Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Unsilent Night' makes its way to Austin

Luke Quinton
Steven Snowden is one of the composers behind Fast Forward Austin, which is coordinating the 'Unsilent Night' procession through downtown Austin. Snowden says Phil Kline's musical creation sounds like a Christmas soundtrack but without the melodies.

The first year, Phil Kline used a typewriter to compose a press release. It was New York, 1992, and Kline and some friends were planning on marching with boomboxes through the streets of the East Village, broadcasting a serene ambient piece Kline called "Unsilent Night."

Kline sent his typewritten pitch to the Village Voice and a couple of downtown papers — papers made to print exactly this sort of event. "And then I sent it to the (New York) Times and the New Yorker," Kline says, "And every single one of them printed my press release, including the Times and the New Yorker!"

Ever since, "Unsilent Night" has been the kind of project that propels itself forward, without prodding or publicity, Kline explained from his New York apartment. It was one of those rare ideas that instantly fills a void.

On Friday, "Unsilent Night" will wind its way, for the first time, through downtown Austin. Steven Snowden is one of the composers behind Fast Forward Austin, the art music festival that began last spring. The sun-filled patio at Progress Coffee, where we met, is a far cry from Boulder, Colo., where Snowden first helped coordinate "Unsilent Night." "It was five degrees with a foot of snow, but they still drew about 85 people."

What does the music sound like? It's "a mushrooming of these bell sounds," Snowden explains. It's vaguely reminiscent of a Christmas soundtrack, but without the melodies.

The sounds will morph and move, depending on where you are in the group, as it moves from the ND Studios on Fifth Street just east of Interstate 35, on a 45-minute loop through downtown and back.

Snowden brought along his boombox. Except, with a yellow handle with red knobs, this one doesn't seem to have much "boom" to it. "All the colors of the rainbow," he laughs. Its label reads "Robo. For curious kids." Snowden's in the process of dubbing 50 cassettes so that participants dying to make use of a neglected boombox can play along. Those of us without a portable stereo can use an MP3 player with speakers. But as Snowden presses play, there is something romantic about the warble of tape.

"This hiss is ritualistic in a way," he says. And because each boombox has a different startup time, it makes the start and end unpredictable. "One by one, blinking out," until only one is left. It's like watching lightning bugs, he says.

"Unsilent Night" now happens in cities all over the world. So what draws its participants? And what draws in the passers-by who ask to walk along?

"They really do seem to create an instant community," says Kline. "I think people feel a little unhappy, even lonely, at Christmastime."

So this is a small cure for isolation — and it's also a unique event, utterly devoid of the commercial trappings that have come to inhabit the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And unlike the pressures people feel at the holiday season, Kline says, at "Unsilent Night," "nothing is being asked of them."

Kline didn't start this project by accident. He was once a 12-year-old kid in Akron, Ohio, "cutting tape loops" in his parents' basement. Later, he became part of the New York downtown scene, playing music with avant-garde guitarist Glenn Branca and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

The first tapes were acoustic recordings of a keyboard and harmonica, taped on a four track. Those sounds accompanied 50 participants that first year, Kline says. "It was a very still, slightly cold, but just crystal-clear night." Unusually quiet for the city. "It just sounded so beautiful."

Now it's a 20-year-old New York tradition that draws as many as 1,500 boombox carolers.

"We almost always end with a bigger crowd than we start with," Kline says. "People will stop and say ‘What is this' " and then they join in.

"I got to the point where Handel's ‘Messiah' — please get it away from me," Kline says. But that's a common refrain of musicians who experience Christmas fatigue. The piece isn't explicitly political or anti-anything. It's an ambient homage that focuses on an experience.

"It's community music making," says Snowden.

'Unsilent Night'

When: 9:30 p.m. Friday

Where: ND@501 Studios, 501 N. I-35

Cost: Free

Info: www.fastforwardaustin.com