Culture Music

Welcoming the Return of the Light: Unsilent Night 2012

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“And…..play. Let’s go, everybody.”

Around me, people started walking down the path from the front of Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center. I couldn’t find the right button on my speaker to start the music. My 3-year-old daughter was kicking happily in her stroller. The batteries had just fallen out of my camera. But that didn’t matter. Eventually I found the “play” button. My camera didn’t work well in the dark, anyway. We were on our way.

We’d just joined a group of Seattle volunteers, participating in a performance of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night. More broadly, we’d joined a winter solstice musical tradition that’s been happening all over the world, for the last 20 years.

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According to the Unsilent Night website, Phil Kline composed the piece in 1992, originally as a one-time way to bring back the experience of caroling and combine it “with his love of experimental music.” Because he was working with boomboxes, he wrote the piece to last 45 minutes, or the length of one side of a cassette tape. Over the years, people performed the piece in different cities, but were limited to boombox and then CD technology. In 2011 Seattle composer Joshua Parmenter and his software company, Rockmore Tech, decided to make Unsilent Night a free app for iOS and Androids, bringing the piece into the smartphone age, making it playable and performable for a new generation of technology. (Disclosure: He’s my husband.) The app includes instructions, the four tracks of the piece and links to this year’s performance schedule.

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To those who haven’t performed Unsilent Night, hitting “play” at the exact time sounds robotic at worst and strange at best. But part of the magic of the piece is that no group of volunteers will sync all of their devices at exactly the right time. (As it turns out, synchronicity actually isn’t the point.) The piece starts with shimmering curtains of sound, something like what you’d like to hear while watching the aurora borealis. Eventually, bells and percussion enter the picture. Before long, the person in front of you and the person behind you is “playing” a different part of the piece. You can weave in and out of the crowd, listening to different parts of the piece.

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To call these events “performances” doesn’t seem quite right. No rehearsals, admissions, or tickets, a roaming outdoor performance space. To call them “experiences” makes it sound too hazy. To call it “caroling” is closer, but no one sings. To say “You just have to be there” makes it sound exclusive. But it’s really not.

Better to say: that night, we were our own best audience. Last year, my family and I were part of Seattle’s Unsilent Night event. Almost a hundred people came, from different walks of life and of different ages: our toddler in her stroller rolled next to folks in their 60s and 80s. We walked slowly from the Good Shepherd Center down to 45th Street, over to Stone Way. Some of us wandered through the Wallingford QFC and back out again.

After a while, members of the group would stop and watch the others walk by for a little while. We’d hold up our musical devices, and grin a bit at each other. Somehow, it all worked together, even if—or perhaps, because—none of us heard exactly the same song.

When we returned to the Good Shepherd Center, there were tables with plates of cookies and Crock-Pots full of warm apple cider waiting for us in the Chapel Performance Space. By the time I came back with my daughter in her stroller, people had set their players (boomboxes, smartphones, CD players) around the chapel. The piece kept ringing and echoing throughout the room.

We’d all been out in the cold long enough. It was time to gather together, welcome the return of the light, and listen to the music.

Join this year’s Seattle performance of ‘Unsilent Night” on Friday, December 21st. Meet at 6:30PM in the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center. A FAQ about the piece, downloading the app, and more are available at www.unsilentnight.com. To see a video of last year’s Seattle performance, click here.