Thursday, December 22, 2011

Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night" in Seattle, 12/21/11

In my older blog, I mentioned the possibility of “experimental” Christmas music. As shown on the video (probably taken by Steve Peters), this would be an example…! Along Seattle’s 45th Street, a procession of miscellaneous people: old, young, and in-between, in warm winter coats and sweatshirts; all carrying boom-boxes or MP3 players with speakers; all walking to the slightly uncertain rhythms of the same music…

Well, not exactly the same. Phil Kline’s composition, “Unsilent Night”, is four electronic parts that are downloaded and then played, in unison, by as many people as want to participate, on as many stereos as available, as they amble down the street. Of course the music can’t really be synchronized exactly; that’s part of the fun of it (earlier incarnations of the piece were often played on cassette recorders, which all play at slightly different speeds, so it would get quite “out of synch” by the end). So, ambient chords drift around, echoing from unexpected places; rhythms and “beats” double and triple themselves, resulting in complex overlays. And as everyone moves, these sound-drifts shift around, producing the always-unexpected juxtapositions.

I’d heard of this several years before (I think NPR’s “Studio 360” covered it) – and then, when given the chance, decided to participate (this version was sponsored by the Seattle Composers' Salon, among others). The part that I was supposed to play was to be downloaded but for some reason my computer didn’t like it. No problem; another participant had a computer and could download it to my iPod. Later, during the actual “performance”, the batteries on my stereo conked out. So, I guess I was just supposed to listen this time…

The “procession” went down 45th Street, a street lined with businesses and restaurants. Noticing a quizzical look from a shop owner, I informed him “It’s an audience participation project of avant-garde music…” “It’s not avant-garde! It’s new music! It’s contemporary right now music!” shouted another participant who obviously thought that avant-garde refers only to the old-school atonal and aleatory experimental music of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. This is not of those genres… The procession then turned a corner, retraced the same street from the other direction (and actually passed through a QFC supermarket!) before meeting again at the starting point.

The music itself? An electronic piece, obviously; in roughly four sections:
1.) Slow ambient chords with beautiful high ringing sounds; each chord forms a slight discord as it fades in through the others (and then quickly resolves).
2.) Quicker repetitive “minimalism” in the manner of Terry Riley’s “In C”. This gets quite intense by the end as it goes into some dissonant intervals that spread out as phase-shifts through the multiple slightly-out-of-synch stereos.
3.) More ambient sounds, now slightly more ominous. Low hums and rumbles, sometimes with massive crescendos (“Here we go!” I heard someone say behind me, just before a particularly thunderous wave of sound began – obviously this person had heard the piece before).
4.) Actual “Christmas” sounds: chimes, bells (no sleigh bells, though); and what sounded like a boy choir echoing in a cathedral (this part occurred just as we were entering the supermarket, and it prompted a man in a wheelchair just outside of the store to exclaim “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry! Merry!” in a Santa Claus voice). These sounds gradually faded back into the ambient chords of the beginning.

A promotional picture for “Unsilent Night”. It’s more fun with more than one player with more than one boom box, though…

Comments? The piece is titled “Unsilent Night” and obviously refers to playing a lot of (loud? Not, particularly) music on a night that would otherwise be quiet. However, the title has more to say: an “unsilent night” needn’t be an unholy night. This music was is “about” holidays in the same way that the secular Christmas carols are, and perhaps it goes to a deeper level: it spreads both metaphorical light (as sound) for Hanukkah and radiates the joy of Christmas. It also makes a statement that there are other ways to make music than the way it has “always” been done, and it goes right with my idea of letting people (the public who happens to see or hear the processional) hear experimental music who otherwise have no access to it. I couldn’t have made a better statement myself.

…and then afterwards, there was a party while Tom Baker (curator of the Seattle Composers’ Salon) Dj’d, remixing Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas” music with Steve Reich.


  1. Thanks for the post! Great to have you there last night, and hopefully we'll be doing it again next year!

  2. also - video was shot by Pete Moss. Thanks again for the post!