When Nief-Norf’s artistic director, Andy Bliss, moved to Knoxville to take charge of the percussion studies area at the University of Tennessee School of Music seven years ago, one of the first projects he wanted to do was organize a performance of American composer Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night,” a crowd-participation composition that has become a worldwide phenomenon. This year’s event will be at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7.
Composed in 2001, “Unsilent Night” is open to everyone who can carry a boombox, or an iPhone with speakers, or any other electronic device that will play music and has speakers to make a big sound.
The piece consists of four separate tracks that are distributed randomly among the participants. All four of the tracks are played simultaneously. The organizer has a countdown, yells “play” and everyone pushes their start button at the same time.
Each track consists of chiming bells, all being rung at the same time. It sounds like 30-40 church bell-towers being carried through the streets, along with their bell choirs.
The effect is mesmerizing.
In New York, San Francisco and other cities around the world, the participants, each carrying their own music production device, number in the hundreds, sometimes 1,000 people or more, plus all of the onlookers that get caught up in the bell parade as it proceeds through the streets.
The first couple of years of Knoxville’s “Unsilent Night” drew 20-30 people. “The crowd has gotten larger each year,” Bliss said. “Last year, we had 60-80 people participating. I hope we can top a hundred this year.”
“Unsilent Night” isn’t Kline’s first exploration into the unusual. One of his best-known works is his “Zippo Songs,” a set of songs composed from the poetry and other writings U.S. soldiers engraved into their Zippo lighters while fighting the war in Vietnam.
It is a deeply moving experience to listen to these often intense and cryptic writings. Many of them have a sense of desperation. Some of them are profound. Kline set them to music that gives the writing room to breathe and settle into the listener.
“Unsilent Night” came out of Kline’s memory of growing up in Ohio, where families walked through neighborhoods singing Christmas carols.
Participants are asked to gather at the base of the Sunsphere, where the parade will begin. The procession will wind through the streets of downtown, past the restaurants and bars on Gay Street, and end at Market Square. Everyone is welcome.
Detailed information about how to participate can be found here.
Everyone interested in participating is invited to come to the Casual Pint, 421 Union Ave., downtown from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for drinks and to get to know each other.
More information is also available on the Nief-Norf site.