Unsilent Night, NYC- 12/18
NYC ROLL-TOP: Unsilent Night, 2004
1. There is much that is the same every year about Phil Kline’s annual Unsilent Night boombox soundwalk through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village: Kline passes out the tapes (5 or 6 variations, I think), a hundred or so participants (whoever wants to join) put ‘em in their decks, Kline counts off, people hit play, there is an awed hush as the now-ancient cassettes hum to life in a shimmering swarm of silver bells, and the processional winds from Washington Square Park, east across Greenwich Village, to Tompkins Square Park, confusing the sweet, birthday boy Jesus out of pleasantly agape civilians. But there is much that’s different.
Barring the purchase of Kline's recording of it (which I can't imagine would do much), and short of going on tour when Kline stages it elsewhere, one can only hear the piece once a year. For that, it remains surprising. Several friends asked how it differed from years previous.
2. After the wind around Washington Square Park, the piece got thinner as the parade grew narrower. At first, it seemed as if there were less willing participants (and I chided myself for not bringing a boombox of my own), but I quickly realized that I had made almost exactly the same observation last year at almost exactly the same point on the route. Instead, I wondered, maybe that’s how the piece was conceived: the stretch between the Park and Broadway being a perfectly natural lull in the composition.
3. Crossing Lafayette Street and heading south, there was a brief moment of confusion whereby half of the paraders ended up on the west side of the street and half ended up on the east side. The sound split in two (a new iteration for me) and echoed itself in the immediate distance.
4. My first year, a parking lot on Astor Place was filled with fragrant Christmas trees. Last year, it was a construction site. Now, it contains the super-structure of a blobular post-modern high-rise towering over the famous rotating cube, an amoeba shaped penthouse seemingly floating in space above the upper floors.
(4a. We passed a strangely dressed figure that I’d noticed a few times, on the street and at shows. "Oh," Science Boy noted, unprovoked, "that guy writes really terrible poetry, I’ve seen him read it at the cafe where I play.")
5. During a brief stop in front of Cooper Union, across from the Village Voice offices, the sound clustered again as a group of walkers took a short respite.
6. A few steps from the gathering on the Bowery, somebody had parked a strangely Zamboni-like personal transport, the kind used mostly by New York City traffic cops and construction workers. A giant DJ speaker was strapped to the rear of the vehicle, blasting Kline’s transcendent bells into the East Village night with subatomic force.
7. Some people darted away from approaching cars while crossing the street, their boomboxes receding into the distance like carefully maneuvered fades. Others stood in the street, boldly directing traffic.
"In the red states, you have to stop for freight trains," observed a Minnesota-born friend. He gestured to the stream of weirdoes with boomboxes, dilapidated cassette recorders, and battery-rigged alarm clocks. "Here, you have to stop for this."
8. Approaching McSorley’s, I called my friends who lived down the block. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Open the window!"
"Is it religious?" somebody shouted down from the building next door.
"No!" my friend shouted up. "It's art!"
While my friends hurried their shoes on and ran downstairs, the marchers passed by. We could barely hear it anymore as we scrambled to make up the one-block lead it had on us. Approaching it, the sound built and built until we skittered to a halt in the middle of the cloud.
9. Given the spontaneity of much of the hour-long piece, that which is the same every year feels invented afresh. As always, in Tompkins Square Park, the march massed in a small space — a literal arrival making for a guaranteed triumphant finale. The crowd dispersed, friends found each other, made evening plans, and headed off into the holiday evening.