Not All Is Calm

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Perhaps singing carols with family around the Christmas tree never got you in the mood. Or maybe wassailing arm in arm through the neighborhood gives you flashbacks of bad Disney movies. Lucky for you, electronic music composer Phil Kline has come up with a pretty good alternative. The annual performance of Unsilent Night, now in its 17th year, has bridged a unique gap by pairing experimental electronic music with what’s arguably the most traditional holiday of the year. Though originally an unlikely union, Kline’s annual program has made a whole genre of music accessible to those who otherwise might not hear it. The interactive event, which invites attendees to bring boom boxes and play Kline’s composition—preferably on cassette tape—as they march through the streets of the East Village, has become an urban Christmas tradition akin to hitting the movies after opening your gifts. “It is a Christmastime piece, but to me the whole thing is more of a gut reaction to the Christmas mentality,” Kline explains. “I think I wanted to capture some of the enchantment that [Christmas] has for a kid, but at the same time combat the stress and negative parts that it can hold.” Though Unsilent Night has its roots in New York, the performance has inspired other incarnations around the globe. Klein recalled that at the premiere of the piece in 1992, about 50 people showed up—mostly friends. Somewhere in the late ‘90s, though, the crowd spiked. Klein estimates 1,200 people attended in 2007, and he’s expecting a similar number this year. For those who have never experienced it, Unsilent Night probably works best on a blustery evening. The kind of winter night that makes you forget about global warming and instead makes you happy for wool socks. Getting together with groups of people for a collective, experimental art performance may not be as unique as it once was, but that’s not it; something else brings New Yorkers back again and again. People talk about a feeling of togetherness and, perhaps more importantly, the music itself. Kline’s work allows participants to get wrapped up in a swirl of sound that builds throughout the 45-minute walk. And after years of practice, he’s perfected timing the composition with major landmarks. “There’s a loud part near the beginning and that responds to when we’re crossing Broadway and everything is kind of hectic,” Kline says. “Then when we’re getting into the streets of the East Village, the music gets much quieter and has a contemplative candlelight feel.” Toward the end, the song swells again, becoming celebratory and festive. As a whole, the feeling is one of walking in a sonic cloud; an ambient mix of bells, voices and synthesizers or a holiday-themed acid trip. “The feeling of everyone coming together is surprisingly still there, it doesn’t really matter how many people go,” says Susi Schropp, who has been attending the performance for over a decade. “It’s not about asserting your opinion or ego, the whole evening is just about coming together for a jam session.” Others agreed the performance has become a great way to rally friends and get together for a few hours during a chaotic season. Bill Dilworth, who attended the first performance and has gone nearly every year since, describes a true “neighborly” feel. At the premiere, he adds, there was an excitement that hinged on everyone agreeing to participate in something without really knowing what it was. “It was delightful to find that the music had this celestial quality, with bells and angel type voices,” Dilworth says. “It just seemed like it fit. And early on, we knew we were participating in something that actually worked.” In recent years, a running analog versus digital argument has developed amongst revelers. Though Kline does hand out CD’s (and now offers an Mp3 download), he still favors cassette tapes. This is partially because they don’t skip when you walk, but mostly for their imperfect quality. “The really great thing about tapes,” Kline says, “is that if you take 10 identical tapes and put them into 10 identical boom boxes, you’ll notice right away that one plays a little faster, one is a little slower, the pitch is slightly different on one. It sounds really cool.” Add that to the in-your-face experience that boom boxes provide and it’s not only an evening of sonic immersion—Unsilent Night becomes a nostalgic mid-90s visit as well. Though he’s clearly happy with the success, Kline also admits that his intended sound changes when 1,200 people show up but only 500 bring boom boxes. “The bigger the crowd the more that people just suck up all the sound,” he says. Others agreed that the increasing crowd has changed the performance from electronic caroling to more of a parade, but that the music still has an alluring way of drawing people in and keeping them together. “Seventeen years has made it big,” says Dilworth, “and I don’t think the big part is that great; but it’s also built a tradition. And the tradition part is what’s really special.” Dec. 13 at Washington Square Park; 7, FREE. For information, visit