Unsilent Night, Baltimore
December 12, 2008
Penn Station, up and down Charles Street
Every once in a while a good idea gets legs, or several dozen, and develops into an annual rite of passage at the end of the calendar. First performed in New York in 1992, Unsilent Night has grown into a global community of grass roots organizers who draw people out of their warm homes and into the chilly night bearing boom boxes for a mobile installation of Phil Kline's 4-track composition. The sharp contrast of a mob armed with noise devices against the softly ambient, loosely synchronized sound that enfolds and travels with the silent carolers offers a welcome antidote to the saccharine-laced consumerism that saturates the solstice.
The friendly conversation, puzzled responses from other denizens of the street and generous vibrations of music and community fold into the prevailing ambiance of Unsilent Night. The sharp chill dissipating with the forward movement of the walking harmonic drone. The sounds of Unsilent draw upon processed bells and voices for a softly rippling and droning texture that thrives upon the decidedly lo fidelity sources of cassettes and cheap speakers.
With a stroll into and through Baltimore's Penn Station the change in temperature and acoustics was pronounced. As was the sense of tension in participating in a peaceful, yet organized, manner in a place of public transportation in this era of "heightened security." "You're just passing through, right?" came the directive disguised as a question from the transit officer on the scene. In an age when most retire to their homes and participate with one another through isolated home entertainment experiences it is telling that genuine community activity is routinely regarded as overtly subversive. The generosity of having one of four tracks offered up in cassette or CD-R format for free - without conscious branding or visible sponsorship - is almost unsettling in its refreshing gesture of good will. The kind often alluded but rarely offered without strings. And yet it is a good idea. A good piece. One that has developed legs as a bona fide tradition that grows on the strength of intrinsic quality over marketing savy.