I had been making music with an “orchestra” of boombox tape players for a few years, appearing mainly in venues whose locations ranged from The Bowery to Avenue B (with one detour uptown to play the Bang on a Can Marathon). This new piece was intended to be the soundtrack for a kind of Christmas party. The concept came more or less in a flash, as three different ideas — the boombox orchestra, an old fantasy of a battery-powered marching band and a reminiscence of Christmas caroling in Silver Lake, Ohio — merged into a walking, participatory sound sculpture.
Since word processing was not part of my everyday life yet, I carefully typed a press release about the planned event, whiting out and correcting the mistakes. I sent it to the Village Voice, the New York Press, the New York Times and the New Yorker. To my utter astonishment (even more so today,) they all printed it.
And so, on a cold and clear Saturday evening, a few dozen friends and a few dozen more strangers assembled at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, by the Presbyterian Church. I handed everyone a boombox or a tape and at 7 p.m., instructed them all to press play. Moments later, a cloud of shimmering sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
Things were different back then. Having no computer, I wrote the piece on a tape recording machine called a Portastudio, which I had purchased at Crazy Eddie’s on 6th Avenue. I was working in the corner of a large painting loft on Allen Street, which a friend was kind enough to let me use. When I finished the music, which lasted 45 minutes (or one cassette side), I made four sub-mixes and a dozen cassette copies of each. Then I played a bunch of them together on my personal army of boomboxes, making some very interesting late night noise in the cavernous and chilly loft.
As we walked down Fifth Avenue and through the arch into Washington Square that first night, the music moved with us, morphing at every turn and every stoplight. While it required no particular musical skill, carrying the boxes allowed us all to experience the piece as active participants. The machines were not simply reproducing the music, their combined numbers and chance interactions were the music, and we were making that happen. I felt a little bit like we were walking on air.
When the last strains faded up into the sky 40 minutes later, people applauded and cheered, a few suggesting we do it again next year. That seemed reasonable enough, but no one could have imagined that now, 20 seasons later, we would still be doing it, and that it would also be happening in 30 other cities around the world.
WATCH VIDEO: “Unsilent Night, 2006”
Though it has found a home in so many far-away places, I still think of Unsilent Night as a quintessential New York product. It was created in a vestigial environment: the remains of the cultural downtown and East Village that was celebrated in the ’70s and ’80s. Once upon a time, artists in Lower Manhattan had the luxury of making work in the ample spaces left to us by virtue of the fact that nobody else desired them. And those ample spaces left us room to try whatever we thought might work. The neighborhood, rife with working artists, was our audience. Quality feedback was always just a door or two away. My current neighbors, all wonderful people, are probably just as smart, but their priorities seem to be elsewhere. The workspaces are elsewhere, too. I imagine the loft where I first listened to the music is now a condo worth about $5 million dollars.
So this piece, which began in part with a memory of childhood in Ohio, now carries a tinge of nostalgia for the Old New York of the late 20th century. The city has always been a place where people from somewhere else come to try out their dreams. Over two centuries, it has constantly reshaped and redefined itself, tearing down the old and putting up the new.
My Christmas dream is that Manhattan, in all its current grandeur, can still somehow find the space for the newcomers who don’t have it all yet, but are looking to make something new, good and different. That’s what I came here for in the first place.
Participants should arrive to Unsilent Night early and bring a boombox if possible. Tapes will be provided. Or, download the brand new iPhone app and blast it any way you please.
Phil Kline makes music in many genres and contexts, from experimental electronics and sound installations to songs and chamber music. He has been composing and performing in downtown New York City for more than 20 years and is currently working on an opera, Tesla, in collaboration with writer-director Jim Jarmusch.