Soundscapes: Burning Man

Absolutely amazing post from Nick Sowers..

the sonance of architecture

“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]

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.

Door to Nowhere Audio


Link to full article and Nick’s amazing recordings

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