When I first heard of composer Phil Kline's Unsilent Night — the avant-garde "caroling party" that comes to town next Saturday — I assumed the idea was lifted from the Flaming Lips' Car Radio Orchestra.
The latter was a publicity stunt the band held during 1997's SXSW conference. The event consisted of 30 participants gathering in a parking lot, where they were each given one of four cassettes to blare from their car stereos at the same time.
Unsilent Night, it turns out, has a considerably longer track record, dating back to 1992, when Kline distributed four different cassette mixes of his electronic composition to a small gathering of friends. After pressing "start" on what were then known as boomboxes (or, for the less politically correct, ghetto blasters), they all paraded through the streets of New York playing the 45-minute track. The recording's chiming electronics and choral voices bouncing off buildings — combined with the inevitably out-of-synch playback devices — created a sonic experience far removed from any domestic or concert environment.
In the years since, the Unsilent Night ritual has been reenacted internationally in more than 50 cities, with the number of participants ranging from 15 to 1,500. The composition can now be downloaded online or through a free phone app, and then played back through a sound system of your choosing.
Critical raves, meanwhile, have continued appearing in media outlets ranging from NPR to the Los Angeles Times. "Kline's luminous, shimmering wash of bell tones," rhapsodized Time Out New York, "is one of the loveliest communal new-music experiences you'll ever encounter, and it's never the same twice."
We spoke to Kline last week about the origins of his moving sound sculpture, which will be making its Old Colorado City debut Saturday, as well as its altogether unexpected longevity.
Indy: Composers like John Cage have talked about the beauty of imperfection. And given the quality of cassettes and the fact that there's no way to start them all at the exact same time, imperfection seems like a given. What does it actually sound like when you're in the middle of all that?
Phil Kline: Well, it's something like being surrounded by a couple hundred, or a couple thousand, glittering tropical fish. The sound warbles and tweets, and they're all running at slightly different speeds. I mean, even if you had a thousand of the exact same brand-new-model boombox — which, of course, they don't make anymore — but if they did, there's probably no chance at all that any two of them would be perfectly matched.
Indy: Especially as the piece progresses.
PK: Oh yeah, sure. You've got some people using older boomboxes. And sometimes the tapes get funky. And depending on how cold it is, or how dead their batteries are, we always have somebody who, by the end, is two minutes behind.
Indy: In terms of the music itself, the events I've seen on YouTube sound kind of like Steve Reich being played through lots of music boxes. Can you tell me a little bit about the piece's creation, as well as your larger body of work?
PK: Well, my body of work goes in several different directions. People have said it sounds like three different composers.
Indy: Not all playing at the same time ...
PK: No, from piece to piece. I mean, I do stuff that's totally electronica or very conceptual. And then I do stuff that's like songs, or music theater pieces, or a string quartet. And sure, I've followed Steve Reich and Philip Glass since their early days playing in lofts and at the Kitchen. And then later, there was Television, Talking Heads and the Ramones. It was a really exciting time to be living in New York.
And Steve Reich was one of the biggest reasons I got interested in tape recorders as musical instruments — those early pieces where he'd run two identical tapes against each other, and have them go out of phase. And he then inspired Brian Eno, whose tape loops were really long and slow and would kind of float in outer space like planets until you end up with pieces like Music for Airports. So I was totally inspired by both of those guys, but then I sort of went off in my own directions.
Indy: When it comes to Unsilent Night performances, what are the biggest and smallest crowds you've seen?
PK: In New York back in the late '90s and early 2000s, it was really jumping — 400, 600, 800, 1000 people — and at some point, it was so far over a thousand that no one could tell how many people we had. All you could tell is that, for three or four New York City blocks, it was wall-to-wall people.
Indy: And the smallest?
PK: There are some I've heard about in small towns — like Milledgeville, Georgia, and Whitesburg, Kentucky — where they'd just have a handful of people. And there was somebody who did it for two or three years in White Horse, Yukon [Canada], which is the only place that an Unsilent Night has ever been canceled due to the weather. It was 40 below, and cassette machines will freeze at that temperature, they just won't play. So they did it the next year, when it was only like 10 below.
Indy: I know you can't provide all the cassettes anymore, but do you have some that you lend people?
PK: Well, in New York, I bring my boombox collection, which I always have to work on. A few break every year, and there's no boombox hospital to send them to. I've probably got about 50 to work right now. So in New York I bring those out, and I'll also bring a bag with like 200 cassettes in it.
But now the piece is easily downloadable — you can get it from Soundcloud or through our website — and very few people have cassette machines anymore. So we're sort of fighting the disappearance of that old technology. I mean, the boombox was great because, for that period when it flourished, it was all about broadcasting your music and making a big sound. Whereas, you know, iPods and iPhones and headphones are a whole different thing.
Indy: I'm sure I'm not the first person to bring up the Flaming Lips car radio project. Do you ever run into people who say Flaming Lips did that first?
PK: Sure, because Flaming Lips are a lot better known than I am. So people sort of assume that everything flowed from that direction. And I'm sure there were also plenty of other strange things involving boomboxes and tape players going on before me. But whatever. In a way, I have to just not think about that.