Sat December 14, 2013 7:00pm

Unsilent Night's Boombox Soundscape Parade

By Jason Victor Serinus

Unsilent NightOn December 14 at 7 p.m., hundreds of innovative music lovers will assemble in San Francisco’s Dolores Park at the corner of 18th Street. Carrying boomboxes or more modern devices loaded with cassette copies of Phil Kline’s score to his 45-minute, four-part composition, Unsilent Night, they will begin to create a mesmerizing soundscape like no other. Parading through the streets, inspiring wonderment along the way, they will take part in a free global event that has spread from the streets of Greenwich Village to Saskatoon and Brussels.

Composer Kline, who received his initial inspiration from the early tape-loop compositions of Steve Reich and Brian Eno, recalls the day when he imagined what it would be like to create an orchestra of boomboxes. After using a dozen matching Sony boombox cheapies in several performance pieces, memories of Christmas caroling in Ohio impelled him to produce a four-part holiday score that played for the length of one side of 90-minute cassette.

Unsilent Night“I think I had 2 dozen boom boxes, and I invited friends to come and bring more,” he told SFCV. “We might have had 40 boom boxes that night, as we walked around in the Village in the middle of December of 1992. It just sounded great. I think we were all sort of in a daze, as in ‘Who needs drugs? Listen to this!’

“I don’t think it had ever occurred to me to repeat the event, but as soon as it was done, everybody said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this again next year.’ Somewhere in the next few years, we realized that we were going to be doing it every year for awhile.”

By the early 2000s, when Kline’s Unsilent Night Greenwich Village event had crested at far over 1000 participants — the crowd was so large that it was impossible to count — his Bang On A Can-founded record label, Cantaloupe, proposed that they make a recording. Although he thought the piece virtually unrecordable, Kline created a special indoor version, and invited 40 sock-clad, boombox-bearing college kids to walk around an auditorium for 45 minutes as Cantaloupe recorded and then mixed what they produced. “The CD doesn’t exactly sound like it does in the street, but its more symphonic approach works best on record,” Kline says of the CD.

Unsilent NightOne student group in Tallahassee had already done the piece when Cantaloupe issued the CD with a note on the back cover that if people wanted to do Unsilent Night in their hometown, they could find information online. You can imagine what happened next. San Francisco came on board in 2002 when 400 people gathered for the first annual soundscape parade.

How does Kline feel about the fact that he has created a mobile institution of sorts?

“It actually feels great,” he says. “For people like me who make performance art, it’s really wonderful to see your piece have a life. It’s a bit like having children. It’s especially great to see that your piece can walk away and be put into someone else’s hands and flourish around the world. I’m totally amazed. It’s one of the first pieces I wrote, and it’s still out there being performed.”

Everything you need to fully participate in San Francisco’s Unsilent Night can be found here. Dress warmly, as you prepare for an evening making joyful public art as you’ve never made it before.

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.