All Is Bright

Unsilent Night, presented by Phil Kline. Various locations in downtown Santa Barbara, Thursday, December 21, 2006.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

For 15 years now, New York experimental music composer Phil Kline has taken his boom box-based tape loop Christmas carol, Unsilent Night, on the road to cities around the world each winter. For a guy who created a musical event with such an international cult following, he’s pretty casual about the whole affair. “What I’m about to give you are some very complex musical directions,” he announced, while standing atop a wooden bench outside the Contemporary Arts Forum, to the crowd of about 100. “Press play and follow me.” Some of the night’s participants had come to simply walk and listen. Others were armed with portable stereos, a k a boom boxes. For those of you born in the ’90s, these archaic systems play cassette tapes and require about 12 enormous D-batteries to operate.

After spending a frantic moment trying to remember how to operate the things, we were off — a festive crew dressed in wooly hats and scarves. One woman wore a silvery faux fur cape; the man beside her had a small dog in a sweater nestled in the handlebar basket of his bicycle. Last-minute Christmas shoppers laden with shiny bags stopped in their tracks and gawked as we wove our way through Paseo Nuevo Mall and onto State Street en masse. Around us, the shimmering cloud of Kline’s composition grew and pulsed. Insistent, jangling passages gave way to layers of ominous drones, then to a shrill chiming, and then to a peal of bells. Diners turned their heads as we made our way past Palazzio and Aldo’s, carrying with us an ever-shifting soundscape. Balancing my fossil of a tape player on my shoulder, I was completely enveloped in sound as we turned onto Figueroa Street. When we reached the courthouse, my tape shifted to a choral segment, and I stood on the wet lawn of the sunken gardens wrapped in celestial harmonies.

The beauty of Kline’s Unsilent Night is in the controlled chaos — the orderly disorder. Four different tracks of music were being projected by about 20 boom boxes at the same time. None of them had started playing at exactly the same moment. One couple even ran out of batteries and had to stop to buy new ones, so their track was 10 minutes behind. Yet the overall effect was beautifully haunting, evocative and exalted. Some say contemporary music is arcane, but every person we passed that night looked genuinely delighted by what they were witnessing. And I have to admit, it’s pretty fun to walk down a Christmas light-filled State Street carrying a ridiculous looking boom box. But don’t take my word for it. I’ll look for you there next year.

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