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December 10, 2009

'Unsilent Night' returns to Baltimore; public welcome to chime in

Since its New York premiere in 1992, Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night," a work of what might be called street music art, has been drawing the crowds each year -- as many as 1,500 turn out in Manhattan.

The concept is simple and cool. To quote from the official "Unsilent Night" site, it's a "free outdoor participatory sound sculpture of many individual parts, recorded on cassettes, CDs and mp3s, and played through a roving swarm of boomboxes carried through city streets every December. People bring their own boomboxes and drift peacefully through a cloud of sound which is different from every listener's perspective." Since '92, the fun has spread from NYC to more than 45 cities and on three continents.  

Each participant's boombox contains a portion (randomly chosen) of Kline's shimmery, chime- and jingle bell- filled sometimes floating, sometimes rhythmically alive composition. When all the boomboxes get pumping, the result is a unique mixture that -- through the magic of the season, of course -- blends into a cohesive sonic experience.  

Saxophonist Brian Sacawa introduced the "Unsilent tradition to Baltimore in 2006, and it will be back again on Saturday night, this time under the auspices of

Mobtown Modern, the unavoidably cool new-music group that Sacawa and Erik Spangler founded a few years ago.

As the Mobtown hipsters put it, "our favorite yuletide ambient flash mob will be dropping jewels on the soundscape of our city." The public is invited to take part; you can even just walk along with the parade if you don't have a portable sound-producing machine.

Those with audio capacities can download in advance an MP3 of "Unsilent Night" -- you'll be asked to pick a city, and one of four downloads will be chosen for you (part of the randomness factor of the event). I tested a download myself and enjoyed listened while I wrote this blog entry to nearly 45 minutes of quite hypnotic sounds -- lots of sparkling bells, minimalist patterns, even some Gregorian chant woven into the aural fabric.

Baltimore's willing Unsilent Nighters should gather at 6:45 p.m. Saturday in front of Penn Station. The parade starts at 7 and will finish up at Metro Gallery for an after-party that includes a performance of John Cage’s "Imaginary Landscape" No. 4 for 12 radios and Jacob ter Veldhuis’s "Pimpin' " for baritone saxophone. All free. For a sample of what "Unsilent Night" can be like, I've attached a clip of the 2006 parade in New York.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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