Christmas is near, queue the boombox

A parade of stereos blaring in the streets will make city's 1st `Unsilent Night' just that

December 07, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

It's a 44-minute exercise in musical democracy and Christmas cheer. It's a tradition for our times, a modern twist on strolling minstrels and caroling parties. It's an ethereal yuletide composition performed on upward of 50 synchronized boomboxes.

It's Phil Kline's Unsilent Night. And it's coming to Baltimore tomorrow night.

Unsilent Night, now in its 15th year of performances, has become something of a cult phenomenon. Kline says the event will take place in at least 15 places worldwide this month, including Middlesbrough, England; Sydney, Australia; and Yukon.

During this year's Winter Olympics, Unsilent Night was performed in the Italian Alps. "We were greeted by a blizzard," Kline says. "It was amazing. You could barely see."

Kline's playful experiment in music-making, scored for "an infinite number of boomboxes," finally is arriving in Charm City courtesy of Brian Sacawa, a professional saxophone player. Sacawa, 29, who moved to the area this year, will be orchestrating tomorrow night's event in Baltimore; Kline will be in England, overseeing a concert there.

This will be the second performance of Unsilent Night that Sacawa has organized. Last year, he put together a concert in Tucson, Ariz., where he was living at the time, and was enchanted by the blend of kids with dogs, seniors and hipsters attracted by the novel holiday event.

"It's the kind of piece that, even if you're not musical, you can participate in," he says. "All you have to do is push the play button on your boombox."

Here's how it works:

Volunteers - the more the merrier - will gather at the Washington Monument at 6:45 p.m., each carrying his or her own hand-held stereo. (Sacawa hopes to draw about 100 marchers.)

CDs, consisting of one part each of Kline's four-part composition, will be distributed to the music-makers. Everyone will simultaneously start the boomboxes, and the parade will begin.

The group will stroll around the monument, walk slowly through Mount Vernon to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (where the Soulful Symphony is scheduled to perform holiday favorites at 8 p.m.) and circle that building.

By the time Kline's composition ends, 44 minutes after it began, the parade will have wound its way to Brewers Art, at 1106 N. Charles St. Participants will be invited inside to get warm, imbibe and socialize.

Kline, 53, who has composed everything from a traditional Mass to musical theater to electronic music, came up with the idea for the piece when he was a kid. He'd tape his favorite LPs and then play the record while simultaneously listening to the tape.

"I was fascinated by the sound they made, the way they argued with each other," he says.

In 1992, he put together a piece in four parts, with sleigh bells, chimes and swelling chorales. He got a dozen friends together in New York's Greenwich Village, where he lived, to hit the streets and perform his composition.

Because not all boomboxes play at exactly the same speed, the sound took on a blurry quality that enhanced the effect.

"It was magical," Kline says. "I couldn't believe the way it sounded outside. The sound bounces off buildings and comes back to you. It spreads around you like snow. Even though it's created by machines, it's very alive."

Since then, December performances of Unsilent Night have attracted crowds of nearly 2,000 in New York, Kline says - or about 200 performers and 1,800 observers.

Kline can't help worrying that the declining popularity of boomboxes (a trend that many city dwellers can only cheer) eventually will doom the annual performances.

"I encourage people to join along and blast the composition on their MP3 players," he says, "but so far, people think of that as a totally private, in-your-head form of entertainment."

He thinks that will change. But if it does not?

"This piece will become like early music," he says, "performed on period instruments."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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