About 70 or 80 people gathered outside a church at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan on a cold, clear evening in December 1992. They held boomboxes or some other kind of portable cassette player. As they processed down the avenue toward Washington Square Park, a cloud of sound emerged — slightly amorphous yet strangely celebratory. Bystanders looked on, wondering what weird New York thing was going on now. A few asked if they could join in.
This was the debut of “Unsilent Night,” a public sound sculpture created and organized by Phil Kline. A composer known for his use of tape recorders, Kline had, out of the blue one day, hit on the idea of re-creating the Christmas caroling tradition as “a kind of block-long stereo system,” he said during a recent phone conversation. So he’d gone to his studio and created a 45-minute electronic soundscape that tried to capture some of the mystery of Advent, the period leading up to Christmas that he’d loved as a kid growing up in Ohio.
He distilled the music down to four tracks and made cassettes of each individual track. He invited his friends and sent press releases to some local publications. On that December day he hauled his 40 or so boomboxes to the church, which he handed out with the cassettes. At a signal from Kline, everyone hit play.
Walking through downtown New York, the music emanating from the makeshift orchestra, Kline was amazed at what he’d created. But he didn’t quite grasp what his accomplishment might mean until the end, when a friend told him, “We’ve got to do this again next year.”
“Unsilent Night” has since become a prized holiday tradition. Kline has led the piece every year in downtown New York, where the route now begins in Washington Square and traverses crowded city streets to Tompkins Square Park. It’s also made its way around the world, having been performed in 116 cities on five continents during the quarter-century since its debut.
But until this year it has never been done in the Boston area. That will change on Dec. 9, when the “Unsilent Night” pageant will begin outside the Clary and Cimermanis Little Free Library in Malden and process through the Salemwood section of the town.
When I spoke to Kline, he was in Breckenridge, Colo., to oversee “Unsilent Night” there. Over the years he’s tried to make it to as many out-of-town performances as possible, and he’s built up a cache of memories from his travels. There was the blizzard that prevented him from getting to New Haven on time; when he arrived he was amazed to find that the piece had gone on without him, and everyone was at the endpoint, the music in full cry. The old man who stood in the middle of an icy Berlin sidewalk and said, as the participants passed by on either side of him, “schoene Klang” (“Beautiful sound”). The residents of the Mission and Castro districts of San Francisco who brought their babies out to the balconies to hear the strangely festive sounds below.
One performance Kline would love to have been present for was in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where the temperature was around 30 degrees below zero. The tape machines slowed down and eventually froze. It is the only performance that has been canceled because of weather conditions.
Technology has of course progressed since 1992, and today MP3s and Bluetooth speakers have largely replaced boomboxes in “Unsilent Night” performances. (Participants in Malden can download one of the four tracks from the piece’s website, or stream it through an app.) But for Kline the boombox remains the instrument of choice, in part because “it made a good loud sound for such a cheap thing.” There’s also something wonderful about the fact that “you cannot get two cassettes to run at exactly the same speed.” That variability meant that the piece was guaranteed to sound just a little off: asynchronous and not quite in tune.
That makes the piece more human, and that humanity is a crucial ingredient. “I’m a Midwestern kid who’s spent most of his life in New York,” he said, and he often felt the loneliness that the frenzy of a large city can impart. “At Christmastime, if you’re at all susceptible to any of those forces, it can be almost lethal.”
“Unsilent Night” was his way of filling the void. “I was thinking, let’s just give ’em something. No questions. Let’s just do it together.”
He reconnects with that feeling every year when he brings his remaining boomboxes to Washington Square to lead the unlikely holiday ritual he created. “I’m always worried until I get my boxes to the place. Once it starts, I’m just in it. It’s a gift to me, too.”
At Clary and Cimermanis Little Free Library, 11 Seaview Ave, Malden. Saturday, Dec. 9, 5 p.m. Free. malden.unsilentnight.comDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.