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Unsilent Night 2017

You owe it to yourself to try this wherever you happen to live.

Made it to Unsilent Night this past weekend. I love attending. If you haven’t ever, I do recommend looking at the schedule and seeing if it’s happening in your town: unsilentnight.com. I see it’s in Austin on December 17th, Manhattan on the 17th as well, Montréal on the 19th, and Colorado Springs on the 16th. If you’re not familiar, the short version is that 20-plus years ago the composer Phil Kline wrote and recorded four piece of ambient music, collectively titled Unsilent Night, that are meant to be played simultaneously. He then distributed these recordings individually to people, who put them on boomboxes and walked around lower Manhattan in a kind of secular carol for the holidays. Since then it’s been repeated every year in Manhattan, and spread to many other places, about 116 different cities according to the website.

We went last night, using a mix of an iPhone, an Android phone connected to an old Jambox, and an an archaic iPad Mini. They were running the free app, and I was streaming from SoundCloud. You can also download the tracks, and whenever I’ve participated, there have been tape cassettes and CDs available for free use, provided by whoever had organized it that year.

At some point after everyone gathers at the meet-up location, the organizer does a countdown and we all hit play at (roughly) the same moment. The beauty of the sound of Unsilent Night is how those four tracks, in random combinations of emphasis, mix — with variations on them playing slightly out of sync on a wide variety of playback mechanisms, and how the sound bounces off walls in narrow spaces and diffuses in wider, more open spaces — and of course, there’s the sound itself, as it’s a lovely, sedate, holiday-vibe composition, filled with soft bells, and muffled singing, and minimalist percussion.

The path we take in the Mission District hasn’t changed much over the years. We start in Dolores Park, on an edge of the Mission District, where it becomes the Castro District. We then walk through the Mission, sticking mostly to less-populated streets and wider alleys, but not infrequently passing storefronts. There were a lot of people participating this weekend, perhaps 150, maybe more. I was surprised I only recognized one person, a local composer, and otherwise everyone was an unfamiliar face, except that is a few I recognized solely from past Unsilent Night events, like this one guy who has a beautiful old Gramophone-style speaker atop a very tall stick, with an lovely attached wooden box, inside of which I imagine is a phone or an iPod or something.

This year the event started at 5pm, which was great. I seem to recall it started much later in the past. It was nice to see faces, and to experience the transition from daylight to significant darkness as we proceeded. The main change I recall in the walk from previous routes is that this time we headed back directly from the Mission (that is the actual Mission, at the corner of Dolores Street and 18th Street) to the spot near the tennis courts in Dolores Park where we began, rather than re-entering the park further away, up a hill, and coming back down that way. The full composition is 45 minutes long, and we walked almost the full 45 minutes, lingering for the last few minutes in the park as the music came to its subdued close.

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This Week in Sound: Fahrenheit, Sonar Sabotage, Unsilent

An occasional clipping service

Audiobook Culture: The past weekend’s Sunday Book Review in the New York Times had an extensive section of audiobook coverage, including a review by Dave Itzkoff of Tim Robbins reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. The conflict in Itzkoff’s piece seemed to be how the rise of the audiobook somehow is part of the gadget-ization of culture. And he credits Bradbury’s book for having posited the notion “that it was not a distant stretch from dismissing books as quaint and obsolete to banning them outright.” He writes, as well, “Fortunately, a few thousand years ago, we gave ourselves a sustainable and still reliable mechanism to provide shelter from these distractions, as well as the option to use it or not” — this “reliable mechanism” is, of course, the physical book. What he doesn’t mention in the review is how Bradbury’s book itself closes with an image of an even more ancient mechanism, in which people — not just people, but maintainers of culture — tell each other stories out loud. Full disclosure: I didn’t so much “read” Itzkoff’s review as listen to it via text-to-speech thanks to the function that is part of the New York Times’ Android app.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/fahrenheit-451-read-by-tim-robbins.html

Sonar Sabotage: The headline says it all: “Study Shows Bats Jam Each Other’s Sonar to Snatch the Best Prey” (via Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner). Rishi Iyengar reports in Time magazine on research published in the journal Science that bats can block each other’s frequencies. Science’s Penny Sarchet likens it to “sonar sabotage.” It’s nature’s own EMP. The researchers are Aaron J. Corcoran and William E. Conner.
http://time.com/3571704/study-bats-jam-sonar-hunting/

Secular Robot Choirs: Unsilent Night is the annual secular caroling event, in which communal processions of boomboxes layer ambient scintillates provided by the composer Phil Kline. The schedule for the 2014 holiday season is now appearing online, including Manhattan on December 13, San Francisco also on December 13, and Toronto on December 19, with more dates to be added soon. I’ve walked the route in San Francisco, in the Mission, for many years, listening as Kline’s music fills narrow alleys and disperses into the street, as slight variations in playback create false echoes backward and forward in time. If it’s coming to your town, don’t miss it. If it isn’t, consider taking a trip.
http://unsilentnight.com/schedule.html

This post first appeared in the Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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“Unsilent Night (Stationary Mix)” (MP3)

Boom Times: Baltimore carolers in 2009 carrying their Unsilent Night boomboxes

It was Unsilent Night two nights ago in Dallas, Texas, and in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as in San Francisco, where I live, and in lower Manhattan, where Unsilent Night was created by composer Phil Kline in 1992.

The night prior it was in Asheville, North Carolina, and the night after it hit Salt Lake City plus three spots up the West Coast: San Diego, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. Tonight, December 20, it starts in Cambridge (the one in Ontario). And those are just a few of the many instances of Unsilent Night this year. Last year it hit London for the first time, this year Hong Kong.

