Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night"
by Jesse Jarnow
Besides an occasional Yoko-style piano drop, the world of aleatoric sound composition rarely makes for engaging public work. Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night," on the other hand— a yuletide cavalcade in which arty marauders blast Kline's ambient piece in a boombox march from Washington Square to Tompkins Square—is one to be savored annually: no more, and no less. Changing subtly over its 45 minutes by Kline's own hand, its real shape is literal, the music expanding and contracting with the whims of the mob as it curls through the East Village.
Part situationist/guerrilla sound-caroling, part chaotic social hour, the gathering assembled shortly before seven this past Saturday by the Washington Square Park arch. Kline and friends distributed tapes and a few boomboxes for those who didn't bring their own. A middle-aged queen in a flowery kimono talked to a girl on a scooter. A dude wandered around in a white helmet, small speakers bunny-eared from the top. From a megaphone, Kline noted that it was a more manageable group than usual, perhaps due to the bitter cold. Then, the composer gave the signal, and—after that half-second hesitation that it wouldn't be as good as remembered—the instantly familiar score rose like a swarm of harmoniously clanging Martian insects.
Full for a lingering moment, the piece began with its usual flourish, the congregation moving around the perimeter of the fountain, a perfect 360-degree rendering of Kline's work audible at its center. Filing from the stable landmarks of the park, the surprise each year begins both in the path the procession mysteriously chooses and the cityscape's incremental changes since the last time this march came through. First, tonight, it's down West 4th Street, past the site of the late Bottom Line, past the ex-Tower Records (repurposed into a Toys 'R' Us Holiday Express), under scaffolding outside Aldo (where the corrugated aluminum ricochets the audio blast into delicious slapback), past Other Music, and out onto Lafayette, where the piece—quite traditionally—thins out against the broad sidewalks.
A small joy of "Unsilent Night" is serendipitous whose-streets/our-streets dissidence, Kline's drones playfully absorbing angry car horns like a hippie flowering a gun barrel, marchers marching against a green light. Occasionally, it pushes from the edge of pronoid sound-art to fratnarchy, like when a pair of Wookiee art-fucks jump briefly on the hood of a Beamer crossing Lafayette. One man blasts Kline's chimes at top volume, distorting them into something like a gamelan.
And it continues on across St. Mark's Place, a few signs of old Village life among the Starbucks and Chipotles: graffitied ATMs, a psychedelic mini-bus, a bearded comedian trying to hustle boomboxers into his nice warm theater for some improv. The music pushes and pulls, and lands in a plaza in Tompkins Square Park, where it swarms again and waits for those slower-playing decks with dying batteries to wind down, for the last tape to stop. Some years, it does so in reverent silence, that first moment of quiet a big dramatic moment. This time, not so much. But so it goes. "See you next year," Kline called out, and you will.