Last night I strapped a boombox on my back and met up with M. & Mme H-* at Dolores Park for the second annual performance of Phil Kline's Unsilent Night in San Francisco. A complete guesstimate of maybe ~150 folks showed up: many with boomboxes, some with thermoses, almost all with multiple layers of winter clothing. (Did you know that in San Francisco water freezes at 50 degrees Fahrenheit? That's why we're always complaining about how cold it is! I've heard that blood freezes here at 37, but it's never gotten that low so I don't know for sure.)
Phil Kline (pictured above in adorable red hat) is based in New York, but was out with the huddled, shivering masses in SF distributing the cassettes and CDs. He created Unsilent Night in 1992, when he got some folks with boomboxes together, gave them all cassettes of this 45-minute multi-movement work, told them to hit play, and set off on a walk around Greenwich Village. It's been happening every year since then, not only in New York but in other cities as well (Hello, Cleveland!).
Cantaloupe has already released a CD (sound clips here), but I hear Monday's happening was recorded by Starkland in surround sound and video, with the hope of creating a documentary DVD. From Kline's notes:
unsilent night began with the simplest of aims: I wanted to have a Christmas party. ... 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.
We started our machines around 7pm and began to amble around the Mission, along major thoroughfares and down side alleys. People all along the route were hanging out of their windows and sitting on their stoops watching and listening; some joined in the procession.
Kline's description of a cloud of sound is apt: the harmonies are by necessity pretty static and the pulsations change depending on who you happen to be standing near. But the transitions between sections are wondrous, as each machine moves on to a new chord or introduces a different texture at its own pace and in its own place. Listen, a voice! Where are those chimes? Are those sleigh bells up ahead? Or are they behind? You couldn't even say that the sounds came at you in waves, because sound was absolutely everywhere—especially in the narrow alleyways where whole blocks were filled with vibrations bouncing around.
Robert, I hope you were there. Or at least that you'll come up for this next year. Thanks to Colin Berry for organizing. And go listen to Kline's Zippo Songs—which was featured in TSR's very first post!
* Clearly Mother and Child are putting in a good word for M. H-: after being trapped in traffic and thinking that he might not make it at all, M. H- pulled into a parking space in front of Mission High School right at 7! It was a Christmas miracle; thanks be to God.