Uneasy Unsilent Night NYC, 2012
Unsilent Night grew from a New York phenomenon to a global one. Tonight’s annual New York pilgrimage from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park was magically timed down to within seconds of the duration of the 45-minute Phil Kline work played during the processional on the participants’ devices of choice. When the first processional took place (1993, if memory serves right), it was a parade of boomboxes playing cassettes of the richly swirling, pointillistic, sometimes gamelanesque, sometimes ethereal electronic work. This year the device of choice seemed to be people’s phones – there’s an Unsilent Night app for pretty much everything now. In addition, Q2 was simulcasting the full score, so there was the option of streaming it online. And Kline himself brought several boomboxes, along with battered cassettes and plenty of cds for those determined to be oldschool.
Volume-wise, oldschool won out handily: from a relatively veteran perspective (having participated in a few of these over the years), neither a phone nor a deck nor a tablet can beat a ghetto blaster. This year’s crowd was smaller than last year’s, and considerably younger, although that may simply be a function of the weather knocking out the older contingent. The undulating volume generated by the parade, as it wound from the Arch, around the fountain, crossing Broadway, down East Seventh to Tompkins Square, was also quieter, probably due to the predominance of phones over heavy appliances. What hasn’t changed is that like the original four separate cassette (and later, cd) tracks handed out at random, downloads are also randomly assigned: you never know which of the meticulously orchestrated parts you’ll be running on your machine, intermingling with the other three.
Unsilent Night has many lively moments – not to mention random moments of typical New York sidewalk unease, including but not limited to the taxi that almost drove head-on into a gaggle of people crossing Second Avenue – but overall it’s a soothing, hypnotic, enveloping piece of music, and experience. Like all parades, this procession is best enjoyed as a social event or a family outing (many took advantage of that opportunity – kids seem to love it). Doing this alone for the first time, it was hard to resist the Pavlovian impulse to bolt from the crowd, moving as leisurely as it did. A peaceful mood settled over the participants – no jostling for volume or position in line, most everyone lost in the music or in their thoughts, a few people taking pictures along the way.
Unfortunately, this coincided with Night of the Drunken Santas. Not being in touch with anyone in a fraternity or a sorority, it’s impossible to know exactly why half the teenage population of Connecticut – or New Jersey, or Long Island, or, sad to say, Ludlow Street – was wandering around the East Village wasted, dressed in Santa suits. They were too fancily costumed to be a flashmob and too disoriented to have any political agenda: protesting against Hanukah, maybe? As you can imagine, those spoiled brats wouldn’t make room for the procession, jostling people, jeering and blocking the street. A big pool of fresh vomit covered the sidewalk on East Seventh just past First Avenue, no great surprise. This element obviously existed many, many years before Unsilent Night, but they never invaded New York, let alone Alphabet City. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see such a strangely beautiful musical phenomenon being embraced by a new generation; on the other hand, it’s sad to see that so much of that generation feels entitled to act as retarded here they as do back home in the suburbs, whose bridge-and-tunnel crudeness they will always embody no matter how many trendy bars they manage to hit before it’s time to get back on the LIRR.
From this particular perspective, the crowning irony is that as calming as Unsilent Night is, this year it took a couple of martinis afterward to take the edge off. We can hope that for the other Unsilent Night processions – still happening, around the world – that won’t be an issue.
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