Reported by: Meghan Offermatt
Adapted for print by: Caroline Ealy
In 1992, a group of New Yorkers gathered in Washington Square Park to participate in the first “Unsilent Night.” Each person had a boombox preloaded with a cassette tape. Each tape featured a different track from the four-part electronic piece created by composer Phil Kline. Kline counted to three and the group pressed play. Slowly, the music filled up the park and Unsilent Night was born. This week, WFUV’s Meghan Offtermatt went downtown to listen to the 30th anniversary performance of this participatory artwork.
“I remember the moment we started it. We were sort of near the Washington Square Arch on fifth avenue,” Kline said. “And the way the sound bounced along the streets – it just seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. It sounded great. And after we were done, somebody said, ‘let's do it next year.’” Kline has been leading this group from the Washington Square Arch to Tompkins Square Park every year for the past 30 years. His daughter Clementine has been counting down for the past 15.
“I don’t remember coming up with the idea. It was just all of a sudden there. Write a piece of music that’s the length of one 90-minute cassette – that's 45 minutes on one side,” Kline explained. “And write it in four tracks, so when people get together they’ll be playing slightly different things.” Three decades later, people are still pressing play on one of the four tracks.
Liz Devino has been a part of this communal orchestra ten times. She’s also a composer and, this year, she and her friends came early to get some of Kline’s preloaded vintage boomboxes. “I think it’s going to be kind of cacophonous, all of these tracks playing at the same time,” Devino said. “It might be strangely beautiful, or it might just be an audio mess. I’m just going to play whatever is on the boombox.”
While Devino and the rest of her group were sporting bluetooth speakers and vintage boomboxes, others in the crowd brought homemade devices. “I am holding what I call the phonostick. It is a phonograph wireless speaker on a stick,” Aaron Almanza explained. “I used to run the Unsilent Night in San Francisco and this is how I led the procession.”
Almanza runs the LGBT National Help Center. His homemade phonostick stuck out like a skyscraper from across the sea of people huddled together in Washington Square Park. Almanza explained that there is something New York and San Francisco have in common – the same camaraderie. “People talking to each other – that’s always been my favorite part. Hearing the conversations as people wander through it,” Almanza said.
Other cities have been hosting Unsilent Night for years. The four-part communal orchestra first traveled to Tallahassee, Florida in 2000. “They were the very first ones to do it outside of New York,” Kline said. Since then, the performance piece has made its way around both the country and the world. “Over the next few years, it just started picking up in all sorts of ways. More and more people wanted to do it, and then my crowds started getting bigger. In the early 2000s, we had crowds of 700-800. One year it was well over 1,000. It was kind of scary,” Kline recalled.
Now, the piece has taken on a life of its own. “It’s a little bit like parenting in the sense that if you’re lucky, you see your child and you realize at a certain point, they’re going to be fine without me. They’re really good kids,” Kline said. “And I feel that way about the piece. It’s a really good piece. It works for a lot of people. It’s very flexible. It can be done anywhere. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. Yeah, it’s kind of Christmassy, whatever, it’s like a winter meditation too.”
The four tracks filled up the city streets as the group walked from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park. Children smiled from the shoulders of their parents and passersby paused to consider joining the orchestra. “Basically the dominating thing is kind of like snowy, tingling, shimmering, oscillating, moody with chanting,” Kline explained. “It ranges between contentment and sheer joy.” He continued, “Somebody said, ‘why did you write it?’ And I said, ‘as a gift.’ And then I realized, it’s a gift to me too. So, thank everybody for coming and being a part of it every year.”