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Boomboxes aloft for an Unsilent Night

Special to The Times

A crowd gathers, each member holding a boombox aloft in what looks like mass homage to “Say Anything’s” Lloyd Dobler. At a shouted command, each participant hits the “play” button, and slowly a miasma of postmodern classical music, influenced by the likes of Steve Reich and Brian Eno, emerges, sound waves oscillating their way into a tumbling array of unified chaos.

This may not sound like your typical Christmas celebration, but Unsilent Night is the holiday brainchild of a very atypical artist, New York-based composer Phil Kline, who got his start in the late-1970s No-Wave music and art scene.

“I’m an American rock ‘n’ roll kid who was into classical music,” explains Kline, who mounts Unsilent Night in Los Angeles for the first time Sunday night.

His most successful band, the Del-Byzanteens, found him performing alongside future filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and artist James Nares. “There were no safety pins and Mohawks,” he says. “We were definitely what were called ‘art rockers.’ ”

Kline’s fascination with arrangement and modern classical music would soon pave the way to early experiments with tape loops and boombox orchestras in a series of solo performance art works, ultimately resulting in what would become Unsilent Night.

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Kline conceived Unsilent Night in 1992 as a combination Christmas party and art piece, using boomboxes as stand-ins for traditional instruments.

“The entire thing would be played back,” he says, “but instead of having it ... where all the parts are on one tape, all of the parts are on different tapes played by different tape recorders. So they’d all be oscillating, off-pitch, out of sync.”

Though the New York event began modestly, numbering less than 100 participants in its early days, the last few years have drawn crowds in the thousands, to Kline’s delight and surprise. The numbers have been fewer at other locations, but he hopes these will increase as well.

The music that now constitutes the piece went through several variations over the years, as Kline struggled to develop a structure that would be simultaneously harmonious and off-kilter. He also wanted to evoke both a celebration of community and recognition of the depression that sometimes arrives with the holiday season.

Played on their own, the parts slowly travel through various sections over the course of 40 minutes: Ambient tones, medieval hymns and Gregorian chants all surface at some point. Kline scored and recorded the piece utilizing a combination of samples, electronic programming and live instrumentation. But the surprise will be how it all comes together at this year’s Unsilent Night gatherings, which are taking place in more than 15 cities.

The Los Angeles event begins at 7 p.m., but participants are asked to meet at the Pan-Pacific Regional Park’s basketball courts (next to the parking lot) at 6:45, so that tapes and CDs can be distributed.

“You could compare it to letting go of a flock of 100 doves or 1,000 balloons. You know they’re not gonna go in exactly the same place, but they’ll go in generally the same place,” Kline says.

Kline says he hopes Angelenos will leave the confines of their cars to enjoy the sounds of controlled holiday chaos. “Whether or not I intended it to be a communal event, it does seem to have that effect,” he says. “I ended up writing this piece of music that’s totally harmonious and has a mystical sound. It’s definitely a meditation on Christmas.”

weekend@latimes.com

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Unsilent Night

What: “An electronic caroling parade for an infinite number of boomboxes.”

Where: Pan-Pacific Regional Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m. Sunday (participants gather by 6:45)

Price: Free

Info: unsilentnightlagmail.com; www.myspace.com/unsilentnight. (Interested participants should e-mail indicating whether they prefer tape or CD versions of the piece.)


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