Unsilent Night is a non-denominational ambient caroling event, no singing required. You download one of a handful of tracks from the Unsilent Night website (unsilentnight.com) or Facebook page (facebook.com/unsilentnight), and show up at the appointed spot at the appointed hour. From there, however many dozen or hundred participants will click play at more or less the same moment, and walk along a pre-determined route. The one in New York goes from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square. In San Francisco every year it starts and ends at Mission Dolores Park. The tracks are not all exactly the same, and in addition to the way their sound complements each other, you have the slight variation in reproduction quality and time-sync from all those boomboxes. The result, chaotic as that might suggest, is a glistening holiday treat.

I’ve attended many times (while looking for Creative Commons images to accompany this article, I stumbled on several candid photos on Flickr.com in which I was prominently featured), and have joked/planned with one friend for some time that we would walk it backwards. I’ve also intended to stay put and listen to it pass. Last night ended up being appropriate for the latter. I staked out the path from a second story apartment, and put a digital recorder on the window sill. This is the result:

This is not the full piece. It began several blocks away prior to when the recording begins, and ended many more blocks after it passes. It seemed like the smallest showing for Unsilent Night that I’ve ever witnessed, perhaps owing to the cold weather, and thus the crowd was sparse and the line relatively brief. In other years, the gathering boombox-holders (and people who love them) have filled the street as they made their way. Last night, they walked two at a time down the sidewalk.

Still, the recording is a good representation of the sonic experience, the way the sounds interact, the way street noise and camaraderie add further elements of chance sound, and the way the built environment shapes the overall aural experience.

For historical context, here’s a good piece by Kyle Gann from 1998 that considers Kline’s work in the broader context of what he, and others, called “downtown” music, referring to the music of Lower Manhattan:

And so the Downtown composer is attracted to media and materials that don’t carry a strong sense of tradition. Phil Kline makes music for an array of ghetto blasters. David Weinstein’s Impossible Music orchestra performs on hot-wired CD players. Many of the best Downtowners are pioneers in sampling, using bits of other recordings to make their own music. Or else Downtowners borrow rhythms and instruments from other cultures, combining elements into new hybrid musics. Downtowners do not feel that the meaning of a piece of music can be entirely captured by notation, and they often develop pieces in rehearsal rather than by trying to notate every nuance for an ensemble of complete and possibly unsympathetic strangers.

Full piece at kylegann.com. Unsilent Night has become such a phenomenon, it’s helpful to understand from whence it came, the group of composers out of which Kline arose, and the community in which his music first took root. The work’s blossoming in some ways is reminiscent of other ’80s and early-’90s New York City projects like William Wegman’s dog photos and the Blue Men Group, one-time art-world peculiarities that went from modest pursuits to global perennials. Wherever in the world Unsilent Night happens this time each year, its boombox-wielding participants are briefly transported to lower Manhattan in spirit.

(Above photo courtesy of the Commons at flickr.com.)

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Unsilent Night 2007 Itinerary

Each year as Christmas approaches, strangers gather after dark in an ever-growing number of cities, lift high their old boomboxes and MP3 players, battery-powered radios and other sound sources, and participate in composer Phil Kline‘s Unsilent Night. There are four different audio-track components to the work (available for download at unsilentnight.com), all seasonally appropriate slices of ambient haze with echoes of carillon bells and lush pop. And when played on a variety of equipment, those individual tracks join together like voices in a heavenly robot choir.

The festivities are already underway, having started on the first of the month in Manassas, Virginia — and so, before another such opportunity passes, I wanted to publish, below, the Unsilent Night itinerary for 2007. I’m disappointed that I won’t be home in San Francisco on December 22 — I’ll be in Tokyo, where, I’m a little surprised to discover, there is no scheduled Unsilent Night. It seems like a communal event in which anonymous people use machines as vocal prosthetics to enact a secular rendition of a spiritual ritual would be, well, just perfect in Akihabara. Perhaps next year…

  • December 01: Manassas, Virginia
  • December 06: Santa Barbara, California
  • December 08: Charleston, South Carolina
  • December 08: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
  • December 08: Houston, Texas
  • December 09: Middlesbrough, UK
  • December 13: New Haven, Connecticut
  • December 14: Boulder, Colorado
  • December 14: Detroit, Michigan
  • December 15: Asheville, North Carolina
  • December 15: New York City, New York
  • December 15: San Diego, California
  • December 15: Seattle, Washington
  • December 15: Sydney, New South Wales (Australia)
  • December 16: Los Angeles, California
  • December 17: Hamburg, Germany
  • December 17: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • December 20: Melbourne, Victoria (Australia)
  • December 21: Baltimore, Maryland
  • December 21: Fredericton, New Brunswick
  • December 21: Santa Rosa, California
  • December 22: San Francisco, California
  • December 23: Vancouver, British Columbia
The Unsilent Night website also houses a gallery of images, including the one above, and video footage of past events.

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Unsilent Xmas MP3s

Since 1992, the composer Phil Kline has hosted an annual event between Thanksgiving and Christmas that serves as a kind of semi-secular carolling, a hybrid of sound art and holiday festivities. His “Unsilent Night” is a four-track participatory composition. Individuals put one of the constituent parts, each 45 minutes in length, onto tape, CDR or an MP3 player, and broadcast them in unison in public, originally on boomboxes, now on all manner of equipment. The trick is that unison is hard to achieve, even if everyone assembled listens closely as the lead caroller counts down on a megaphone. The sounds are a mix of chimey percussion, resonant synths and some church-ready vocalizing. The four tracks are compressed into Zip files on Kline’s site and make for seasonal listening, before, during and after Xmas, philkline.com (ZIP, ZIP, ZIP, ZIP).

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