Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: A Joyful Noise: Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night"

13 December 2007

A Joyful Noise: Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night"

“Phil Kline’s postmodern boombox caroling walk is more than just performance art: It’s a demonstration of community.”
— Time Out New York

“A dreamy fruitcake of parts, tranquil even through its anarchy.”
— Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times

This Friday night in Boulder, hundreds of novelty junkies and experimental students will converge on Pearl Street, the main pedestrian shopping drag, with their boom boxes and iPods, buzzing with a revolution in style. They will be meeting up to pace the mall from one end to the other, each blaring their speakers in unison (not synchrony), and stepping lightly with the elfin glee of participating in "Unsilent Night," Phil Kline's experiment in masss noise and deconstructed Christmas tidings.

"Unsilent Night" refers to both this art-intoxicated flashmob and the collection of four forty-four minute pieces that Kline composed for it - jingly, abstract, spacious and evocative music, somehow both nostalgic and kind of cubist. It never goes totally atonal, but the reverb-dripping choral voices and the funky synthetic bell tones teeter on the edge of familiar and comfortable, playing with my expectations of "Christmas Music."

It grows from the noble tradition of boombox-and-parking lot experiments conducted by Oklahmoma band The Flaming Lips, who attempted Zaireeka, an album for four synchronized CD players, before 5.1 surround sound became available to the villagers. Unsilent Night also has obvious references to both Steve Reich (fellow composer for the one-label-revolution Cantaloupe Music and minimalist patriarch) and Brian Eno (electronic experimentalist who recently fused algorithmic art with minimal electronica with the incredible 77 Million Paintings).

I imagine the "city block-long sound system" that I'll be missing while at work: a joyous discordant bricolage, the exultant noise of collegiate angels joyriding in a battery-powered mob. Each of the four pieces has a casual, sometimes meditative structure - but together, all at once, in a haphazard crossing of tempos and tones, it must sound like coming upon a flock of robot mockingbirds from over the next hill, through a frosty fog.

Not only do I love it for its emphasis on art as communal and participative, but because Kline has made this into an annual and international phenomenon. It started humbly in 1992 with one march through New York; but this year, this "boombox parade" will proceed through twenty five cities, including Vancouver, Hamburg, Sydney, and Detroit. If last year is any measure of what to expect, then there will be several hundred boomboxes and well over a thousand people at the more well-attended gatherings.

Here's a video of the parade from last year in San Francisco:


And here, on Kline's homepage, is some of the press it has received over the last fifteen years. If you can make it out the night Unsilent Night comes to your town, do it. You can download any of the four tracks for your flashmobbing pleasure here, at the University of Colorado's Experimental Music homepage...