The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present a concert ‘played’ by the audience on boomboxes (and smartphones with speakers) called Unsilent Night this Saturday at 5:00, beginning at Mission Dolores Park. The piece, by New York composer Phil Kline is happening in more than 40 different cities this year, and was inspired by the tradition of caroling, coupled with Kline’s longtime fascination with tape recorders.
Phil Kline says the first Unsilent Night was in New York in 1992; he had already begun writing pieces for a dozen boomboxes, the relatively inexpensive cassette tape-recorder/radio combos that were the way a lot of people listened to music in the ’80s and ’90s. “A friend of mine and I had a conversation about caroling in the Midwest, we were both from the Midwest, and I suddenly thought… ‘Wait a minute! I’ll bring the boombox orchestra outside, I’ll write a piece that lasts one length of a cassette… which, if it’s a ninety-minute cassette, 45 minutes. I’ll write the piece, I’ll make it multi channel, I’ll separate the channels, I’ll copy them, and we’ll just take it outdoors and see what happens.” What happened was an unexpected sound – thanks to the combination of movement, and the low-tech quirks of cassettes. “When you have those boxes being carried by people out in the street, the sound seems to just come out of the air and up from the ground.. The music really sounds like it’s coming from the atmosphere. You turn a corner and the sound changes, you turn around, the sound changes. It’s always oscillating and so it’s like something that’s really with you, and it’s actually quite unlike anything else I’ve ever written.”
You can get a sense of the spirit of a New York Unsilent Night in this video: