Unsilent Night

The maestro in Washington Square Park - photo by Tom Jarmusch

Looking out at the piles of gray- and black-streaked snow outside my window reminds me of how glad I am that we had Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night on December 12th when the New York weather was cold but clear! Judging from the reaction of people who participated, though, we could have held Unsilent Night on the evening Earth freezes over for eternity and people would still have been happy. Unsilent Night does that to you.

This was my first year participating in Phil Kline’s “free outdoor participatory sound sculpture of many individual parts, recorded on cassettes, CDs and mp3s, and played through a roving swarm of boomboxes carried through city streets every December.” That’s the official description of the event, but it’s much more than that. In New York it’s an 18 year-old-tradition that draws music-loving people, kids and their parents, aging hipsters, young hipster wannabes and, in some ways best of all, the curious to Washington Square Park for the opportunity to lug a boombox picked from Kline’s cache of vintage Sony and Panasonic players.

Kline's period instruments

People also dusted off their own boomboxes and queued up under the arch for one of Kline’s cassettes or CDs containing a section of his sublime score. Kline prefers Unsilent Night to be played on cassettes (the medium for which he wrote it) for the unique sound they make, so I guess playing Unsilent Night on an old Sony boombox with a cassette is a kind of historically informed performance practice; if more early music aficionados had a sense of humor, they would appreciate this.

Long-time participants know about Unsilent Night and they were out in force in New York (and Baltimore, Boulder, Los Angeles, and lots of other places—Unsilent Night is performed in 25 cities on three continents), but it’s the curious stragglers who happened upon the crowd gathered under the arch that grabbed my attention. A young couple asked me what was going on and when I told them, they raised eyebrows and gave me a somewhat skeptical, “Interesting.” They joined us for the entire walk to Tompkins Square Park and a number of times they gave me a thumbs-up sign or just smiled. They didn’t have boomboxes, but were just along for the joyous musical ride.

As we headed east on 8th Avenue, we passed so many people who had that “What the hell is going on here?” look on their faces and you could count the number of beats it took for that look to turn to a smile once they were enveloped in the music—about three beats. Same thing happened when I took the walk with Phil in Philadelphia a few days later. Big smiles.

The enduring image that I will carry with me is that of a young woman who was off by herself in Tompkins Square Park toward the end of the piece. She was short and small and had one of Phil’s boomboxes resting on her head. Her eyes were closed and she had a beatific smile as she gently swayed with the music. That’s Unsilent Night—sound beatified.

Here’s a taste of Unsilent Night New York 2009

For more information about Unsilent Night, visit

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