Snow in sound. A blizzard of music. Silver bells – refracted into fractals, millions of them coming from everywhere around you.
No surprise, then, that Unsilent Night, Phil Kline’s holiday ambient music piece that fits all of the above descriptions has spread to nearly 30 cities over the past 20 years – no doubt one of the few holiday traditions to being on the once edgy Lower East Side. Composed for not-quite-synchronized cassette tapes in boom boxes – carried in public processionals by however many people turn up for the occasion – Unsilent Night creates clouds of cheery sound traveling through city streets.
Now, with two decades of toughening maturity behind him and pieces reflecting an indignantly liberal political sensibility, Kline has written a new work titled Peregrine, which had its first outing (somehow, the word “performance” doesn’t cut it) in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn – an out-of-Manhattan tryout, you might say. Since Phil Kline is one of the more important compositional voices of his generation, light rain and a heavy day bag (containing the laptop on which I’m now writing) were no deterrent for hearing Peregrine. It was part of a city-wide solstice celebration of cutting edge music, titled Make Music Winter, though the starting point of the musical procession on Wednesday – Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn – initially seemed ill advised, as it began in the shadow of Brooklyn’s largest Menorah lamp, and a dedication ceremony that came with what might be described as Hasidic disco.
When it was over, the composer – nearly unrecognizable in his brimmed wool hat – beckoned the faithful handful into an outdoor rotunda that was part of the plaza, distributed boom boxes containing tapes of the new piece, and let the festivities (a word I use with tongue in cheek) begin. Unsilent Night tends to twinkle gently; Peregrine is more lean and urban, unfolding in sheets of electronic sound that’s wintry mainly in the way it recalls, to my ears, the ultra-Nordic Symphony No. 7 of Sibelius.
Once into the piece, the many layers of sound (I’d estimate five or six) began to pulsate, sometimes intensifying into a counterpoint of pulsation that stopped short of excruciating and back down. A new voice would enter that was Kline’s version of a blue note – something thoroughly unexpected and slightly out of kilter – that transformed the perspective of everything around it. An organ-like bass pedal tone arrived, with momentous effect. The music evolved and devolved.
People came to their windows in the Victorian-era townhouses, perhaps to make sure a flying saucer wasn’t attempting to parallel park. Over-stimulated UPS men seemed not to notice. One man asked, “What is it?” And how to you explain in the usual telegraphic three words or less? It made me giddy at times, maybe a little on edge, especially as we seemed to turn down one Brooklyn street after another, as if we didn’t know where we were going. And we kind of didn’t. We ended up in some playground area the composer didn’t anticipate at all, our shoes crunching in a perfectly circular area that was – could it be? – perfectly artificial Astro Turf. More like perfectly surreal and perfectly appropriate at the same time. Just as electronic music is artificial but offers the certainty of quality control from one performance to another, so does Astro Turf. Surfaces are even. Nothing quirky or messy like grass.
So is Peregrine better than Unsilent Night? I ask that silly question to save others the trouble of doing so. Reviewing pieces like this are like reviewing bodies of water, or rain storms or a dead deer by the side of the road. Such things simply are not evaluated, but accepted into one’s consciousness and processed.
Riding back to Philadelphia on the Chinatown bus, I agree with a friend who observed that Peregrine wouldn’t feel right in high-tone Rittenhouse Square where Unsilent Night is perfectly at home. Maybe in the artsier terrains of Northern Liberties? In Brooklyn, we passed houses with signs in the window protesting Fracking. That felt right. The same friend wonders if it’s actually a summer piece. Sure! Maybe. Well maybe not. That’s the great thing about ambient music. Though there’s nothing vague about it, there’s an open-ended quality because it has no typical sense of beginning, middle and end. Aesthetics handed down to us by the Greeks don’t come into play here. Sometime, the music, if you want to call it that, feels like a more composed and intensified version of the everyday sound around us. Afterwards, a vibrato-heavy trio of carolers were heard on the street. They seemed like creatures from another century. And they certainly were.