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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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