The Tale of the World’s First* High Desert Touring Classical Organ – Part 2 – The Concerts

The Concerts

The concerts were a great success! Our camp offered seating for 25, and at most events, we filled all the seats (plus a few camping lounge chairs). There were also dozens of passers-by, as the “street” on which we were located had a steady flow of foot traffic.

Our camp, before the 25 chairs were set out. We called ourselves “The Institution for the Musically Insane”.
Our real estate consisted of a plot 50′ wide by 200′ deep.

We were pleased with the feedback we received – most everyone enjoyed the classical music, and many people had questions about the organ, its construction, and organ music in general. The concept of an organ concert in the desert was a delight to young and old alike, and some goth guys even characterized it as “hard core.”

The only picture I have of an audience. I’d love to receive any photos taken by other attendees – please contact me.

Surprisingly, there were a number of other organists present at Burning Man. When I first started practicing and setting volume levels, organists came walking over from other camps. One joined in and performed Bach’s Fugue in G minor (The Little) during a concert, and another dropped by and did a midnight performance of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s 1st Organ Sonata in F minor.

An early practice session. Yes, that’s me with the hair.
A “Camelback” drinking system is an absolute necessity for today’s High Desert Organist.
A concert performance. A different page-turner volunteered for each concert, and yet there were no page-turning disasters!
The sheet music was glued to heavy cardstock – up to 4 pages wide – to help withstand the high winds that can kick up at any moment.

There were two scheduled concerts a day on Thursday and Friday – the first being an all-Bach program and the second being a selection of baroque and romantic works. On Saturday, there was one scheduled concert comprising of a mix of works from both concerts.

A sample program. “Souvenir” programs were handed out on postcard-sized stock,
while permanent wind-proof programs were printed on 8.5×11 paper and mounted to 1/8″ plywood.
At Burning Man, it is vitally important to keep papers and litter from blowing around.

In addition to the regularly scheduled concerts, several impromptu concerts formed out of special requests, or people dropping in on practice sessions. One of the concerts featured a very special guest and instrument (more below)…


A few things happened that could have tripped-up the concerts, though generally all went well. Even under a canopy, we measured 122 degrees F under the roll-top one day. The extreme desert heat caused the wooden keys to expand, making them to rub against the piston rails in front. This made for some sudden and unexpected stuck notes where the keys did not rise back up. A few turns of a screwdriver to loosen the piston rail “fixed” the problem.

Another obstacle was the ever-present and ever-penetrating playa dust. It had surprisingly opposite effects on different parts of the organ. On the ivories, it acted like a lubricant, making the keys slippery, especially in the colder evenings. On the pedals, it created a stickier surface, making it difficult to slide one’s toe into the right position during some pedal maneuvers.

The Prizes

After my first concert, a man in a pink wig (a friend actually) came up and awarded me with a “First Prize” ribbon. He then turned around, displaying a large collection of ribbons and exclaimed “Now who else wants First Prize?” to the delight of many.

Photo of two doubloons borrowed from the Burning Man web site.

After another concert, a woman came up and presented me with a golden doubloon. At Burning Man 2002, the doubloons were tokens which would allow you to ascend into The Man’s platform after completing a series of treasure hunts. The doubloons could also be given as gifts, and I was quite pleased to receive one. I decided to keep it rather than enter the platform.

The Special Guest

At my first two journeys to Burning Man, I had the great pleasure of witnessing an art car called “Satan’s Calliope”, created by a guy some knew as “Steve” and others knew as “Lucifer the Engineer From Hell”.

Satan’s Calliope on the Move…

Satan’s Calliope is a heavily modified golf cart with multiple ranks of pipes on a tilting platform. What makes the pipes so special is that they run on compressed propane, rather than air or steam. Combined with this, each pipe has an igniter which causes every note played to yield a ball of flame.

A constant flame provides a subtle ambiance.

The sound is nothing short of deafening, and the sight is awe-inspiring. The pitches vary because the gas density alters with the heat of the fireball – the effect is similar to a jet-powered slide whistle. Because of the high temperatures and other risks associated with unleashing compressed propane, the calliope is played from a distance using a portable MIDI keyboard with a shoulder strap.

Satan’s Calliope is prepared for a duet…

After chatting with the calliope’s creator at a Burning Man “Decompression” party in 2001, we kept in touch and he agreed to drive the calliope over to our camp for a special duet. I played a number of pieces “straight” on full organ while he improvised calliope accompaniment. The resulting cacophony was a real crowd-pleaser, and received a standing ovation.

Stand back! The dragon’s breath can go about 20 feet.
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