Christmas Caroling without the Damn Singing

by Shannon Bowman

“Advent is about expectation and longing, and I started by asking how that applies to somebody in the big city who, like so many of us, comes from somewhere else. You can be alone here in the middle of eight million people. I felt somehow with music I could put something into that void.” - Phil Kline

 

Unsilent Night takes the idea of Christmas caroling and adds a twist. A much better twist. Instead of gathering in a small group  and going door-to-door and harassing your neighbors, Unsilent Night takes a large group of people with boomboxes, mp3 players and iPhones and gives each person a choice of musical tracks, and spreads them through a neighborhood. At the same assigned time, everyone hits "play" and the party begins - without making your neighbors desperately uncomfortable. 

 

Phil Kline, who dreamed up the event in 1992, describes the result as becoming "a city-block-long stereo system".

 

During the walk, a sense of aww spreads throughout the crows as onlookers are caught-up in a virtual cornucopia of phosphorescent sound that fosters a sense of community because each person carries only one part of the music.

 

The work, made up of sustained chords, bells and, toward the end, wordless choral singing, is recorded on four separate tracks. Most use iPhones and MP3 players, but in larger cities who have hosted the event for years, like New York and San Francisco, there are hard core regulars who shoulder prehistoric boomboxes, and the occasional parent perching a laptop on the roof of a stroller.

 

 

This alternative Christmas caroling extravaganza started in the winter of 1992, when Phil Kline had an idea for a public artwork in the form of a holiday caroling party.  He composed a multi-track electronic piece that was 45 minutes long (the length of one side of a cassette tape), invited a few dozen friends who gathered in Greenwich Village, gave each person a boombox with one of four tapes in it, and instructed everyone to hit PLAY at the same time.  What followed was a sound unlike anything they had ever heard before: an evanescence filling the air, reverberating off the buildings and city streets as the crowd walked a pre-determined route. 

 

Kline designed Unsilent Night specifically to be heard outdoors in the month of December, and all four tracks, when played together via cassette, CD, or MP3, end up creating a unique composition that acts as a kind of "mobile sound sculpture". As the group walks a carefully-chosen route through the city, residents are treated to an etherial carol unlike anything they've ever experienced.

 

The first event ended up being such a hit that it quickly spread to other cities throughout North America and beyond. As of today, The Unsilent Night walk has happened in over 100 cities, spanning five continents.

 

This year was the first for the City of Norfolk to host the event. A rather large group made their way through the streets on Downtown for a 45 minute walk, attracting folks along the route. Plans are being made to bring this event back again next year. 

Q & A With Phil

I was able to catch up with Phil and ask him a few questions about the project.

 

Shannon Bowman: Which came first, the chicken or the egg…meaning, did the Unsilent Night start from the music or did you have the concept first and design the music around the concept?

Phil Kline: The idea came first, then I wrote music for it.

 

SB: When you first started this event in NYC, did you ever imagine it would have the impact it has had in over 100 cities? 

PK: No, I don’t recall even thinking we would do it again the next year until somebody suggested it.

 

SB: How does this impact make you feel?

PK: Grateful. It’s like having a child grow up and do well.

 

SB: How do you feel about the international aspect of this event – 4 continents, according to your website – seems pretty incredible.

PK: It’s actually 5 continents. I think they forgot there was one in South Africa. I think it’s great that it translates well.

 

SB: I love the NY Times quote from 2012 regarding being alone and music filling the void… “Advent is about expectation and longing, and I started by asking how that applies to somebody in the big city who, like so many of us, comes from somewhere else. You can be alone here in the middle of eight million people. I felt somehow with music I could put something into that void.”  This totally  resonated for me, even in a smaller city like Norfolk.  Was this a major motivator in the concept?

PK: I think it was but that wasn’t really clear to me until after I wrote the piece. From childhood, the mystery of Christmas, the star in the east and the birth in the night, always had a hold on me. When I made Unsilent Night the feelings of Christmas suddenly aligned with what I was doing artistically in a way that went beyond planning. It was as if it happened in a second. At the time I thought I was making a gift to give to my friends at a big outdoor party. 

 

SB: If you could start all over on this event, knowing what you’ve learned since 1992, what would you change? Or would you not change it all?

PK: Nothing. It was beginner’s luck.

 

SB: What has been your favorite city to hold the event? And why?

PK: I’ve only been to a fraction of them. There are often half a dozen happening the same day. But they all seem to have a special personality, according to the town and the people in it. New York’s is big and dynamic, San Francisco’s is flamboyant and spirited, Philly’s is modest yet ravishing, and I’ve heard of so many others of all sizes that people told me were moving or beautiful.

 

SB: Where would you love to see the walk that isn’t doing it now?

PK: Some nice warm place that would invite me to lead it.

 

SB: Favorite composer?

PK: I could never name one more than you would publicly admit to having a favorite child. I’m a constant listener and there are hundreds that I love. Today I was listening to Scott Walker and Giya Kancheli.

 

SB: Any words of encouragement for emerging artists in your field?

PK: Be brave, work hard and do what you want to do. 

 

Notes on the Recording by Phil Kline

Unsilent Night began with the simplest of aims: I wanted to have a Christmas party. I produced a multichannel tape, recorded the separate strands of the music onto cassettes, got a few dozen friends with boomboxes together and gave them each a cassette. We started them all at once and walked around the Village [in Manhattan], creating a block-long stereo image for an audience which consisted of us and whoever happened to be passing by. It was one of those experiments that worked beyond expectation. The music spread and filled the air in such a way that it was difficult to pinpoint where it was coming from even when in the middle of it. The sound mass seemed alive, blurring and oscillating due to slight variations in speed and pitch, and a constantly evolving polyphony was created in the moving throng as one could hear individual machines suddenly coming into focus, then receding back into the overall cloud of sound. That was December of 1992. Unsilent Nighthas been presented annually since then, with the music changing a bit year by year and the crowds getting much larger.

 

More about Phil Kline and his music.