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MUSIC

On an ‘Unsilent Night,’ the audience is the star

In Malden and Amesbury, the sounds of an unconventional outdoor holiday celebration will soon fill the air

"Unsilent Night" in New York City, 2013.Taylor Davidson

On a chilly December evening five years ago, a group of Malden residents set out on foot for their first “Unsilent Night.” Ten minutes into their holiday stroll, as the boomboxes they carried rang out with an otherworldly score of bells and harps, it started to snow.

“It just felt like a magical part of the composition,” recalls Karen Krolak, who has helped organize the event in Malden almost every year since. “It really struck a chord personally. It makes you more present for a few minutes.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of “Unsilent Night,” an unconventional outdoor holiday celebration in which the audience members are also the performers. Conceived by the composer Phil Kline, the piece features four separate, interwoven tracks that participants play simultaneously using their cellphones and portable speakers. As they move past tall buildings and through open spaces, these prerecorded jingle bells create a winter wonderland of unexpected sound.

Over the years Kline has had as many as 1,000 people join him for the 45-minute walk in New York City. This year more than 40 communities have signed on to host their own “Unsilent Night,” from San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, Germany.

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But Kline has a particular fondness for the small community events, such as the ones in Malden, where this year’s walk takes place on Tuesday, or Amesbury, which is hosting its second annual “Unsilent Night” on Thursday.

“They can be especially charming,” says Kline, an experimental sound artist with a long association with Bang on a Can, the contemporary music organization. “It’s kind of a Johnny Appleseed thing. People move and take it to their own little town.”

That’s how Rebecca McBrien brought the Christmas walkabout to Amesbury last year. While living in Western Massachusetts some years ago, she attended her first “Unsilent Night” event in North Adams in a year when Kline happened to be on hand. She went back every year. When she moved back to her native Amesbury, she brought the idea to the Chamber of Commerce. Almost 30 people took part last year, she says.

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Phil Kline's vintage boomboxes for use during "Unsilent Night."Handout

Most were unfamiliar with it, she says. Some were surprised by the gentle cacophony of Kline’s composition.

“It’s not really meant to be melodious,” says McBrien, who works at the Amesbury Public Library. “But I think people enjoyed something different.”

Krolak first learned about Kline’s work through his collaboration with the string quartet Ethel. When Krolak and her husband, Jason Ries, moved to Malden, she had just suffered the devastating loss of her parents and brother in a car accident.

“I was shattered, but I was struck by how welcoming the neighborhood was,” says Krolak, who is the co-founder of Monkeyhouse, a Boston-based community dance project. She’s originally from Nashville.

“Since we moved here, I’ve totally fallen in love with the city,” she says. “It’s a small community that shows up for each other.”

Krolak says she loves the idea that the event was designed to run the length of one side of a cassette tape, from back when Kline handed out tapes and shared small Sony boomboxes for the participants to carry.

“Most of your attention is on listening,” Krolak says. “It feels like a luxurious but quite simple act. It really does call up this sense of childhood wonder.”

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James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

“Unsilent Night” takes place in Malden beginning at the Clary and Cimermanis Little Free Library, 11 Seaview Ave., at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Amesbury participants will meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Upper Millyard amphitheatre. More information: unsilentnight.com