It was cold on Saturday night. Not freezing-wind-to-the-bone cold, but a numb-the-ears-and-nose-if-uncovered -for-too-long cold, a cold that seeped into shoes and made walking uncomfortable, a cold that stiffened knee joints and made one’s eyes water if they stayed unblinked for too long. And the two or three hundred people that had gathered around the Washington Square Arch, bundled up and bearing boomboxes, probably wouldn’t have wanted the weather any other way. If it’s too warm, then Unsilent Night doesn’t feel right, like celebrating Hanukkah in June. If it’s too cold, then the hour-long event feels like it’s taking forever, and the all-pervasive cold distracts people from the magic and aural audacity of Unsilent Night.
Unsilent Night is the work of Phil Kline, a musician and visual artist who, every year since 1992, has created this city-block-long sound system slash roving party slash impromptu parade slash subtle protest against the commercialization of Christmas. On the second or third Saturday of December (essentially, two Saturdays before Xmas itself), Kline gathers people in Washington Square Park and has them bring their audio-playing machines. Old-school Radio Raheem shoulder blasters, iPods plugged into $600 Bose minispeakers, trenchcoated-John Cusack–holding-up-his-heart-on-a-mixtape-in-a-boombox-style sound-machines, laptops, short-wave radios, guitar amps, Sesame Street plastic tape players, you name it, if it plays music, then there will be someone carrying it. Kline himself prefers cassette players to CD and digital players, as there’s more of a music-recorded-onto-magnetic-tape authenticity to the sound than in a digital encoding, but he takes what he can get. Kline also organizes a few dozen boomboxes to lend to people, but as the event’s grown organically over the last fifteen years, he’s had to rely upon people bringing their own. And they do.
We congregated at a quarter to seven. People schmoozed, sipped tea, sipped whiskey, reconnected with busy-bee New Yorker friends. At seven the procession started. Kline had everyone, on the count of three, press Play. Some hit the button a split second earlier, some a split second later. All of a sudden, washing over Washington Square Park was this gorgeous, glorious orchestra of sound. Wind chimes, a piano tinkling, stringed instruments plucked, is that the sound of icicles breaking? With the tapes, CDs, iPods, radios, players and humans all playing, we started the procession. From Washingon Square we headed east to 4th Street, north on Lafayette, a nice wide diagonal cut across Astor Place to Cooper Square, continuing east on St. Marks Place to Tompkins Square Park. It was a simple, easy route; hardly over a mile of city streets, but covering an incredible amount of history. Allen Ginsberg read Howl right on that spot, numerous times in 1957. There is the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. That’s where Abraham Lincoln made a fiery speech denouncing slavery in 1859, which got him onto the NY Republican ticket and eventually into the White House. That building used to be called the Electric Circus, and it was where Andy Warhol debuted the Velvet Underground with Nico in 1966. And so on and so on.
Of course, none of this was running through my head as I walked with my date and the crowds and the boomboxes and the sounds. I was just listening. With my head, my heart, my body, my whole being. Repeatedly (and quietly) shushing the talkers. Hustling ahead and dropping behind to catch different syncopations of the same sound. Positioning myself between two boombox speakers to try and live right between each note. And enjoying the cold of the night, the warm arm looped through mine, the sounds of Phil Kline’s endless song, and the contentedness of two to three hundred New Yorkers all experiencing the same wintertime magic.