Speakeasy with Phil Kline

New York-based composer Phil Kline isn't afraid of experimentation. He's written music for boombox orchestras and iPod ensembles, as well as for string quartets and Medievalist vocal troupes. He's perhaps best known for the annual production of Unsilent Night, a DIY performance piece in which he passes out tapes to attendees with cassette players, and then they all go electronic Christmas caroling. The upcoming Atlanta performance of his work will be decidedly more old school. The Vega String Quartet and the vocal sextet Lionheart will perform "John the Revelator," Kline's modern take on the Christian mass at Emory University's Schwartz Center on Fri., March 20. Kline will present a pre-show lecture at 7 p.m.

How did Unsilent Night come about and how has it evolved?
Unsilent Night began as somewhere halfway between a piece that I meant to perform and a Christmas party for my friends. I guess it was both at the same time, and the basic idea was that it would be like Christmas caroling. I'd been thinking about, a friend of mine and I were talking ... about "Oh, hey, do you remember when we used to go out tramping in the snow between people's houses singing Christmas carols?"

And at the time, I'd been working with orchestras of boomboxes ... . As many as 20 or 30 at a time. So, I wrote a piece that was basically a four-track piece made up of many different kinds of parts of things, and then I separated four sections of it onto separate cassettes and copied them a number of times so that when I invited a few dozen people ... there would be like six copies of each and on all of the 24 boomboxes, everyone would have one of the tracks. When we all started them together it made this kind of amazing choral sound. An electronic choral sound. The piece of music was an original piece of music. Some people think that it's old Christmas carols, but it isn't. I had no idea what it was going to sound like until we pressed play outside. I'd heard it inside my studio, but I hadn't heard it outside. It sounded so amazing in the streets of New York. It just seemed to harmonize beautifully with the surroundings.

And, by the way did you know that it was presented in Atlanta once? It was a small student new music ensemble. ... We did Unsilent Night in downtown, which was a little weird because after five o'clock there's nobody down there. And to make things even stranger, it was early December and yet there was this weird rain and freezing mist going on. It was sort of unusual Atlanta weather. And we did it in this kind of misty twilight in downtown and it was actually really beautiful. The best part was when we took a brief detour through a part of a subway tunnel and escalator thing.

But, anyhow, Unsilent Night began as more or less a private thing that I did with a few dozen friends and over the first few years we did it, word got around and it got to the point where we would have 100 or maybe 150 people and then in the late 90s it started growing real fast. One year I had 200 and the next year I had 400 or 500 and it was right around that time when, I guess the first group was a new music group in Tallahassee, Fla. asking me if they could do it in 2000. ... And then the next year or two, with the group in Atlanta, then some people in San Francisco, some people in San Diego. It got to where the next year there were a half a dozen or so. From then on its just kind of been exponential and viral ... over those next few years it got to the point where every year we have 25 or 30 different cities across the United States. A lot of them in Canada, several in Australia, in England. And now it looks like next year we might actually have Japan. I was talking to someone the other day about Unsilent Night in Tokyo. ... Every few years I would think: OK, maybe it's time to just let Unsilent Night, sort of, quiet down. But it doesn't seem that there's going to be any way that's going to happen.

What do you think draws people to it so much?
I think there's something very seamless and easy about it. It is, I suppose you could say, it's a work of avant-garde performance art or music, but the only thing, you know when you go to Unsilent Night it just seems like it's a very beautiful social event. It's a spectacle. And the feeling that goes throughout it. It's kind of communal, because it's not a very directed event. It's not like you pay money for a ticket, have to put on a suit, have to sit down and look at a stage. You're with your neighbors; you're walking through the streets of your community, or some place you're visiting. ... you are the event.

About "John the Revelator:" Why did you choose a mass?
Well, there are a number of reasons. One of them is that ... I was was brought up in a very Christian household, my parents were very devout, but at the same time, very loving, very open-minded. As an adolescent, I was allowed to go to church sometimes, not go to church sometimes, and argue with my mom over religious stuff.

I'm not Catholic, but the mass itself is a musical form, and so many great composers that I really love, anybody from Bach to Schubert to Stravinsky, these people have all written masses and addressed the idea of setting these texts. And the mass itself, it's an interesting ritual. It's a beautiful ritual, actually, because it has to do with joining this universal body and all of us becoming one. And, I think the other end of it is that I wanted to work with a group, Lionheart, who specializes in early music. They perform Medieval, well from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ... I felt like I wanted to join that community of composers, commenting on this particular ritual.

I was reading that you also combine a lot of nontraditional elements into the mass, like Samuel Beckett quotes.
Yeah, the mass in practice, if one goes to church every week, you notice that there are two parts of the mass. One part stays the same every week. The Kyrie is always the Kyrie, and the Gloria is always the Gloria, and those parts are called the Ordinary.

Then there are parts that change every week. There will be a bible verse that specifically has to do with Easter, or a bible verse that specifically has to do with Christmas or whatever week it is. They have have bible verses that apply specifically to the third week in August. So, what I wanted to do was write the mass in context with those other parts, which are called Propers.

Specifically, my theme was, I guess, the anger and destruction surrounding us in the world right now. And I was interested to find out, I mean, there are so many Bible verses that have to do with oppression and slavery and tyranny and actually, the interesting thing, the texts that I found that were about meditation and beauty are the modern ones, and the texts that I used that are about anger and rage and destruction are from the Bible. They're all from Psalms and Lamentations.

I noticed some of your work, you're really in control of it, such as 21 iPods, I feel like you had freedom to make it exactly what you wanted it to be.
...Well, that's an interesting one because one thing that you don't know just from the title is that they were 21 shuffle iPods, so they were all shuffling randomly. Each one of them these little teeny songs I wrote that were 10-, 15-, 20-second little things. I wrote 99 of them, and each of the 99 were loaded into all 20 of the iPods and they were set on shuffle and were hanging from the ceiling with this invisible wire and they had little tiny speakers attached to them so as you walked along there was this halo above your head of little makes electronic-type noise things going on. I was in control, but it was random.

Is there any thing you'd like to add about your upcoming performance?  
Well, not really, except that "John the Revelator" is still a new piece and this performance will be the first performance I've seen with the Vega String Quartet. It'll still have the original singers, but this will be the first time with the Vega String Quartet who are in residence at Emory. So I'll be very eager to see what it sounds like with a different instrumental group. But besides that, just looking forward to coming to Atlanta for a few days. Hope it will be warm.

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