra in town, which led me to joke with other players that we had just made the Black Rock City Symphony without even an audition.

The Playa Pops Symphony was an effective experiment in temporary community.  We came together from all over the globe for a week to help each other make beautiful music in the desert. We lent out a stand or shared our music when things went awry.  When I think about it, all the orchestras, string quartets, and bands I have ever played in have been temporary communities.  Really, that’s all orchestras have been and will ever be.  People play for a day, or years, they come and go, they live and die, but the spirit of the music lives on. I like to think that the music created by this temporary community will continue to reverberate through the dusty playa and in the hearts of our audience.