On September 1st, when we were finally able to sit back, relax and be entertained by wonderful playa friends who stumbled upon our lit-up piano and played Joplin, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Yann Tiersen, Mozart in return for beer and margaritas, it was all worthwhile. There were some truly brilliant moments of music and light in Illumination Village this year. But getting Clavilux to the desert was a bit of an adventure…
Just to backstep a little, here’s a short video of where I’d got to just before carefully packing the electronics and into a suitcase in late August:
There she is, up and running with a string of 50 LED pixels for each octave. Pressing a note in that octave triggers lights to shoot down the string (the colour depends on the note). It took a lot of effort (as described previously) but she was good to go.
Never let it be said that Burning Man is a holiday, whether you’re lugging along an art project or not. I arrived in San Francisco on the Friday before BM started (I also missed, and then un-missed my flight, but that’s another story), managed to spend one day relaxing and hanging out with friends up in Napa wine tasting, and then went in to full-on prep mode.
Buying the piano had been pre-occupying my thoughts as the budget was pretty tight. Having scoured craigslist, I had imagined an arduous search, trundling our creaky van far and wide around the bay area. Then I discovered the nice people at Piedmont Pianos in Oakland. They stock some incredibly beautiful grands made by Steinway and Kawai which I naturally swooned over. Of course, with a low-three-figure budget we were swept past these and into the basement to see a veritable treasure trove of old pianos, piano-rolls and organs, all in various states of lovedness. Right in the corner there a 99-year-old Netzow upright, made in Milwaukee, who looked and sounded great. I knew she was the one pretty much instantly. Four poofs, a piano, and a dolly later, and we had her in the back of the van.
After some inevitably lengthier-than-expected stops at Home Depot, Motel 6 in Reno (where we washed out a fridge freezer in the car park…), Walmart and Whole Foods to stock up and have one last nutritious, freshly made meal, we drove the long, straight 120-mile stretch to Black Rock City as the sun set. We hoped to be in camp by about 9pm but the queues were so long we didn’t drive into the city until about 2am. We made a lot of friends on the way in, though, joined a couple of parties and were treated to remixed Radio 4 by DJ Raindog.
Setting the piano up the next day proved a little tricky. In what turned out to be the only dust storm I shut myself in the truck, took her apart and laid the sensors in the keybed. As the temperature increased, so the electronics became more and more janky to the point where I’d calibrate one octave, put the keys back in, test, move on to the next, go back to check the first and none of the sensors were responding any more. It was a truly frustrating, hot afternoon. I came back the next morning and about 75% of the piano worked, so I think the heat and dust combination was not good for the sensitive PNOScan light sensors (to be fair, it was probably operating out of its tolerance zone at about 39°C).
Wiring everything together took a couple of hours more and I was getting pretty tired – lord knows how the crews of Aurora, Tympani Lambada, Temple of Transition etc coped working for hours on end in the heat. But it worked, the lights illuminated and changed colour when people played, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The music began to flow, and that really made it. A few people gathered now and then for a rendition or two. It was a lovely thing.
After enduring a bumpy 400-mile ride in the back of our budget truck, and then daily temperature swings of 30C, our poor old piano was beginning to sound a little honky, but by coincidence we were camped close to a piano tuner Oscillator who had his equipment handy – she was tuned every day we were in Black Rock City.
My beautiful second piano now has a year of sitting in a lock-up in Reno getting gradually more out of tune, ready to hopefully come out to play again some time soon…
I learned loads during this little summer project. How to solder properly, build circuits, quickly run and debug arduino projects, how to hook multiple arduinos together, how to drive long strings of LEDs, how to process MIDI quickly. If I were to start all over again I’d keep things a little simpler (I spent loads of time on the knobs to change the colour of the LEDs, but in the end I decided not to use them in the desert as they got in the way of the music), bear in mind that less assembly required in the desert the better, and also that the conditions there are pretty brutal for home-made electronics. For example the next thing for this project is to try and use pressure sensors instead of light sensors for more reliable sensing. I’d also document more and make more video along the way.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that making things is bloody loads of fun, and putting smiles on other peoples’ faces is infinitely rewarding. I got chatting with a lovely deaf girl Eli who swung by in the afternoon, and her eyes lit up when I explained how the piano worked. It’s a new way of directly interacting with music that isn’t solely about vibration.
A friend sent an email after we’d returned from the desert which made my day:
Didn’t get to see you guys again but just wanted to say thank you for a magical moment I had care of your lovely piano on the night of the burning man. I was doing one last bomb around the playa on a borrowed bike and swung by to see if you folks were around. Sadly you weren’t but 2 people were sitting at the piano playing – one was a young woman with a lovely voice. I just sat on my bike listening to the wonderfully clinky clanky piano and her soft but beautiful singing with the backdrop of lights and fire and sounds and smells of the playa. Still with me now.
Thanks very much to all the people who gave advice and helped me along the way, Jack Butler from midi9, Ross from Piedmont Pianos in Oakland (I wish I could stop by for a recital!), Jake, Matt and James for doing a lot of heavy lifting and dolly maneuvres (cue the Four Poofs and a Piano jokes), Denise for helping me think about how to display it (although in the end the piano we found was so beautiful she remained pretty bare), Ben and Andy for their noob electronics help and parts.
Lastly a little video of a girl named Rachel who came along and played a little improv for us whilst we were packing down our camp (thanks Tom for this).
Onwards and upwards! If you want a little demo I’m going to set it all back up on the piano at my house :) Bring wine and I will let you have a play :)