The Anti-SantaCon: ‘Unsilent Night’ Is a Shimmering Musical Celebration of Cities’ History and Present

The first time the composer Phil Kline encountered the drunk Santas, they weren’t so bad. He’d arrived 20 minutes late for the 10th (or maybe 11th) edition of Unsilent Night, his annual shimmering boombox processional that has wound its way through Manhattan’s East Village every December since 1992. When Kline finally made it to the Washington Square Park arch starting point and unloaded the Panasonics and bags of cassettes from the taxi, some Santas were there, keeping people entertained in the rain. Since then, though, there hasn’t been much holiday joy lost between SantaCon (which debuted in New York a half-decade after Unsilent Night) and Kline’s immersive and mobile piece of participatory contemporary composition.

“Two years ago we ran into the puking Santas at Second Avenue,” says Kline, sighing behind his desk at his deep Lower East Side studio and furrowing his brow over the annual SantaCon shitshow. “We avoided them last year. We get them again this year.” Set for December 12 in New York, the piece first expanded to other cities just after Cantaloupe’s 2001 release of an Unsilent Night CD. This year, it will be staged in dozens of cities throughout December. A piece of music in eight sections, “Unsilent Night” is split up into four parts that play simultaneously, originally distributed evenly on cassette among the participants, but now available via an official app that shuffles the parts at random. Kline, however, stresses that phone speakers simply don’t cut it. “Unless you have a boombox, use the smartphone app with a good Bluetooth blaster,” Kline says. “Some of them really blast.”

When Kline counts off and the several dozen participants hit “play,” the crowd transforms into a cloud of bells and swelling drone, the most peaceful kind of flash mob possible. As a nondenominational, open-ended, kid-friendly celebration of avant-garde composition, Unsilent Night has come to attract a reliable cross-section of New York arts communities during its decades of performance. It’s fun for the whole family, related or not, moving through the December streets, usually pleasantly confusing passersby, and perhaps making new friends en route east to Tompkins Square Park. “I had a particular visual idea of people coming straight down Fifth Avenue, which is very wide and quiet, especially as you get downtown, through the arch, through the square, and then into Soho,” remembers Kline. The current route evolved a few years in.

In any given performance, the piece could, can, and will continue to act as a requiem for any number of events, including the AIDS crisis of the early ’90s and the Village’s gentrification, from mourning post-9/11 uncertainty to dark Gulf War-era clarity, or whatever other kind of grief or celebration that might be looking for a shimmering outlet. Lately, the piece has become a kind of memorial for the city itself. Though Kline is unthreatened by soaring real estate prices — he bought his apartment years ago and shares a comfortable studio with his wife a blocks away — he, too, is saddened by the loss of the Manhattan he once knew. Recently, he came across a blog of street photos of Manhattan in the ’70s. He says, “It’s as if I’ve come from the mountains of Romania and it’s like seeing pictures of the old country.” He affects a vague European accent. “I liked it better when it was dirty. I’m as uncomfortable as can be right now with Manhattan.”

One astonishing component of Unsilent Night is the way time itself has come to be an element of the composition as well, represented in the cityscape’s changing topography. During the early 2000s, Unsilent Night regularly moved through Astor Place, past an empty lot that sold Christmas trees and filled the air with piney scents, until one year an undulating condo shard sprouted in its stead. More recently, though, as the crowds have grown, Kline has adjusted the path so that everybody can make it into Tompkins Square Park for the conclusion.

In some ways, Unsilent Night is part of the ’60s tradition of site-specific composition, such as the mapped-out City Scale by Tony Martin, Ken Dewey, and Ramon Sender and performed by members of San Francisco’s Tape Music Center in 1964. “A lot of people were writing pieces like that at the time,” says Kline. “‘For: The Universe. Duration: Eternity.’ So I was very excited when I realized that Unsilent Night is like one of those pieces, except that it works practically.”

Unsilent Night New York, 2014. Photo credit: Taylor Davidson
Unsilent Night New York, 2014. Photo credit: Taylor Davidson

Not only does it work practically, but — perhaps even more than the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, from 1998 — Unsilent Night has become a piece of virtual repertoire, staged every year in some dozens of cities around the country, where it serves to generate new meanings in new locales. “I wrote it for New York, but it turned out even better in San Francisco or Philadelphia,” says Kline, a few dozen boomboxes massed on his studio floor like a small army, freshly returned from the piece’s second staging in North Adams, Massachusetts. In other towns, “we worked it out so we’d be walking through graveyards and by churches [during the section where] there’s a chant, I’m not sure if it’s Gregorian, and an old hymn.” This year, Unsilent Night will be heard from Orlando (December 18) to North Battleford, Saskatchawan (December 3), from San Diego (December 20) to Seattle (December 19).

“Whatever you want to say, there’s still a San Francisco spirit,” says Kline. “It might be dying out for the same reason as New York, but I hardly had to say a word. Hundreds of people showed up the first time we did, it was like a freaking love-in. Everyone was so high on it. I could see mothers coming to the window with their babies.”

