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A Festivus of Sound

After Thanksgiving comes Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night."

20131127-unsilent

Tomorrow may be one of the more beloved holidays on the United States’ calendar, but a global secular holiday with a moveable dateline and a growing following begins soon after. This is “Unsilent Night,” the brainchild of composer Phil Kline. Each year in cities around the world, people gather with boomboxes and CD players, Bluetooth speakers and makeshift portable audio systems, and they create a lovely collaborative din. Kline’s “Unsilent Night” consists of four complementary (and complimentary — they’re free to download) recordings of sheer sonic tinsel. Individually they are enjoyable to listen to, but the real pleasure comes in hearing them played in near simultaneity on dozens of different audio players as you walk through the city.

When played in public on Unsilent Night, the tracks are delightfully discordant even beyond the intended combination of Kline’s four jigsaw compositions. First of all, no two people start their systems at the exact same time, and the lack of true sync lends the music an echo effect. Second, the playback varies from device to device: well-worn cassette tapes played against high-fidelity CDs, bass-heavy Jamboxes joining in a robot choir with tinny old RadioShack computer speakers. From a distance, it can look like a Say Anything flash mob. Up close, the chiming percussives bring to mind minimalist composer Steve Reich at his most ebullient.

The calendar is being updated at unsilentnight.com/schedule.html. Right now the earliest date is December 6 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Other dates include New York City, where the work originated 21 years ago in Greenwich Village, on December 14; Brussels, Belgium, on December 14; Los Angeles on December 21; and Kansas City, Missouri, on December 8. As of this writing, dates for San Francisco and Montreal, among numerous other cities, are not yet set.

If you bring a boombox to the event, tapes and CDs are usually available, albeit in limited quantities. There are also Android (in the Amazon app store) and iOS apps.

Here’s a video about “Unsilent Night,” filmed to celebrate its 20th anniversary:

More on the composer Phil Kline, who is working on an opera about Nikola Tesla with Jim Jarmusch, at philkline.com. Photo from a San Francisco Unsilent Night shot by Steve Rhodes, via flickr.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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