Beethoven, Flaming Tubas And 5,000 Kazoos: Classical Music At Burning Man : Deceptive Cadence More than 60,000 people will gather in the Nevada desert next week for the annual festival — and the Playa Pops Symphony, which made its debut last year, will be ready for them.
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Beethoven, Flaming Tubas And 5,000 Kazoos: Classical Music At Burning Man

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

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

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More than 60,000 people will gather in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada starting tomorrow for the annual Burning Man Art Festival. This is the annual NPR Burning Man story. A group of classical musicians will perform as a prelude to the festival's fiery finale. Burning Man's first and only symphony orchestra made its debut last summer. One of the group's violinists is reporter April Dembosky from member station KQED in San Francisco. She brings us this story about Burning Man's evolving soundscape.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Night descended in Black Rock City as I rode my bike through a maze of art installations in the open desert. Neon and metal mutant vehicles were out by the dozen - including a fire-breathing octopus car. Many of the vehicles were outfitted with high-end audio that helped form the temporary cities pulsing soundscape - dubstep and techno.

I rode onto the Opulent Temple - a well-known raver camp. Waifs and wastrels spin fire hula hoops and pass chapstick around while they dance.


RIVA STARR: (Singing) Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.

DEMBOSKY: But last year, a group of classical musicians - including me - fomented a quiet rebellion. We call ourselves the Playa Pops Symphony. Almost 50 amateur musicians, some professionals and even a couple of kids made up the first ever string orchestra at Burning Man.


ERIC YTTRI: That last note throw it off into the audience, and we are going to do that ritardando there.

DEMBOSKY: That's conductor Eric Yttri, a neuroscience researcher from Washington, D.C.

YTTRI: So really hit that - make it clean and crisp.

DEMBOSKY: Out here he goes by Dr. FireTuba on account of the flame-throwing sousaphone he plays. He was surprised the group's first rehearsal was in tune.

YTTRI: We were making music with a bunch of strangers who just randomly decided to go to a desert designed to kill you and play some symphonic music. I'm still on cloud nine and can't believe it worked.

DEMBOSKY: The idea for the Playa Pops came from Laura Kaczmerak, aka Pigtails. Back home in Encinitas, Calif., she works as a commercial pilot and plays violin with her community orchestra.

LAURA KACZMERAK: I see people out here with stringed instruments and other instruments, but they play alone and I thought, you know, we need to come together.

DEMBOSKY: An innocent email intended for one Burning Man staffer then got forwarded to the entire attendee list serve.

KACZMERAK: Within 24 hours, I must've had 200 hits in my email.

DEMBOSKY: The 50 musicians who wound up performing last year have grown by more than a dozen, adding a new wind and brass section.

YTTRI: We're up to eight flutes, 10 clarinets, two saxes and a lonely French horn player.

DEMBOSKY: Plus kazoos. This year Dr. FireTuba and Pigtails have 5,000 of them that they're going to hand out for some audience participation.

YTTRI: We'll have a big kazoo chorus.

DEMBOSKY: And an expanded repertoire. Even with the nod to a contemporary pop anthem, a classical orchestra might seem out of place at a festival dominated by electronica and glow sticks. But last summer, Noah Crowe was all for it.

NOAH CROWE: The first year that I came out here it was (imitating techno music), and this year we actually have a diversity of music.

DEMBOSKY: What is it about now? Like, why now is it?

CROWE: Because we've grown up, because the culture is evolving. It's kind of gone through this evolution of, like, adolescent angst and blowing stuff up to, like, teeny-bopper trance rave to crunk to now.

DEMBOSKY: Grieg and Vivaldi. Still, the group had to withstand some serious distractions like the spanking workshop across the street from rehearsal and a zip line behind the cello section. And the concert audiences weren't quite sure when to clap.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Encore. Encore. Encore.

YTTRI: We're only halfway through the set.


DEMBOSKY: The enthusiasm was pretty cool.

YTTRI: It was like we were the Rolling Stones, except we were playing Beethoven in the desert.

DEMBOSKY: Dr. FireTuba says some of the burliest men came up to him after the first concert saying they cried like a baby during Beethoven's "Adagio Cantabile."

YTTRI: Yes, you can wear the outlandish outfits, you can look big and tough and covered in dust, but 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 kind of aim to do with this group.

DEMBOSKY: He says he hopes the unconventional context of Burning Man might attract some unforeseen fans and get them to keep up with classical music back home. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Black Rock City.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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