Composer Phil Kline
, co-founder of Jim Jarmusch's '80s art-punk band the Del-Byzanteens
, likes many things about traditional Christmas music
: peals of bells
, the massed harmonies of choir
s, and the promenading peregrinations of caroling
. But hold the phone! He's also a big fan of Glenn Branca
's sound mass
experiments and the notorious phasing tape-loop techniques of Steve Reich
and Brian Eno
. How to reconcile one of our oldest and most well-established Western musical traditions with one of our youngest and most poorly-understood?
Conceptually evoking John Cage's earlier 1951 Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and his 1956 Radio Music (or, if you prefer, the Flaming Lips' later quadraphonic 1997 album Zaireeka), beginning in 1990 Kline began producing works for groups of portable audiotape cassette players (or, as you might recall them, "boom boxes" and "ghetto blasters)"), foregoing with Cage and Eno's off-and-on preoccupation with indeterminacies and instead giving his musical compositions a spatial element, making the listener an active agent in the music they end up experiencing, based on their choice of location relative to the multiple sound sources.
By 1992 he'd compounded his psychogeographical performance notions of electronic caroling with his fondest seasonal instrumentation, and that December (as with every year since) Unsilent Night debuted in(, around and through) New York City's Greenwich Village. Said Kline of its inaugural performance:
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.
With headphones on, the 45-minute work (a good stroll -- an event that's not just fun for the whole family, but for the dog too) is reminiscent more than a little of Eno's Music for Airports
, casually straddling an uneasy 4-D taxonomical gap between ambient electronica
, Arvo Pärt avant-garde
, New Age
background elevator music and Christmas carol
s. In the wild, however, the piece takes on a life of its own, reflecting not only the formation of the "performer"s and position of the listener relative to them, but (as with Cage's radio works) also the geographical (in this case architectural) character of the environment the procession passes through -- sound bouncing back spun audibly different by plate glass, concrete, fountains, brownstone brick and trees all.
Here's the long and short of how it works: a master recording of the total work is split up into multiple recordings of individually constituently-component channels (consider them as sections - or even individual instruments playing - in a band or orchestra); these tapes are distributed randomly among the ghetto-blaster-porting performer-participants, who insert them into their decks and stand at attention, awaiting a countdown to an approximately simultaneous mass pressing of "Play" (whose actual exact simultaneity is largely irrelevant, desired effects of phasing already present courtesy of the speed of sound and the distances involved and only amplified by a split-second slip of the finger.) If not strictly in single file, a sidewalk-width procession of boom-box-bearers and tagalong listeners alike then trails off at a casual walking speed (in grand Hardwicke's Transistor Marching Band style) along a predetermined route, ideally zigzagging for some time through a diverse slice of zones residential, industrial and commercial, the acoustic qualities of the music responding in a complementary manner to the character of the parade's temporary surroundings. Some parties wander through the parade, actively changing what they hear by altering which sections are near to them; others take up station near the front and permit others to pass them, their parts fading in to audibility and then sliding out as the listener proceeds on. A few may even run around twirling like a human Leslie speaker cabinet(, excepting that the Hammond organ is not also listening to the world revolving around it).
Passers-by will stop in their tracks at this gradual sonic spectacle, gentle but pervasive, and some will join along. Locals unwittingly on the parade route will emerge from their homes, cars and businesses to have a go at constructing some sense of the soft, improbable and interminable sounds wassailing their ears, a bit of winter magic presenting without being bogged down by the emasculated softness of secular carols or the hard-edged religion driving the earlier ones. Following the conclusion of the performance (people standing still with eyes closed, the last echoes of the final notes of music from the slowest or most-delayed tape players washing over them), the tapes will be returned, all the participants (intentional and accidental alike) returning home listening to their surroundings in a way they may never before have done.
On top of its spawning-ground of New York, performances of Unsilent Night have been produced on and off in Atlanta, Berlin-Mitte, Tallahassee, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Vancouver. In recent years several of them have been compounded by Santarchy / SantaCon guest appearances, so chances are good you can double your intake of alternate winter celebrations in a single desperate bid for novelty. Of course, this late in the season you've pretty much exhausted yr chances of participating in this annual aural experience -- however, the calendar of upcoming events at the website of Cantaloupe Music, Kline's label, does keep track of upcoming performances of the work in different cities; should you find your own local area poorly-served by the existing Unsilent Night performance networks, you are invited to negotiate the making of arrangements to establish a local chapter dedicated to the performance and production of this event (to say nothing of its prestigious local debut!) in correspondence with its composer at email@example.com, some of whose further thoughts on the piece I'll finish on:
Lurking behind the musical novelty is the fact that this is a Christmas piece. Christmas is a multi-layered phenomenon in our times, an ancient observation of winter solstice and the awaited return of the sun, melded into the biblical drama of persecution, flight and miraculous birth and, finally, the modern drama of family reunions, big meals and shopping quandaries. It is a happy season fraught with the tension of anticipation and for some people, burdened by the realization that they may not get what they want, it is the most stressful and depressing few weeks of the year. That drama, along with the bustling theater set that is New York City at Christmas time, provides some of the background for this piece. I think I was hoping to give a gift and, perhaps immodestly, show that sometimes good things do come right out of thin air.
Inadvertently in accordance with the domain and mandate of The Ninjagirls Christmas Special.
I don't wait for a certain time of year to give presents, but rather the moment where they are most needed or useful.
(Excepting of course that in this particular circumstance, no shows remaining, it seems that I have managed to share this information at the least useful time possible 8)
Bonus! for Winter 2005 -- all known Unsilent Night performances can be looked up at http://www.mindspring.com/~boombox/gigs.htm or I can just gloss them here as follows: Dec 10 - Middlesbrough, UK; Dec 17 - San Diego, CA, USA AND Sydney, Australia; Dec 18th - Washington Square, NYC, USA (led by the composer)... also that night starting from Alexander Park in Vancouver BC, Canada (see you there!); Dec 19th - Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dec 21st - Mission Delores Park, San Francisco, CA, USA AND an undisclosed location in Canada's Yukon. That is all.