“[My work] over the past few years has really been centered around the idea of how to use art to create more beautiful and more livable cities, and also the intersection of arts and civic dialogue,” says Emily Celeste Watts, who first experienced the piece in Manhattan a decade back and organized the first (and ongoing) Houston iteration before moving to Massachusetts and launching the piece in North Adams. “To me, Unsilent Night is one of the best examples of that, a beautiful intervention of arts and humanities with cities, a new way of experiencing a cityscape. Plus, it’s a beautiful piece of music.” In Houston, the piece leads down Buffalo Bayou Park, a “concrete chute” that runs down the center of town, and where participants might not go otherwise.

In North Adams, where Watts works as a curator as well as the executive director of Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, the piece begins at the city’s beloved Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and winds through the property. “There are these weird industrial passageways and buildings,” she says, before making “a loop through most of downtown” and into a an old freight yard that might soon itself be developed.

If the events continue over long periods in the new towns, local participants will watch their worlds change around Kline’s composition. In turn, Kline’s composition might become an invisible part of the landscape, cued up in participants’ heads as they drive through areas they might only know in the context of Unsilent Night. “We try to end by a gallery [downtown] that’s having a holiday art show and an opening,” Watts says, adding the overt dimension of the local art community to the composition. She is working with Kline on a future piece, in addition to curating a show about urban history foils Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses.

For Kline, Unsilent Night came as the result of years of experimentation with both tape loops and boomboxes. “In the ’90s, I did big installation pieces using as many boomboxes as I could and the PA and everything,” says Kline. “I did an operatic piece at The Kitchen, boomboxes everywhere, under the seats, taped to the ceiling. Meredith Monk showed up, and she’s so limber. Sitting in her chair, she was able to bend all the way down so her head was completely under the seat looking at the boombox.” Currently, Kline is in the early phases of a long-term operatic collaboration with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and theater director Robert Wilson about the life of scientist Nikola Tesla, no boomboxes involved. Yet.

Unsilent Night New York, 2013. Photo credit: Taylor Davidson
Unsilent Night New York, 2013. Photo credit: Taylor Davidson

The history of Unsilent Night is a history of departed places and technologies. “It was all handmade,” Kline says of the earliest draft, recorded on a Tascam’s four-track Portastudio purchased at a Crazy Eddie’s (“Our prices are IN-SANE!“) in the West Village. “All the sounds came from me singing, ringing bells, playing harmonica. It was way different.” He ran the individual tracks to cassettes to create the parts. He kept working on the piece, digitizing around 1994 and finalizing it somewhere just before the turn of the century.

The original boomboxes came from the more recently closed J&R’s in the financial district. “I bought 12 matching Sony boomboxes,” says Kline. “The CFS-201, as I recall.” They broke down quickly, and Kline landed on a Panasonic model from the ’90s that has proven to be much more durable, though a pain in the tuchus to replace. “You can hardly find a good boombox on eBay anymore,” Kline laments. “A high percentage of them were coming in unusable. I had to get four to find one that was really solid and has a few years left in it.”

Once, Kline could head west from his place, through Chinatown and onto Canal Street, lined with electronics stores and junk shops. “For a while, there was a place that even called itself a Panasonic outlet,” Kline says. “I bought a fair number, a dozen or two dozen, from them.” More recently, though, the electronics stores have turned into stalls selling perfume and selfie sticks and T-shirts and cheap jewelry. A few are left, but not even the King of Canal Street electronics has cassette boomboxes these days. Down at the far western rim, near the Holland Tunnel, is one last idiosyncratic spot, Argo Electronics, filled with mysterious old gear galore, but unaccountably closed on the recent Saturday afternoon I went by.

A recent visitor to Kline’s studio determined that the boomboxes constituted a “baroque” ensemble. “I refer to them as my ‘original instruments,'” Kline says. “Some people get crazy about it, like ‘You get so pretentious. Beethoven is Beethoven, it doesn’t matter what instruments it’s played on!’ But when I was a teenager and I heard old music played on old instruments, I said, ‘Something sounds right that never sounded right to me before.'” The smartphone app has been programmed to introduce some speed irregularities into its playback. “No two cassettes run the same, even if they’re on full battery,” says Kline, but it’s never quite the same. “We don’t do the warble.”

The piece still holds surprises, though, even in new New York. “Two years ago was the first time we ever had snow,” Kline says fondly. “Years ago, when I had this idea, I always envisioned snow, and it only took 22 years to get it. And it was fantastic. The snowstorm happened right when we were walking, and fresh snow sucks up all the noise. We walked into Tompkins Square Park and it was completely covered in white undisturbed snow, hardly a footprint. And it turned into one of those Woodstock-y things with people dancing and kissing and twirling their boxes around. We have a great picture of a guy holding up his giant boombox encrusted in ice.”

That first rainy year Unsilent Night met SantaCon, the Santas turned up later in the procession, too, and it turned out all right. It was only a few years after SantaCon’s 1998 arrival in New York and its own mid-’90s birth by San Francisco’s Cacophony Society, the same group that birthed Burning Man. The Santas melted into the sounds of bells and clouds, and suddenly the performance took on a slight whiff of danger as the crowd moved east down St. Mark’s Place and took over the street entirely, following the lead of the rambunctious white beards. But with the power of Kline’s multidimensional bells swirling towards their finale, SantaCon was subsumed. Good vibes prevailed. It was the sound of old New York remembering itself in the new, as it does every year around this time at various levels of beautiful unpredictability, a modern tradition.