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Music of The Streets

Unsilent Night, Charles Street Between Monument Avenue and North Avenue, Dec. 21.

Uli Loskot
CRASH! BANG! BOOMBOX!: Participants in the local installment of Unsilent Night.

Unsilent Night participants wield their noisemakers.

By Ed Schrader | Posted 1/2/2008

Academics, hobbyists, hipsters, musicians, journalists, and the just plain intrigued mingle around the Washington Monument awaiting command. They have come from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and just up the street to see a spectacle that has achieved the type of contemporary lore more often associated with buzz-worthy bands or warehouse dance parties. Most people arrive around 7:45 in the evening equipped with variously sized boomboxes and word that tapes will be provided, a mandate handed down by way of Brian Sacawa, who is presiding over the second rendition of Baltimore's take on Unsilent Night, a moving sound piece originated by New York composer Phil Kline some 15 years ago in Greenwich Village.

The idea is to get all of these people to walk down Charles Street with boomboxes, with each stereo blaring its own part of Kline's ambient tapestry, until everyone reaches Joe Squared. Some carry the boomboxes at their side like one would an attaché case, seeming distant from the experience, like a person walking to Subway to get a disappointing sandwich. Others exhibit more fervor and hold their radios over their heads in true Say Anything fashion .

What comes out of them sounds like the ringing of silvery hollowed-out orbs from an ethereal world, clinging together in multifarious patterns with a pace that shifts between rapid to near-suspension. The flow runs seamlessly at times, like a solid chanting snake, but at other moments it sounds more like a wandering song that forgot to come home.

Both results are redeeming, yet the true substance is less about cohesiveness vs. noncohesiveness and more about the dialogue between an organism (crowd of people with boomboxes) and the infrastructure in which it exists (traffic, buildings, and law enforcement).

The troops of vague merriment advance onto Charles Street, traversing a series of bar-goers who appear unable to decide if they are agitated or amused. At times there is mass indecision about red lights: obey them or bite the bullet for the sake of maintaining group fluidity? This, of course, leads to the group segmenting off into smaller patches near the Grand Central bar, distorting the body of sound into a new animal at the whim of street chaos.

The bells protrude onto passing cars and buildings reflecting back uncontrollable deviations. At first you feel as though you are fighting to retain solidity in the face of continuous obstruction (the cars, the stop signals, the police officers coercing you out of Penn Station), but somewhere between GiGi's and the Charles Theatre you let go and become the traffic, realizing that your goal to achieve harmony is supremely reliant on the act of surrendering the need to irrigate.

The "distortion" that initially frustrates is a self-made nuisance; it's the distance between what you want and what you get. When you stop wanting the composition to abide to your limited notion of form, you find the perfection that has always been. The environmental chaos--the red lights, the interloping barhoppers, the dropped boombox, foot-by-foot changes in acoustics--is just another member of the band. Hopefully the cops will sing along someday.

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