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Sonic snapshots of Burning Man

By Douglas Wolk

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Nevada, August 30 through September 6. Twenty-seven thousand people drive from Reno to a prehistoric lake bed near Gerlach for Burning Man, a week-long art-and-chaos festival whose cardinal rule is "no spectators." Here's what I heard.

1) The casino floor of the Atlantis Hotel in Reno is full of slot and blackjack machines -- hundreds of them, maybe thousands, in clumped formations that take ages to get through and tempt you with their pretty flashing lights and the loud metal-on-metal clatter of winning. You'd expect the cacophony of a video arcade. But here the casino planners are subtle: all the gently beeping machines are tuned to what sounds like a C, and the few that wander away from that pitch go to a C-major triad. They're all centering on the same note, just singing it differently: come to me, no, to me, no, to me. It sounds like Terry Riley's In C, with its patterns drifting into each other one by one as you wander away from a bank of Double Diamond slots and toward a shoal of Deuces Wild machines. Or it sounds like Nobukazu Takemura's electronic compositions, with their tones flickering through timbres but staying as constant as a fading spotlight. The Atlantis complements their sweet patter with an artificial surf crash, and with classic rock that harmonizes with the machines' pitch -- "And I Love Her" works particularly well.

2) Out in the desert, at Burning Man, the music never stops, and that's not just a Grateful Dead reference, though there's a positively uncomfortable amount of Dead playing too. Mostly, it's techno of various stripes, especially Goa trance, blurting away anonymously into the day-and-night expanses of playa. There is a wiggle in everyone's step, according to whichever sound system is most oppressively close. Keep on dancing; dance to our beat, or to the beat of a different drummer; here, you can hear them all. You have only to turn around. You must not sleep, you must dance. Some Ecstasy would make you happier; you could dance to all of our rhythms at once. We move through the desert landscape like the guests in Bill Gates's super-wired mansion, followed everywhere, everywhere, by music, all kinds of music, all the time, all the time.

3) At 8 in the morning, there are usually only three or four major raves still going on within earshot; we've accustomed ourselves to them, as to traffic, and we wake up slowly. This particular morning, though, our neighbor in the large van has decided that the only tonic for whatever afflicts his soul is to play Tom Waits's "The Piano Has Been Drinking" at volumes that make the playa tremble. Like a blow-up of a tectonic diagram, our neighbors' panicked Waits outburst makes every crag and crevice in his voice immense and strangling. "Not me/Not me/Not me," he murmurs to himself, and it becomes a pronouncement, an ultra-high close-up, a tragedy that claws into our bones. The neighbor segues into James Brown's version of "Kansas City" for some reason we don't understand, then fades it out. It's okay now. All our afflictions are healed, and we rise to face the day.

4) Inside the tent labeled "Bianca's," the DJ is spinning drum 'n' bass and, it is clear, has not the faintest idea of how to mix records, beyond the fact that one is supposed to play them at the same time for a little while. This doesn't matter to the patrons, who are dancing with one eye on their environs: the couches and mattresses on which various people are making out and having sex and chatting. The music is incidental to the dancing. They collaborate in a pretext.

5) The Small After All World is a set of towers and parapets, a kingdom that's appeared as if by magic in the middle of the desert. Speakers attached to it blare "It's a Small World" in every version ever recorded, loudly, taped together, again and again. One evening, we're summoned there by a passerby. For half an hour, they play that goddamn song in its endless loop, rising a key, falling a key, plugging away, never getting too far from that water-torture chorus. Then the truck drives up, and the stormtroopers with the "Small World Order" banner pour out, with their hats with two little swirls for ears. They show us "Chairman Mouse"; they bring out a string of people dressed in the colorful traditional garb of many lands, handcuff them together, and force them to sing the song, again and again. We can feel the world contracting, squeezing itself uncomfortably small. When the Small After All World bursts into flames and burns to the ground, everyone cheers, but never as loudly as when that strangling song finally stops.

6) Back in Reno, after it's all over, we go to the Pneumatic Diner, a cool, friendly, yummy little veggie place cached on an upper floor of a hotel. The sound system is playing Devo's Greatest Hits. We're exposed to only one song at a time, for a change. "Through Being Cool" -- and nothing else! -- is almost embarrassingly pure, ringing out at a modest volume with the clarity of water.

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