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'Unsilent Night' Boombox Orchestra to Hold 20th Annual Performance

By Andrea Swalec | December 16, 2011 8:24am
Unsilent NIght was performed in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 2009.
Unsilent NIght was performed in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 2009.
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Meredith Snider

MANHATTAN — For two decades, experimental composer Phil Kline has led seasonal parades of as many as 1,000 people hoisting boomboxes on their shoulders from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park.

This year, the old fashioned music systems will be joined for the first time by smartphones.

Thanks to a newly released iPhone app and files for Android users, music-makers in the boombox orchestra "Unsilent Night" can raise their cell phones to the sky for its 20th annual performance on Saturday.

Kline, 58, explained Thursday that participants in the 45-minute performance, which starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, will each be assigned one of four components to the music, which is made up of bells, recorded voices and synthesizer sounds.

"It sounds like crystals and snow," he said. "It sounds seasonally appropriate without having any Christmas carols or blatant message."

Kline, a Lower East Side resident, will hand out CDs and cassette tapes to people who bring their own players, and will have extra boomboxes on hand.

The Unsilent Night iPhone app is available free through the iTunes App Store, and the music's component files are sold by Android Market for $9.49.

The music will begin when participants simultaneously press "play" on their cassette players, CD players and cell phones.  

Kline said he's  encouraging people to "blast [the tracks] any way they can."

"We've laid the groundwork for new technologies to inherit the piece as cassettes become extinct," he said.

The free event, which will be held in rain or shine, has been held across the country and around the world, Kline said.

He reminisced about the first New York performance of Unsilent Night, in 1992, in a Tuesday post to MetroFocus.

"As we walked down Fifth Avenue and through the arch into Washington Square that first night, the music moved with us, morphing at every turn and every stoplight. While it required no particular musical skill, carrying the boxes allowed us all to experience the piece as active participants," he wrote.

Unsilent Night composer Phil Kline has a collection of vintage boomboxes.
Unsilent Night composer Phil Kline has a collection of vintage boomboxes.
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Aleba Gartner

At the end of that first 45-minute performance, participants cheered and suggested getting together to perform the following year, Kline wrote.

"That seemed reasonable enough, but no one could have imagined that now, 20 seasons later, we would still be doing it," he wrote.

Kline said he hopes the composition will bring "peace" to participants and passersby.

"It's a free gift," he said.

Unsilent Night starts at 7 p.m. Saturday, but participants are advised to arrive under the Washington Square Arch by 6:45 p.m.