Immediacy in a Dust Storm

A guest post here by reader Jillian Corey:


Immediacy In A Dust Storm At Burning Man

Just like the postal service (neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night), we play through snow and sleet and fog and rain… well, actually we are playing in the midst of a dust storm.

But as the super fine dust particles whirl through the air, lodging themselves in our hair, eyes, the corners of our pursed mouths, coating our bows and strings, the Playa Pops orchestra plays on.

We are far from the concert halls some of the more seasoned musicians may be accustomed to and even farther away from the dust-free homes of those of us who only occasionally pull our instruments out to pick out a Bach sonata or a Beethoven symphony. The dust we usually wipe from our instruments comes from disuse — not desert.

But now we raise our bows and dive into the Brandenberg Concerto #3 with vim and vigor, both in spite of the elements and perhaps even to spite them.

photo: John Goodman

photo: John Goodman

“Is that the best you’ve got?” our bold fortes and clipped staccatos seem to ask, “bring it on!” The wind whips around our modest shelter, the Temple of Grace, an elegant structure made from wood laser cut to the point that it resembles lace — simultaneously strikingly beautiful and seemingly immeasurably fragile.

Many of the musicians are missing, lost in the dust storm, accurately called “whiteouts” for their sudden appearance and vision-destroying opacity. A cellist staggers in, midway through the performance, having gotten lost in the storm, only to have a string snap several songs later.

But what is a performance like this without the adversity, the struggle?

From the perspective of the random passerby, out of the dust floats the music of Beethoven. This does not seem possible, both because of its unlikely presence in the middle of a dust storm and its status as the first classical music presence at Burning Man, an event previously known for the thumping bass of electronic dance music.

Drawn in by our music, passersby shelter (somewhat) from the storm.

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “immediacy,” a rarely practiced skill in the real world, but perhaps one of the most intrinsic to the event. The festival’s website describes the principle of “immediacy” as follows:

“Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.”

This statement does not completely capture the concept of immediacy, but getting caught in a dust storm does, in its most visceral form. When you can’t see the hand in front of your face, there is nothing beyond the now, the immediate.

While not lethally dangerous, a dust storm causes almost all activity and future planning to grind to a halt, forcibly driving us into the moment.

So many times in the default world, we longingly moon over other people’s travel photos, saying “gee, I’d love to go there someday.” An idle run-in with an old friend elicits a hopeful “we should hang out sometime.” Despite the best of intentions, neither these desires may come to pass.

The audience huddles around us, either there by choice or by happenstance, breaking the circle only after the last bar is played — then swept away by the wind.

As the wind finally begins to die down and the dust settles, audience members and musicians take the opportunity to clamber onto art cars or pedal away on bicycles, scattering back to their respective camps.

Even at Burning Man, an event almost wholly divorced from a conventional concept of time or schedules, people have found routines, places to be, things to do, and will soon be returning to them.

But for a moment, everyone stood still, and just listened to the music.

4 comments on “Immediacy in a Dust Storm

  1. Dust storms are not something to play in. You should always take shelter before they hit or at least wear a mask in a dust storm if you can not find shelter. The wind picks up fungal spores from the desert floor that cause Valley Fever. It can be fatal or cause serious brain or lung damage.

  2. Immensely enjoyed see Eric “fire tuba” Yttri conduct the Playa Pops in center camp one afternoon. It is amazing how wonderful a group of musicians who never met before that week can sound. Bravo !!

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