Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night" began in New York but has… (Nina Roberts )
In downtown Los Angeles, it wasn't unusual to walk down the street and see ruins and old dustbins and people milling about aimlessly. Occasionally, slicing through this emptiness, there'd be the thumping bass of a boombox.
A dozen or so years later, change and gentrification have taken away much of the ruins and dust, and people mill about with more purpose. As for that unexpected noise: On Thursday, "Unsilent Night," an ambient piece by composer Phil Kline for crowd, cassette tape and boombox, debuts in downtown L.A.. after three years in the Fairfax District.
Organized by former publishing doyenne Behnoosh Khalili, this year's version of Kline's 17-year-old New York holiday tradition moves from Pan Pacific Park to Spring Street. "Unsilent Night" is a mobile communal sound sculpture that's been performed in scores of places, including the Yukon Territory, New Haven, Conn., Berlin and Banff, Alaska.
Here's how it works: People bring their portable tape players to a designated meeting place, they're given copies of Kline's "Unsilent Night" piece recorded on cassette, and everyone gambols down the street for 45 minutes, rain or shine, boomboxes doing their job in the gentlest way imaginable. Because of the inherent quirks of different tape players, the Doppler effect and various collisions with other ambient noises native to the greater metropolitan area, Kline's work moves and changes and comes alive as an entirely unique sonic organ.
He explains, "It was originally created as the ambient soundtrack to a Christmas party -- a quasi-caroling thing that about 50 of us did in Greenwich Village in 1992. Everybody had such a good time that it was suggested we do it again the next year, and it kept on going, year after year, with the crowd gradually growing to hundreds, then booming up to a thousand or more."
As the Internet flowered, word of Kline's "Unsilent Night" spread. In 2000, Tallahassee, Fla., became the first of many cities where arts collectives and experimental musicians performed the piece. The following year, a commercial recording (on Cantaloupe Music) reached a wider audience, and the years that followed saw interested parties from San Diego, Vancouver, Philadelphia and San Francisco undertake the long, happy march.
"The event has developed on its own, far beyond the modest ambitions I originally had for it," Kline said. "I think maybe it succeeds so well everywhere because the modest ambition -- to have a party -- becomes universal so easily at this time of year. It's dark and cold and everyone is stressed out -- and here's this free, low-key thing that makes the air vibrate in a way that's wonderful, relaxing and invigorating all at once."
L.A.'s version of "Unsilent Night" had fairly inauspicious beginnings four years ago in the blasé wilderness of Pan Pacific Park. When the opportunity arose to take the sound walk to a more engaged audience during the weekly Downtown Art Walk, Khalili jumped at the chance.
"In previous years, we have had anywhere from about 100 to 250 participants," she said. "This will be the first time we are going through neighborhoods with unknowing spectators. I expect we'll get passersby who are interested and plenty who will just glance our way and walk on. I first walked 'Unsilent Night' in New York City in 2003. I was planning a move to L.A., and I knew this would be such an event that most Angelenos would never get to experience -- so I wanted to bring it to this city and make it accessible.
"I was definitely moved the first time I did it, and it certainly can have a profound effect."
A more concrete change to "Unsilent Night" has been the relatively recent inclusion of CDs and MP3s of the piece offered alongside Kline's cassettes -- yet this is simply another playback that adds to the overall effect.
Perhaps the most vital aspect of "Unsilent Night" is its sense of community, a dynamic comprising many voices and thoughts about the meaning of the holidays -- consequently, in this modern world, it becomes clear that not every Christmas carol need be about Frosty the Snowman or winter bells. Even those without playback devices are welcomed to take part in the walk; the ambience of the piece filled out even more completely with the sound of voices echoing through the valleys of the great city, block after softly musical block.