What started out as a simple idea for composer Phil Kline has became a beloved holiday tradition in New York. A fan of cassette tapes, Phil had been composing pieces for boomboxes when he wrote a holiday-themed piece set on four tracks to be played simultaneously on several boomboxes. In 1992, he gathered a group of New Yorkers for a modern take on caroling in which they walked down lower Fifth Avenue with boomboxes playing his piece. The performance was a resounding success and a yearly seasonal event known as Unsilent Night was set in motion.
A little over two decades since that first performance, Unsilent Night has grown in magnitude and now draws a crowd of several hundred who still use a few boomboxes that are interspersed among a sea of smartphones. It has has been adopted by cities around the world, but even with this international recognition it finds its way back home each year. Phil is currently preparing for his 24th New York performance on Saturday, December 12th, so with the event a week away, 6sqft spoke to Phil to learn about his love of boomboxes, the idea behind Unsilent Night, and how one evening 23 years ago has become an annual holiday musical tradition.
Why do you find boomboxes so special?
It started with a general interest in tape recorders. I was fascinated with them as a pretty young child. I might have been 12 or 13 years old when my parents got me a little open reel tape deck. I was intrigued by being able to record things and play them back at different speeds and then sometimes re-record them if I had two machines. I could record from one to another and sort of distort the sound and layers of sound.
Tell us a bit about your process.
Years later when I was really starting to make and produce music, I had an idea in the back of my mind about making an orchestra of tape recorders. At the time, the boombox didn’t quite exist. What people had were these shoebox shaped things you could get at RadioShack. They were kind of cumbersome and didn’t sound great, but for $20 that was the cassette machine you could get. But then when the boombox came along, I ran out and bought a dozen matching Sony boomboxes. It just so happened that one of the tape companies made these endless cassette loops, so I started experimenting with them creating pieces. I would have a line of boomboxes set up all running blank tape loops and I would make patterns singing or playing the harmonica. Then I would play it back and record it into the next machine in the line with the combination of new sound and the sound that had just been recorded. Then I’d repeat that process until it started cascading from one machine to another and making this wild, swirling cloud of sound.
How did a love of boomboxes inspire you to compose Unsilent Night?
There was Christmas caroling as a kid, and I remember a friend of mine had talked about starting a Casio marching band with those tiny Casio keyboards–except no one would be able to hear it. And then suddenly the idea of Christmas caroling and the Casio marching band and the boomboxes just coalesced into Unsilent Night. In my memory, it seemed like the whole thing came together in 48 hours.
I didn’t have a computer yet when I created the very first of Unsilent Night. I sat down with what was called a portastudio, a little four track cassette recorder, and I made a four track thing and then I mixed it. For the very first Unsilent Night in 1992, everyone had one of those tracks. It’s funny, I thought, “How am I going to get people to come to this?” I actually typed out–and I mean typed, no computer here, this is me and a bottle of whiteout–a little press release. I looked up addresses and sent one to the New York Times and one to The New Yorker. It sounds insane, but they all printed it.
How did that first event go?
For some reason I had a vision of the piece starting on Fifth Avenue, going straight down through the arch in Washington Square and going through the park. Maybe 75 people showed up and we met at the corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue. We did the piece, and it was a clear, quiet, icy night — not super cold, but dry cold — and I remember when we all hit play, it was one of the happier moments of my life. I had no idea what it would sound like in the street, but it sounded just great. We had a really good time, and at the end of the night people were saying, “Oh, we’ve got to do this again next year.” I don’t think it ever occurred to me to do it every year.
How did you come up with the name?
Truth be told, I didn’t come up with the name. For the first year or two most people just called it “Phil’s Christmas Piece.” One year I think I called it “Caroling.” I was just going to use a generic name. The first time anyone wrote about it was the critic Kyle Gann in ’94 in the Village Voice and the headline writer called it Unsilent Night. And I said, “There you go, thank you.”
Over the years, how has Unsilent Night evolved?
I changed the route after the first few years. I think in the fourth or fifth year we started going from Washington Square east to Tompkins Square. That to me really solidified the whole thing because it was always sort of West Village/East Village, like we were drawing a line between the two. It was kind of like a procession to the east like a Wiseman.
I kept fine tuning it until 1998 when I settled on a version. It was always a word of mouth thing, but by the year 2000, we were getting maybe 500 people. Somewhere around 2002, we had an all time high of 1,500 people in Washington Square. Imagine trying to lead a couple thousand people through the streets of New York on a Saturday during rush hour at Christmas time.
