Soundscapes: Burning Man


“The Golden Mean,” art car by Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten Mate, Burning Man, 2010. [photo by Luke Szczepanski]

Every year, tens of thousands of people converge on the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada to participate in the collective art project, social experiment, temporary city and — let’s be honest — continuous week-long party known as Burning Man. (See Nate Berg’s essay for Places, published earlier this week.) At the entrance gates, the greeters say, “Welcome Home.”

I think of Burning Man not as home but as nowhere. Nowhere is a place, and it is far from empty. Upon arrival, I am surrounded by giant robots, roving grand-pianos and clowns with air horns on stilts. I am subjected to a soundtrack of nonstop house music emanating from all directions. If I want to sleep (and why sleep, the music begs to ask?), I had better bring ear plugs. Noise complaints? Disturbing the peace? Forget about it.

One reason people come to build this temporary city in the desert is to forego the ordinances and codes that govern life back home. Burning Man has very few physical or cultural boundaries. For architects, who typically depend on constraints to arrive at a form, the great challenge here is to create in an environment where anything is possible. Sure, Burning Man produces some unsightly, sprawling constructions. At night, however, the only thing that matters is how bright are your lights and how loud is your sound. Architecture-as-structure gives way to architecture-as-effect. (Venturi and Scott-Brown would love it.) Hearing about this place of nowhere, my curiosity was piqued. I had to find out what sort of architecture this city could make.

Sound has become my medium of choice for exploring and documenting new places. Recording sound as a means of observing spatial conditions de-emphasizes the visual realm and opens up another dialogue with place, one that is haptic and time-based. Images of a place are formed by listening to sound recordings, but these images are fleeting and ambiguous. Since I have carried microphones to over two dozen countries, I thought: Why not carry them to Burning Man as well? It’s as exotic a place as any I have been to.


“Infinitarium,” installation by Big Art Studios, Burning Man, 2010. [photo by Nick Sowers]

As a trained architect who is familiar with listening to cities composed largely of hard walls, I found myself out of my element out on the playa. Right away I became exhausted with recording because everything was subsumed by the maddening drone from hundreds of amplified sound sources. Subtle sounds that I found interesting — a metal sculpture creaking in the wind, or sand skittering across the desert floor — were rendered muddy when I listened to them on the recorder. That can be a great thing about recording sound: you are often surprised by the loudness of the background sounds that we naturally tune out.

By the end of the first day I doubted whether it would be worthwhile to record anything at all. The task, as I discovered on day two, was finding ways to listen to the noise until it no longer became noise. WWJCD — What Would John Cage Do? This question governed the rest of my week at Burning Man. I tried various strategies. Once, I stood still, eyes closed, as a sea of mad people surged around me. Other times I walked to the furthest edges of the city, until all the sound sources merged into one continuous mass of sound, and I simply listened to its drone.

Door to Nowhere

On day one, I explored the art projects scattered in the open desert, which extend a few miles beyond the camps. I encountered a door with a small porch and wooden threshold. It’s a gimmick standing there all by itself. I felt silly opening this door which separates nothing from nada, but I did it anyway. As you can hear on this track, a bell jingled as the door closes against the threshold. There was no interior; there was no exterior. Therein lies a metaphor for a sonic experience. On either side of the door, there was only a constant, thrumming, merciless sound, the background noise of life at Burning Man. In the second half of this track, you hear the background spectrum of sound amplified, as if you were to occupy an underwater space filled by it.

Noise Mediation

Burning Man is arranged in a semi-circle around “center camp,” the headquarters of city services, where a circular tent provides shelter from the sun. This track begins with the sound of flags that line the oculus of the giant tent flapping in the wind. I found this sound quite desirable. Next, you hear the full sound spectrum of a diesel generator. Generators are ubiquitous in this desert landscape, powering everything from lights to refrigerators to music amplifiers. Their location — and the lack of a noise screen — is a point of contention between neighboring camps. If the generators could somehow cause flags to flap, or otherwise produce a sound perceived as pleasing, they may not be such a sore subject. The spirit of Burning Man is to take things which are regularly discarded and transform them into something desirable. Sound is one such material, the “waste products” of which can be shaped and designed just as we work with scrap wood and metal.

Bicycle Sound Cinema

Burning Man spreads out over seven square miles on the playa, and a beat-up mountain bike is the best way for a sound architect — or anyone else — to get around. The bicycle as a mode of transport contributes a layer to the soundscape. It also permits a cinematic exploration. Yes, sound is everywhere, happening all of the time, but the bicycle is both fast enough to allow you to select your sound experience and quiet enough for you to listen to it. I made a lot of recordings while riding my bicycle and they remain my favorites from the week.

One of the differences between riding a bicycle at Burning Man and riding a bicycle in any other city is the acoustic transparency between city blocks. Because most walls at Burning Man are constructed of fabric, you can hear what is happening throughout the block. This tent city is a retrograde version of our contemporary urban condition where digital peripherals permit a kind of transparency through city blocks. We depend upon prosthetics to discover who is hanging out where, or what band is playing in which venue. That digital transparency happens in the analog at Burning Man.

