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The Tale of the World's First*
High Desert Touring Classical Organ

* Some Restrictions Apply

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by Bob Richardson

Overview

Each year, the Burning Man event takes place in the Black Rock Desert in NW Nevada. Around 30,000 participants travel from all over the globe to take part in this exercise in temporary community. Every person brings something of themselves to the event, participating in many ways, from costume and sculpture to music and community involvement.

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The Promenade Leading to "The Man" -
When we first set up, The Man was visible beyond the console,
but as the city filled, our view became blocked.

I had first heard of Burning Man in the late 90's, but was unable to pull together the time and preparations to attend until 2000. I attended again in 2001 and 2002.

It has been said that one's first year there is when they figure out what Burning Man "is". The second year there, a person figures out who they are in relation to the event and what they want to do. The third year is when they really dive in and try to participate in a big way that is also truly of themselves. Of course, this is just an axiom -- everyone relates to Burning Man according to their own views and timetable -- but this 3-year progression has applied to many of my friends, and of course, to me.

The Project

Sometime near the end of the 2001 event, it hit me what I wanted to do: Perform a classical pipe organ concert at Burning Man. It struck me as the ideal thing for me to do: It was something that was of myself, something which was expressive, and something which would contribute to the Burning Man experiences of others in a new way.

I was an organist in my teens, taking lessons and occasionally playing recitals. During college, my tastes migrated to MIDI synthesizers and sequencer-based composition, and circumstances also dictated that the family sell the Rodgers electronic organ that had been my practice instrument back home.

Musicians of all stripes have performed at Burning Man. There have been wandering one-man-bands, large stage performances, and many, many DJs. "Art Cars" roam the desert, many complete with roving nightclubs and bands - even a piano bar. My first year there, I wandered off away from Black Rock City (the name for the temporary city that forms in the desert) and encountered a complete marching band!

Despite this great variety of musical expression, there seemed to be a very limited amount of classical music performance at Burning Man. I suspect that this lack of classical music was not the result of a collective dislike for the music among the crowd, but rather due to both the impracticality of using classical instruments in the harsh desert environment, the lack of amplification of these instruments being able to compete with larger installations, and the instinctive impulse of thousands of revelers to initially focus on "party" music from the techno/house/ambient/etc. scene. Putting on a classical organ concert would truly be a new experience for Burning Man.

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The console, electronics, and speakers all crammed like a
3D jigsaw puzzle into this 5x8 U-Haul trailer.

A Touring Organ?

Why not? There have been successful touring organs before. The great organist-performer Virgil Fox toured world-wide with a specially constructed Rodgers electronic classical organ, and later with a large Allen organ.

There have been small, automated carousel-style organs known as "band organs" which travelled on carts and wagons. I have even heard of a touring Wicks pipe organ carried by an 18-wheeler which could be set up and playing in a few hours.

So why the "World's First" claim? This is partly show-business hyperbole - certainly I have not stumbled onto a new concept. Rather, taken as a whole, this is the first organ to go to the desert and perform and outdoor concert in such an environment. It is also, to my knowledge, the first classical organ constructed to run entirely from battery power! (More technical details later in this document.)

Next Page: The Concerts

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All contents copyright (C) 2002 by Bob Richardson. All rights reserved.