Off to Burn

Just about to take off on a week-long odyssey into the Nevada desert. Of course, I won't be alone. I'll be joined by about 40,000 people who gather each year and construct the temporary metropolis known as Black Rock City. I've been looking forward to my first trip to Burning Man all year but I've withheld expectations. My plan all along was just to show up, sound recorder in hand, and just absorb the place.

But last night everything changed, at my house-mate's insistence. A piece from my thesis, a 4-foot long, 10-inch diameter bass cannon powered by an Aura 50-watt bass shaker will be coming along. What am I going to do with it? I have tentative plans, should the desert accept them. I'll post about successes and failures when I get back.

Well, it has been a summer of imagining temporary things. In June, together with architect/skater Matt Baran, I developed SOUNDSKATE, a skateable infrastructure which brings the non-skating public into a playful intersection with skaters through the re-mixing of the sounds of skating (design details to be posted at a later date).

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

The idea is that this set of quarter pipes and half pipes--the standard skating infrastructure-- would be augmented with resonance chambers, tubes, and surfaces which would produce interesting sound effects. Skaters would then go about creating a personal skating routine full of riffs, bridges, choruses and, of course, self-indulgent solos. The "noise" of skating is thus turned into a noise-music soundtrack. SOUNDSKATE amplifies the sound of skating and in so doing, it aspires to bring acceptance and interest in skating to a wider public.

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

For another temporary installation, I took part in the Sukkah City competition--an opportunity to re-think the sukkah, a temporary structure which is put up for seven days during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Though not selected as a finalist, I am still convinced that I should realize my sukkah. The concept was pretty straightforward: build a sukkah in California, record the sounds of making it, then destroy it (record that sound as well) and re-project the sukkah in Union Square Park, NYC. I have half a mind to just bring a PA system and blast my sonic sukkah throughout the park. Alas I will be in Texas, not New York, at the beginning of Sukkot.

I'm packing up gear for Burning Man tonight. The most precious cargo is: a ZOOM H4n recorder and a set of microphones (a pair of stereo binaurals, one omni-condenser and one omni dynamic cardioid).

There are a number of installations at Burning Man that I am looking forward to listening to. One that stands out is Sounds from the Urban Innerground which is set up at the base of the giant man. It will be playing sound from cities around the world continuously for 24 hours corresponding roughly to the time when the sounds were recorded in their respective locations. So I could be up at dawn in the desert of Nevada and listening to the sounds of Mumbai's rush hour.

There is a lot of sound art I expect to find that won't even be dubbed as 'sound art' (part of what I love about this kind of art). These will be sonic experiences, minute and perhaps even mute, evoking through the vibration of air the connection people share in a rare place like Black Rock City.

It's exciting to be a part of such a large, leave-no-trace event. It's inevitable that how you destroy or dismantle what you take with you factors into the design of what you bring. This is the power of sound: to record these constructions and deconstructions with a medium that is the essence of temporary.

See you on the flip side of the Burn.