A New Christmas Music Tradition Sweeps the World — And It Owes Something to Akron’s Edgy Rock Scene of the Late 1970s

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat 12-12-12




It’s never too late in the history of humankind for a new Christmas tradition — especially if it comes out of the world of edgy, avant-garde participatory performance art. Edgy, avant-garde and fun participatory performance art, that is.

It is into this world that downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center is venturing this Saturday evening to hopefully start a new, free Cincinnati Christmas tradition: Unsilent Night: A Holiday Parade of Boomboxes. 

Those old cassette-player boomboxes will not be blasting out just any old Christmas carol — it is a 45-minute, four-track Electronic music/performance art piece, with some vocal passages, composed by the Akron-born, New York-based Phil Kline. Those tracks — four parts of a greater composition — are meant to be played separately but simultaneously by willing revelers out of different boomboxes. Then the entire work comes to life as a whole. 

Kline created Unsilent Night 20 years ago for a New York performance and its popularity since has spread across the world. He will not be in Cincinnati to supervise our event — New York’s annual one is occurring at the same time. 

“We’re over 20 (events) this year and still adding,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “The average each year is 25. We lose a few cities each year but pick up some interesting new ones, including Cincinnati. There will be one in Brussels. And Hong Kong wants to do one in summer. Since it’s not really a Christmas country, it doesn’t matter.

At the time he created Unsilent Night, Kline had already been using old boomboxes in his music/performance art.

For this, he created the four tracks, or sub-mixes, so that they could be combined. 


“It’s like if I took an orchestra and said, ‘Strings over here, brass over here, winds here, and percussion here,” he explained.

Since this is the first time for it here, CAC Performance Curator Drew Klein explained the local logistics: “In a perfect world, we’d like people to take the initiative and find their old boomboxes, then find links to download one of the tracks and show up with a lot of eagerness,” he said. (The links are available by clicking on Unsilent Night at contemporaryartscenter.org.) 

But he understands it will be difficult for some people to prepare in advance, so CAC will provide some old boomboxes withUnsilent Night cassette-tape mixes ready to play. 

 “At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, we’ll have everyone show up at CAC, preferably with a device in hand and a tape ready to go (at 7 p.m.),” Klein said.

Beginning at 7 p.m., the boombox-wielding participants will travel from CAC to Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park and then back downtown to the Christmas tree on Fountain Square, where the performance will climax. It all should take about 45 minutes, the composition’s length. 

You can also participate by activating an Unsilent Night app on your smartphone, also through CAC’s website, and playing that.

In his 50s, Kline has worked with such New York artists as photographer Nan Goldin, vocalist Theo Bleckmann and musicians Glen Branca and Bang On a Can All-Stars. 

“I was a late starter as a composer,” Kline explained. “At college, I was writing short stories, poetry and journalism. Around that time, I started turning more toward music, which had been a big love of mine but I never realized I wanted to pursue it for my life. Then, some time in the late 1980s into the early ’90s, I started composing and performing experimental music.”

He credits Unsilent Night to growing up in Northeast Ohio, near future indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, at a time when the traditional industrial base was crumbling and progressive musicians — like Devo and Pere Ubu — were trying to find new sounds that made sense of the changes. 

“It had a really strong Rock & Roll culture, but also a feeling of otherness,” Kline said. “I’d almost call it an alien quality. It has to do with the fact the capitalist side of northeastern Ohio was completely crumbling at the time. We were constantly living with rust, vacant buildings and failure. It made for a real wave of creativity.

“I suppose the Ohio upbringing and culture all came together on Unsilent Night,” he said. “It’s based on a Christmas tradition, caroling, I experienced growing up in Silver Lake. But at the same time, it uses obsolete junk artifacts like boomboxes. It takes this quaint family tradition and turns it into a piece of avant-garde art.”


(Photo by Tom Jarmusch)

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