Phil Kline is a composer whose works range from sound installations to orchestral music. He graduated from Columbia in 1975 with a degree in English and, in 1992, he created Unsilent Night, a boombox parade that happens all across the U.S., Canada, and England. This year, the New York date is set for Dec. 15. The Eye sat down with Kline to discuss the performance of Unsilent Night, the composition’s role in Bush v. Gore, and Philip Glass.
How did Unsilent Night go from something you did with friends to a worldwide phenomenon?
I was just starting out as a composer, and I was creating pieces that used an orchestra of boomboxes. And this idea came together all at once. It was a mix of a memory of Christmas caroling growing up in Ohio, and, at the same time, I had all these electronics. I kept thinking, maybe we should start a marching band where everyone plays little tiny Casio keyboards that run on batteries, and it all sort of came together. The idea was that when we pressed play, all the tracks would flow together. I wrote the music anticipating that they would flow together the way a crowd flows together.
I typed a little press release, and I sent it to the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker, and a couple of little downtown newspapers. To my surprise, the little downtown papers didn’t run it, but the Times and the New Yorker did. Fifty or 60 people showed up. I’d never heard it outside, and it just sounded so great. The music was coming from everywhere, but you couldn’t really pinpoint where it was coming from. Everyone was having a great time, and I remember people saying, “Oh, we have to do this again next year!” I don’t remember ever thinking this was something we’d do every year, but by the third year, people were calling it a tradition.
How did it spread to other cities?
In 2000, I got a request from music students in Tallahassee, Fla., asking to play one of my pieces for their new ensemble. I asked them which piece, and they said Unsilent Night. Until that moment, I never thought that someone else would perform the piece. I always thought it would just be me and my boombox. As a matter of fact, they did it on one of the days when the Bush v. Gore case was being decided in Tallahassee, and they actually walked right through the courthouse square. At one point on the CBS Evening News, they walked by, and some of the reporters were holding their phones up in the air, saying, “Listen to this!” Then the record came out (a studio version of Unsilent Night) on Cantaloupe, and we said on the record, “If you’d like to do Unsilent Night in your town, give me a call.” Very quickly, people in San Diego, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco asked if they could perform it, too. This year, it will be in the 25-26 range. One of the new cities this year is Brussels. When I started out, I had no idea that it would become a worldwide word-of-mouth.
When you started this, everyone used boomboxes. But when I went to Unsilent Night last year, many people were using their phones. When did that change happen?
I started working with boomboxes around 1988, 1989. Unsilent Night was created in 1992. Throughout the ’90s, the boombox was declining and dying out. So we made CDs and encouraged people to bring CD boomboxes, but they’re heavy and cumbersome and not very effective for playing the piece. They tend to skip when you’re walking with them or go back to the beginning, which doesn’t work at all. Then, with the emergence of the iPhone and smartphones, things changed. We created the app two to three years ago, and this year, we also have an Android app. It has helped enormously because everyone is able to have the piece with them.
Is Unsilent Night your favorite piece that you’ve created?
The thing about Unsilent Night is that I had just committed to becoming a composer around that time. It’s kind of crazy. And sometimes I tell myself, oh, I wrote it so quickly, it was just something I threw out there. But when I listen to it or experience it, I have to admit, it is pretty special. I like it a lot. When you’re a creator, it is easy to look at your old work and say, oh, I should have done it that way, but I’m getting to a point where I can look back and say they’re all wonderful. I don’t know if it’s my favorite piece, but it’s certainly one of them.
How did you go from English major to composer?
By the time I was a junior, I knew I wanted to become a musician. But I was more than halfway through the English major requirements. I wasn’t going to stay around and go to school for another year or two to fulfill a music major requirement. I changed my mind. I realized what I wanted to do. So I just moved downtown and joined the downtown music arts scene. I thought about going back to school and I’ve taken some extra classes. But I loved English at Columbia. I’m probably glad that I didn’t study music there.
The language of contemporary music was changing radically at that time. And a lot of it had to do with guys who were working in lower Manhattan, like Philip Glass. I heard their music as an undergrad, and it opened a whole new consciousness about music and being an artist for me. At that time, what they were doing downtown wasn’t accepted by the academics at Columbia at all. They thought it was garbage. So I thought, no. I’m not going to stick around to fight with my professors about the validity of what I want to do. I’m just going to go do it