Phil Kline Brings His Unsilent Night to Santa Barbara
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
“Imagine you’re coming to a Christmas party with very unusual music,” said Phil Kline, the New York sound artist whose traveling urban soundscape, Unsilent Night, makes its first-ever Santa Barbara stop on Thursday, December 21. “It’s definitely an event where you’re supposed to have fun.”
Unsilent Night, which comes to town courtesy of Iridian Arts, Santa Barbara’s first nonprofit dedicated to programming cutting-edge, contemporary music and multimedia performing arts, is an electronic Christmas caroling parade that has become a holiday cult classic. Well known in experimental and electronic music circles, its creator, Phil Kline, actually started out as a rocker, cofounding the art-punk band the Del-Byzanteens with independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch before collaborating with Glenn Branca Ensemble. Kline has a long-standing interest in multi-track recordings and non-traditional sound environments. His focus has veered toward avant-garde classical composition in recent years, but he remains gently and thoroughly subversive, both in his subtext and in his sound. Kline’s work has been described as strange, unique, and genre-blurring. Some call it rock-influenced art music, noting Kline bridges the gap between ambient electronica and avant-garde classical composition.
In 2004 he produced Zippo Songs, a song cycle based on poems that American GIs in Vietnam carved on their lighters. The recording also featured a piece called “Three Rumsfeld Songs,” with texts taken from the defense secretary’s Pentagon briefings. Despite the success of his more recent compositions, Kline’s best-known work remains Unsilent Night, which he created 14 years ago.
“I’d been working with boom boxes already,” Kline recalled, discussing the history of Unsilent Night on the telephone from New York last week. “I was inspired by Steve Reich’s tape loops in his early phasing pieces, and Brian Eno’s early tape loops — like the long, slow loops for [the ambient album] Music for Airports. They both used two or three tape recorders, and I thought, ‘What if you used eight, or 12?’ I bought eight identical boom boxes and started getting some interesting sounds.”
After a friend made a crack about going Christmas caroling with tape loops, Kline started working on an orchestral piece for exactly that purpose. In December 1992, he gathered a small group of friends with boom boxes, distributed four different tracks recorded on cassette tapes, and set out to walk the streets of Manhattan in an electronic Christmas caroling parade. The resulting effects surprised everyone involved. “I had played it in my room,” he said, “but when I got it outside on a cold night, all of a sudden there was a carpet of sound surrounding us. It was simply found magic, and I thought, ‘Ooh! It’s the kind of music that actually sounds better when the tracks aren’t exactly synchronized.’ You get this regular, rhythmic pattern, this slightly glittering interplay, like the rhythm is bouncing off itself. Literally, it glitters and oscillates, like a sparkling, shimmering cloud floating through space.”
Despite a complete lack of publicity, reviews of the first Unsilent Night appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker with references to the event as an annual tradition. Such is the power of the printed word that an annual tradition was instantly born. “Other than getting me exhausted,” Kline said of the event, “it doesn’t show any sign of slowing.”
Since its inception, Unsilent Night has grown to a gathering of about 1,500 participants each year in Manhattan. It has also visited cities across the nation and beyond, this December traveling as far as Vancouver, Sydney, and Middlesbrough, UK, as well as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This year, for the first time in Unsilent Night’s history, Kline is making each of the four recordings available as MP3s for free downloading from his Web site, philkline.com. “I’m very laissez-faire in my attitude toward Unsilent Night,” he said. “I’m stubbornly non-commercial about it. It was intended as a gift, and I’m giving it away.”
When asked how the piece changes depending on the urban landscape and the size of the turnout, Kline gave varying examples. “One year we went to Atlanta — not a place you think of as a great environment for experimental music,” he said. “It was freakishly cold and raining, and only 25 people turned up. We walked through a totally empty, beautifully lit financial district. It was very intimate. It really worked.” The San Francisco edition, on the other hand, has been attended by hundreds from the beginning. “It definitely takes on the character of the city to some degree,” Kline said. “There’s this extra-special spiritual vibe in San Francisco. I get these ‘Thank you, Mr. Kline, for the peace march’ emails.” He laughed. “If that’s what it was for them, that’s great.”
Kline spoke easily about his work, but it was when we shifted to a discussion of the score and the concepts behind his composition that he really lit up. “With Unsilent Night, I was going for a kind of emotional snow — like the thoughts you might have while watching snow,” he said, as animated as if he’d just released the recordings. “The whole concept of Christmas is about anticipation, and family, and the drama of the original story. It gets people cranked up, sad, frightened — very emotional. It’s the winter solstice, too, when we turn the corner and come out into the light. All of that goes into the score. The result is the halfway point between religious oratorio and trance music.”
It’s obvious that Kline doesn’t feel fully at home in any single genre. “In rock ’n’ roll there was conformity even within rebellion,” he recalled. “No matter how hard you try, you’re always conforming to something. But when I’m writing music, I’m suddenly having fun, conveying emotion, giving love, reporting terror. It really is all about getting to an emotional connection. I’m after a wild and crazy sound — a certain kind of aliveness — whether it’s terror or tenderness.”
4•1•1 To hear a sample of Unsilent Night or other works by Kline, or to learn more about the composer, log on to cantaloupemusic.com/unsilentnight/ or philkline.com. To take part in Unsilent Night in Santa Barbara, meet at the courtyard outside CAF (upstairs at the Paseo Nuevo Mall) at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 21. Participation is free; just bring a portable boom box with speakers. Cassette tapes and CDs will be provided, or you can burn your own by downloading an MP3 from Kline’s Web site. Following an opening reception, the procession will take place from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., ending at Alameda Park. Observers are also welcome. To volunteer or lend your portable stereo, call Heather Carney at 570-8097. Visit iridianarts.com/unsilentnight.htm.