Michele Battiste 2 p.m., Jan. 17
What Heaven Sounds Like
This year Unsilent Night celebrates their tenth anniversary in San Diego with another holiday boom box processional through downtown. Ask organizer Ellen Weller to describe the sound of hundreds of boom boxes carried aloft and playing the same song in unison, and she says this: “It is a cloud, a bubble of color and light. It’s not light, really, but that’s what it sounds like,” largely she says due to a piece of music written especially for the event by Phil Kline. “It’s what heaven must sound like.” She laughs. “A hundred boom boxes.”
The concept is simple. Holiday music is made in public but instead of old fashioned caroling, participants carry boom boxes (or similar devices,) each of them playing a tape or a CD that contains the selected piece. It is outdoor ambient music designed for an infinite number to play and hear. In San Diego, somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred people showed up last year.
“The music blocks out the sounds of downtown,” says Weller, “and replaces it with this otherworldly sound.” Indeed. It is has the feel and the essence of holiday music, but it is made vaguely eerie in the way of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. The composition in and of itself is winsome and the playing of it is made ever-so-slightly out of synch due to the numbers of devices playing it while in motion. Then, there’s downtown itself as echo chamber.
“At the end, as the sound of the city creeps back in,” Weller says, “it feels like you are stepping back through a portal.”
Weller herself knows about portals and music. She plays free- improv jazz sax and flute. “And toys.” She is a member of the Trummerflora Collective, a local arts co-op that presents creative and improvised experimental music.
Unsilent Nights were going on for a decade before San Diego joined in and are now global. Each participating city rolls out on a schedule. For example Oxford, England went first this year on December 2nd; San Diego, and Athens, GA will be the last presentations on December 23.
“Actually, if you account for the time difference,” says Weller, “we’re last.”
The main event is in Manhattan. A New York composer named Phil Kline has been hosting Unsilent Nights there ever since his first in Greenwich Village on a beastly cold December night in 1992. But no matter the weather -- performances in New York have sometimes drawn hundreds of participants.
Kline is a composer/guitarist. He was in a no-wave band in the ‘80s with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and later did a world tour with Glenn Branca’s guitar ensemble. Kline once recorded a CD he called Zippo Songs. Kline composed the music but the words were taken from poems that American soldiers in Vietnam had scratched onto the steel cases of their Zippo lighters.
A local musician and writer named Christian Hertzog co-founded the San Diego version of Unsilent Night with Marcos Fernandes (now living in Japan) in 2001.
All one needs to join in is a portable tape, CD or mp3 player, fresh batteries, and sensible shoes. Unsilent Night’s organizers will provide a copy of the music, but they’d like a heads-up email ([email protected]) to know how many copies and in what format to bring. No portable music player? Weller says come anyway. Participants are asked to meet at the Gaslamp Trolley Station at 5th and Harbor no later than 7:40pm. At 8:00pm sharp, the assembled music makers will walk en masse through the Gaslamp up to Horton Plaza.
Yep - there’s an iPhone app for Unsilent Night. “I’m going to see if it will work on my iPad," says Weller. “My tape player died. Of course, I’ll need some auxiliary speakers to be heard, though.”
Unsilent Night, Friday, December 23rd in the Gaslamp, child-friendly and free to all