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Freestyle Soundmaker

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.

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