“Unsilent Night”: How Phil Kline transformed Christmas caroling into an avant-garde walking symphony

Phil Kline is no technophile. He doesn’t own an iPod, even though he was involved in marketing the Shuffle. He doesn’t own a TiVo, because he doesn’t watch TV. And forget the Blackberry. In fact, he could almost be a technophobe, by today’s standards, if it weren’t for pioneering and orchestrating something he calls an “electronic music caroling party.”

At 52, this Manhattanite and experimental composer has the creative energy of a youthful marketing director. After all, he successfully repackaged an age-old tradition, Christmas caroling, transforming it into a walking symphony through stereo systems.

“Unsilent Night,” Kline’s version of Christmas caroling, is not a parody of door-to-door caroling, but it’s rather an alternative to singing that has become somewhat of a cult hit in recent years. Hundreds of carolers bring boom boxes and wander together through the city streets, while playing cassette tapes of Kline’s avant-garde Christmas score. The synchronized holiday music begins with a “one, two, three, play,” which is usually followed by carolers’ broad smiles and incessant giggles.

The Christmas score is a 40-minute-long foray of melodic synth arrangements loaded with lots of electronic ear candy but no thumping bassline. An opera-like sounding voice is layered over the ambient music, but it’s not as formulaic as Enya; there’s less structure. And because the boom boxes all have varying play speeds, the sound becomes warped, essentially forming an array of swooning sounds.

A delightful happenstance? Yes, but Kline, a classical music aficionado, had no idea how his opus would turn out. At the time of his debuting “Unsilent Night” carol, in New York, now almost 13 years ago, there were only a handful of carolers. He described his experience as an “acid trip.”

“I didn’t know what it was going to sound like,” Kline recalled. “When I heard the sound, there suddenly was this vapor, this ether – kind of like an invisible carpet of sound that was creeping. It seemed like the sound was coming from everywhere, from out of the sidewalks and the buildings. I had this huge grin on my face. I looked at the other people, and they were grinning, too.

“90 percent of the public is at least amazed, if not enthralled, with what they see,” Kline said of bystanders’ reactions. “We have a few motorists that honk a lot.”

All 40 of them were giddy. They were part of a Christmas cult tradition that would later turn into an international phenomenon.

“Unsilent Night” was more of an afterthought than a substantial initiative to come up with something unique. As the brainchild for this unorthodox event, Kline experimented with taped loops around the age of 35, when he bought a dozen boom boxes and prerecorded cassette loops from TDK.

“Before then, I didn’t even know that (the TDK cassettes) even existed,” he said. “I was totally amazed when I found that out. I knew about phone answering machine tapes, but these were different. These were just called ‘endless tapes’ – not for phone answering machines.

“One of the first things I did with the boom boxes was play with a large number of equal tape loops. Later that same year, I wrote the first ‘Unsilent Night.’”

Kline’s first cut of the musical score was conceived in 1992. He continuously improved on it, until he got it just right in 1999. His carolers took notice. In 2000, the number of carolers nearly quadrupled. Unfortunately, the boom box-to-caroler ratio didn’t always match up too well, causing the sound to diminish in a sea of coat-clad New Yorkers.

“Last year, only 150 people brought boom boxes but the crowd was about 800,” he said. “So when you have that ratio, the sound gets swallowed up a bit.”

Still, “Unsilent Night” is a success. Since its inception, the boom box choir has grown to include Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Tucson, Vancouver, the Yukon Territory, Middlesborough (UK), Berlin, Sydney (Australia) and San Diego, which carols on December 17 in Downtown.

Marcos Fernandes, 50, organizer for the San Diego caroling party, remembered last year’s shindig, which started at the trolley station and ended at Horton Plaza.

“It’s quite an experience to hear the music fill the streets and bounce off the buildings,” he said. “For the last few minutes, we all stay stationary and let the music slowly fade away. It’s really nice and uplifting.”

A performer and fanatic of experimental music himself, Fernandes decided to lead the local “Unsilent Night,” when he was introduced to the Vancouver, Canada, carol four years ago.

“I talked to people and some of them were familiar with it, so we decided to just go ahead and do it,” he said. “Christian Hertzog (a local composer) actually knew Phil Kline, so Kline got in touch with me and arranged to get the tapes and put the event on.”

The San Diego carol, by comparison to the New York carol, is still in its infancy, with last year’s carolers only totaling 30 people. Fernandes is optimistic, though, and hopes it’ll grow in the future.

“I know Phil Kline gets a couple hundred people walking along with him, so I hope mine grows,” he said.

It just might. He’s already thrown in an additional incentive to join the free and family-friendly event.

“This year, following ‘Unsilent Night,’ there’ll be a concert at 8:30 p.m. in Voz Alta (16th and Broadway), and there’ll be a couple of groups performing to continue the holiday fun.”

This article originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.