Fire Organ

On the sixth night of the festival, as the giant wooden sculpture known as “The Man” burned, I happened upon an artist who was playing a fire-breathing organ. While the crowds gravitated toward the center to watch the eponymous show, I remained on the periphery, captivated by this 12-foot-tall sculpture and its sonorous butane-fueled blasts. Part percussion, part wind instrument, this flaming organ uses compressed gas controlled by a set of pedals. At the end of this track, you can hear me get my chance at playing it.

Temple Burn

Every year artists build a temple that serves as the spiritual center of Burning Man and is the last thing to burn at the end of the festival. This year’s “Temple of Flux” was a 21,000-square-foot walled structure inspired by a desert canyon. During the week people wrote on the temple’s walls and placed items to be burned within it. When the temple began to burn, the crowd fell quiet. I watched and listened from a thousand feet away.

After returning home, I played back this sound recording and was surprised to hear an illusion of distance. The giant burning temple sounded like a pile of logs burning in a fireplace at arm’s reach. This leads me to believe that an entire city on fire would, at a certain distance, sound like the smallest camp fire. Only the cheering that reflects the crowd’s awe gives away the scale of the Temple of Flux ablaze.

Dust Storm

As much as I tried to find an escape from the monotonous oontz-oontz of the techno beat, there is simply no structure or envelope of silence to be found at Burning Man. The exception is the dust storms. These roving walls of sand could rise many feet in the air, and they lasted from a few seconds to a few hours. To get caught in one out in the open desert was an opportunity, not a problem. I savored every storm that I was caught in.

Editors' Note

All tracks in this audio feature can be downloaded at soundcloud.com/nicksowers.

For more on Burning Man, see Nate Berg’s essay, “Burning Man and the Metropolis.”

Cite
Nick Sowers, “Soundscapes: Burning Man,” Places Journal, January 2011. Accessed 03 Mar 2015. <>

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Past Discussions View
  • maria ayub

    01.13.2011 at 16:31

    'Nowhere' is as familiar a soundscape as anywhere in terms of an urban environment--sans walls. Layers upon layers of sound that leads us to the assumption on how "cities" are such a physical construct that you can even hear them in the desolate environment of a desert.

    You can make something in the vastness of nothing that is completely artificial; and at the same time hear it by opening your window and listening, imagining how much more we have muffled just to make it bearable.

    The only difference is how much of the natural environment was affected to arrive at the same auditory execution. In most cases, a great deal.

  • Luke Szczepanski

    01.14.2011 at 01:17

    I was having goosebumps listening to temple burn. I'll be back there again this year. :) thank you.

  • Corvus

    01.14.2011 at 11:35

    The sound camps, as they are called, are placed on the open ends of the giant 'C' that forms Black Rock City and they project out onto the open playa. Good for the city -- it is relatively quiet once you are a couple blocks from the sound camps -- but bad if you're seeking silence on the playa's wide expanse. Last year I headed out from the Temple to Raygun Gothic Rocketship http://www.mccullagh.org/photo/1ds3-3/raygun-gothic-rocketship on foot in the dark. About halfway there the wind picked up and the dust obscured everything. It wasn't high -- I could still see stars overhead -- but the lights I was using to navigate by had all vanished. I stood still a moment wondering if it was going to be a while before I made it back to civilization, the realized I could hear the 10:00 sound camps. Following them, I could make it back to charted territory.

  • Dust & Illusions

    01.18.2011 at 14:10

    Pretty cool soundscapes. You should have included what the desert sounds like when Burning Man isn't there, 50 weeks of the year, when it's almost returned back to its "natural" environment.

    Get to know really more about Burning Man, its origins, its hidden history, its evolution from an underground gathering to the multi-million dollar business it has now become. DUST & ILLUSIONS, a documentary that explores 30 years of history, and asks the hard questions.

    htpp://dustandillusions.com

  • michael david chiodini

    01.18.2011 at 18:55

    Just AMAZING, thank-you for the recordings.
    The Temple burn and sound wave is wonderfuly sublime.
    That is my favorite time-when the Temple burns.
    Everyone is respectful and all the agro stuff is gone.
    Truly is an emotional experience.

  • Erick C.

    01.19.2011 at 13:40

    sound is perhaps the least documented aspect of Burning Man so thank you so much for this! i agree that the ubiquitous oontz is something you try to escape from but for me the collective roar of different sound camps blasting away from a distance is my most memorable playa sound. one night around 5 AM as i headed back to camp i stood on the deep playa between 10:00 and 2:00 and recorded all the oontz blending in together. i felt like i was in complete hell but have loved that confusing bizarre sound ever since.

  • Alex Botkin

    01.19.2011 at 22:50

    My first year at BM in 2008 I heard, as many others no doubt, the most haunting and beautiful chant at daybreak. Don't know the language, Mideastern in origin perhaps, but it didn't matter because it was peaceful. It was perhaps a little over the top to use a loudspeaker, but at the moment of silence, echos of the chant continued to reverberate in my head, gently dissipating till I fell asleep.

  • roissy

    01.30.2011 at 17:34

    As a member of the Center Camp Cafe Sound Team, I have a great appreciation of sound and the effects of sound at BM.
    I arrived early and did not leave until several days after the event. ... After the gates open, probably starting Tuesday night, the background levels increase every night, with the peak happening Friday night, which is the BIG party night, not Saturday after the burn, as most would suspect. Then the levels fall very quickly.