Somewhere in there the people at Bang on a Can, who I have been associated with over the years, asked me if I would record the piece for their record label Cantaloupe. While we were talking about the record packaging, we decided to add: If any of you would like to do Unsilent Night in your town, please call. It was in 2000 when I got a call from a bunch of students in Tallahassee, Florida. They wrote to me and wanted permission to do one of my pieces. I had written a few chamber works, so I assumed they were going to ask for one of those, but they said they were thinking of Unsilent Night. At that point it had never occurred to me that anyone else would do it. The very first outside one was this group in Tallahassee, which it just so happens was when the Bush versus Gore court case was being decided in Tallahassee, and one night on the CBS Evening News Dan Rather was standing there when Unsilent Night walked right past him.
The piece is now performed all over world. Have you had the opportunity to attend any of these performances?
The people in Northern England in Middlesbrough used to pay me to fly out there every winter. They did it for about five years. The Philadelphia one is lovely. It’s one of the most beautiful sounding because for some reason we would always get a crowd of 120 of whom half would be carrying boomboxes; that’s a really good percentage. In New York I often have a crowd of 500-600 with maybe only 75-100 carrying boomboxes. But nothing compares to San Francisco; they were born to do it. It’s a musical happening. They show up happy in any weather, and they consider it a peace and love march. It’s also the topography of the city. Instead of going up and down square cut blocks, you’re going on windy street over hills. When you see the ribbon of people ascend the steps in Mission Dolores Park it’s wow.
With changes in technology, is it hard to encourage participants to use boomboxes?
We make it very clear now that the piece was written for boomboxes and the best way to do it is with a boombox and a tape. But nowadays the majority of people playing music are doing it from a smartphone. We have an Unsilent Night app that’s available for both iPhone and Android and when you open it up, all you have to do is press a button and it will randomly select a track for you (track 1, 2 ,3, or 4 with slightly different speeds) and stream it. What we say is, “A cheap boombox, which is the kind of boombox this piece was designed for, used to cost $30-40. For $30-40, go to Amazon and buy the biggest bluetooth speaker you can find and they work just brilliantly with a smartphone.” It’s almost as good as a boombox. The real beauty of a boombox is it’s sort of inconsistent. The sound would sort of worble just a little bit on a boombox so when you have 100 going together the piece would just shimmer in a way it doesn’t quite do with a smartphone.
Have you thought about writing a new composition for a future Unsilent Night performance?
I am happy with Unsilent Night as it is. I had written pieces for multiple boomboxes before Unsilent Night, and I’ve written a few since.
Have you had any mishaps over the years? What about a favorite Unsilent Night?
I’m one of those people who shows up an hour earlier than he’s supposed to at the airport. Things have happened. One year my car service didn’t show up. At the time the piece was supposed to start, I was still down here in my studio with my boomboxes trying to think of some way I could get a car to get up there. I always have memories of that. The piece still worked that year. People stayed and waited for me even though it was raining. It was the only year in New York we had rain.
I always get nervous about the weather, and we had snow for the very first time two years ago. It amounted to a small blizzard and it was amazing. It made the walk tougher because it was the kind of thing where you had wet ice flying in your face, but by the time we got to Tompkins Square, it looked like a decorated cake. It was completely covered with fresh, untrampled snow.
SantaCon is on the same night as this year’s Unsilent Night. Will this affect turnout or result in some participants wearing Santa suits?
Probably not. The Santas have their own course and only mix with us intermittently and briefly.
Okay, last question. What does carrying on this unique holiday tradition mean to you?
For me, it always went back to the child’s state of mind of wishing on Christmas and of wishing for things to be better; wishing to get what you want, whatever that might be. Being in New York City at Christmas time can be one of the most depressing things on earth. It’s so crowded. It’s so noisey. People are in shopping frenzies. A lot of people are really tense about visiting family. I noticed that Unsilent Night was a total escape from that. The most hardened cynics that I know would say, “I don’t believe it Phil, you make me happy about Christmas.” It’s non-denominational. It relates to Christmas with a few references to chants and hymns, none of which are Silent Night by the way. On another level I just look at it and go, “I had a really strong idea.” You don’t often come up with almost indomitable ideas like this one.
All photos courtesy of Phil Kline/Unsilent Night
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