New York, NY — This December, composer Phil Kline’s participatory sound-sculpture UNSILENT NIGHT — a landmark in avant-garde public sound art and a beloved December holiday tradition — celebrates its 30th anniversary with walks in more than 40 cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Streets, parks, and sidewalks will come alive with “a shimmering sound-wall of bells and chimes that is dreamlike to wander through in the December nip” (The Village Voice).
This year’s flagship New York City event takes place Sunday, December 18, 2022 at 6:00 p.m. when Phil leads a massive chorus of boomboxes and smartphones from the West Village to the East Village.Participants gather at the arch in Washington Square Park, and less than an hour and mile later, end up in Tompkins Square Park.
One cold night in December 1992, Phil debuted his piece on a lark with a few friends outside in Greenwich Village. It quickly grew by word of mouth and has since been presented by municipalities, universities, museums, new music ensembles, wineries, libraries, churches, and unaffiliated groups of friends in over 150 cities on five continents.
The composition is simple to present and participate in, and beautiful not just for what The New York Times calls its “nebula of phosphorescent sound” but because of the sense of community it fosters. Each person carries only one part of the electronic score, but collectively the group creates the emotionally enveloping experience. “Carrying one of the four tracks is the closest you can get to being in an orchestra where you are a part of this beautiful welter of sound,” says longtime Athens GA presenter (and former NPR producer) Mark Mobley.
Even the onlookers in shops and apartments become listening participants, as the sense of wonder spreads outward during the procession. Each iteration is unique, molded by the community, specific route, and acoustic conditions therein. In a city, the buildings, people, and traffic work their way into the composition, shaping the sound and experience. A quiet country setting is altogether different. In the words of Jessica Puglisi, who has helped present it in several Hudson Valley towns: “The sound of Unsilent Night is all of the best parts of winter rendered as music. The piece is at turns glistening, tinkling, hypnotic, mysterious, foreboding, and ultimately purifying.”
“A shimmering mass of music that may thaw even the most frozen holiday hearts.”
— THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
LOCAL OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE
Claremont, NH: December 4
presented by Aaron Almanza
Adams, MA: December 9
presented by the Adams Theater, MASS MoCA, and the Northern Berkshire Steering Committee: Isabelle Holmes, Todd Reynolds, Michelle Daly, Brad Wells, John Tibbetts, Molly Hess, Nico Dery, Sandra Thomas, Sue Killam
Kingston, NY: December 16
presented by Kevin Muth and Jeff Stark
ABOUT UNSILENT NIGHT
Unsilent Night is an original composition by Phil Kline, written specifically to be heard outdoors in the month of December, always as a free event. It takes the form of a promenade in which the audience becomes the performer (each participant gets one of four tracks of music that they play simultaneously), walking a carefully chosen route through a city’s streets.
It started in winter 1992, when Phil had an idea for a public artwork in the form of a holiday caroling party. He composed a four-track electronic piece that was 45 minutes long (the length of one side of a cassette tape), invited some 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: an evanescence filled the air, reverberating off buildings and streets as the crowd walked a pre-determined route, creating a mobile sound sculpture different from every listener’s perspective. “In effect, we became a city-block-long stereo system,” says Phil. The piece was so popular that it became an annual tradition, and then an international phenomenon. Watch footage of NYC and Phil describe the event in this WQXR video.
While technological advances and a mobile app (Android and Apple) allow Unsilent Night to now be played through a multitude of devices, Phil Kline originally designed the piece to incorporate the unreliability, playback delay, and quavering tones of cassette tapes. “Today most people use digital audio players, so I make the audio available in that format as well—but there’s something about the twinkling, hallucinatory effect of a warbling cassette tape that I enjoy,” he says.
The studio recording of UNSILENT NIGHT, which layers all the tracks, is available on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Music label.
ABOUT PHIL KLINE
From vast boombox symphonies to chamber music and song cycles, Phil Kline’s work is known for its originality, beauty, sly subtext, and wry humor. Raised in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio, Phil came to New York City to study poetry with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia. Shortly after graduation, he moved to the East Village, cofounded the rock band the Del-Byzanteens with Jim Jarmusch, Jamie Nares, and Lucy Sante, collaborated with Nan Goldin on the soundtrack to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and played guitar in the notorious Glenn Branca Ensemble.
Many of his early compositions evolved from performance art and used large numbers of boomboxes, such as Bachman’s Warbler and the outdoor Christmas cult classic Unsilent Night, which is now an annual holiday tradition celebrated around the world. Other notable works include Exquisite Corpses, written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars; the politically-infused Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs;John the Revelator, a setting of the Latin Mass written for early music specialists Lionheart; and the Sinatra-inspired song cycle Out Cold, written for Theo Bleckmann and premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Phil is currently immersed in songs and music theater, including an expansion of his third song cycle for Bleckmann, Florida Man, and an immersive theater work about Nikola Tesla in collaboration with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
His music is available on the Cantaloupe, Starkland, Innova, and CRI labels.