Unholy Night: Making a scene

Pied Piper Mitchell Falconer and Grim Reaper Joshua Peters blaze the trail at Portland's Unsilent Night 2013.

Pied Piper Mitchell Falconer and Grim Reaper Joshua Peters blaze the trail at Portland’s Unsilent Night 2013.

Story by MARIA CHOBAN/Photos by JOE CANTRELL

The Grim Reaper isn’t so grim. Cavorting happily, winged arms flapping, draped in his full black hooded cape, smiling, magically appearing and disappearing, he tunnels like an electron to the front or the back of this flock of 50 that the Pied Piper is herding down the streets of Portland. Darting to and fro, left and right, the Reaper places himself intimidatingly between oncoming cars at intersections and the piper’s marching flock, protecting them from…well…death.

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With Pied Piper Mitchell Falconer’s shepherding via Facebook posts, and fellow Portlander Brent Emerson’s contribution of  instruments (boomboxes), 50 of us came together at the Portland Art Museum at 5:45 pm on Saturday, December 28 to participate in New York composer Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night.” Some were trained at conservatories, others in kindergarten, still others on 4Chan, trading opinions about music we liked or didn’t in that virtual rowdy milieu.

Editor’s note: To get a better idea of how Unsilent Night sounded, first click “Play” on the embedded video recorded in San Francisco in 2008, and play as you read.

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Participating as a musician in Kline’s “mobile sound composition” is as easy as being invited to a potluck and ransacking New Seasons deli if you’re not a cook. Go to the Unsilent Night website, choose one of the four tracks, and download it to an mp3 player or your smartphone or whatever medium you choose. Attach a portable speaker to your player and show up for the gig ON TIME.

At the designated bewitching hour, the designated Grand Poobah (usually the organizer of the event) counts down to “PLAY!” and everyone presses the magic button and takes a lovely walk, following the GP — in this case, the Pied Piper — through the city. Of course there is a possibility everyone will bring dessert, or track number 3.

***

Under Falconer’s baton, we rehearse the opening of the piece. Counting down from “Five!”, at “PLAY” we will start our engines. Ten extra boom boxes, provided by Emerson, are fueled and ready to go for those of us who still have dumb phones. A savvy iPhone user next to me bubbles joyfully that finally he can excel at playing something in an ensemble.

“Speak for yourself,” I growl. “I can’t even find the power switch, much less the play button, on my boombox.”

Not at all intimidated, he shoots back, “Well, maybe you should have practiced a few iterations at home!”

Promptly at 6:05 pm, Falconer commences the countdown.
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The Concept Is Bigger Than Any One Person

This isn’t the first time Portland has convened this most democratic of community-building orchestras, parading Kline’s 45-minute composition through city streets. Emerson founded the Portland experience in 2011. “It’s really massive and immersive and sparkly and fun,” he said. Initiated to the rite in San Francisco in 2008, the following year, he shared his experience with his hometown, Salt Lake City, where the yearly tradition continues, corralling his brothers as founders and heirs to the tradition. And in 2011 when he moved from San Francisco to Portland, that siren, “Unsilent Night” followed, calling him to organize a Portland paean to her.

The night is perfect. A fresh, cool not-quite-breeze bathes my tired eyelids, fanning out over my cheeks and up my forehead into my scalp where the massive unruly black curls do not keep the magic of the Portland chill out. I love the outdoors on my bare skin! This is a feeling one cannot get in a stuffy concert hall. I’m moving, limbs are loose, the city lit South Park blocks twinkle in the late twilight. This part of the experience is something only a true Oregonian can empathize with and this includes anyone who has moved to this state for its outdoor beauty and recreation.

Kline’s composition begins. Tinkly innocent high bells duet with the twinkling Park Blocks . . . underpinned by an “Exorcist”-like “Tubular Bells,” ominous, foreboding — I’m glad I’m out in the open.

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On December 11, Mitchell Falconer, linchpin of Classical Revolution PDX, announced the event on Facebook, trying to get a feel for how many people might be interested. A quiet bomb of 24-year-old energy and the ultimate team player, lending his presence and help to much contemporary-classical music on the PDX scene, Falconer discovered “Unsilent Night” by googling Kline’s name in 2009, after hearing a work of his on the album “Renegade Heaven.”

“I remember thinking the concept sounded incredibly fun and engaging but feeling a little sad because I had never lived in a city that would care enough about such a thing to make it good,” Falconer recalled. “Since then, every year I’d check the site and I saw Portland listed in 2011. Still felt bummed that I wasn’t living here yet and couldn’t attend but proud that my beloved Rose City was hip enough to do this. Two years later I find myself in Portland with a network of friends who care about contemporary/experimental music, so in December this year I checked the site, saw that we weren’t listed this time and decided to organize it myself.”

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***

The Pied Piper, with his seven-foot staff wound in myriad glowing tiny electric blue lights and his calm, near-Aspergers disregard of traffic, comforts me in a Dali-esque way as he strides with surreal surety through the first busy intersection, crossing Taylor at the Park Blocks…and doesn’t get hit. Bells peal. Hundreds, no, thousands of them, the sound blaring not from the surrounding churches but from the boomboxes we’re all carrying. I’m engulfed in their clanging as the music ricochets off the Fox Tower, unfurling and tumbling into Director Park, funneling into an arrow as it careens through my ear drums.

No one in the flock is talking. Reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s third act of “Our Town,” I am either in a surreal ghostly trance or in a graveyard because the Not-So-Grim-Reaper fucked up.

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Bummed by a low turnout in 2012, in large part due to unpredictable Portland weather, Emerson decided to forgo “Unsilent Night” in 2013, “figuring that I was somehow wrong and Portland wouldn’t ever come out in force,” he remembers. “But I follow Unsilent Night on Facebook (etc.) and I noticed that somebody picked up the ball and there would be an Unsilent Night in Portland even without me! I couldn’t resist coming out and bringing all of my accumulated boom boxes. It was a great time, a much bigger sound and community feeling than years past.”

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Two or three blocks into our caroling party, we pick up what I can only assume are the Not-Too-Grim Reaper’s droogies masquerading as two homeless dudes. They are waiting for us, getting up from benches where they were seated in the South Park Blocks to greet and join us. At the intersections of Park and Salmon, Taylor, Yamhill, Morrison, they aid the Reaper by staging a Javanese-like shadow puppet dance, two skeletons in herky-jerky movements, choreographed and perfectly synchronized with each other. They are dancing to a scale and tuning I’ve not yet encountered in the Gamelan section of “Unsilent Night,” distracting and charming the stopped cars — the good cops to the Reaper’s working patrol. They remain with us until we cross Burnside and the traffic dissipates. Their assistance no longer needed, they disappear. Literally.

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The FAQ page states that scheduling an “Unsilent Night” happening “any date leading up to Christmas is great.” In any of the other 67 cities, in any of the other four continents, in the 22 years this ritual has been going on, I’m guessing Portland is the first to present, perform, and celebrate New York composer Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” AFTER Christmas. I could be wrong about that, but I do know that 34 Unsilent Nights officially took place this year, all but one before December 25 — ours.

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An Alleluja emerges from my boombox. A female, no vibrato. Coincidentally, I look right, and in the dead of winter a bride in a sleeveless strapless white dress is walking toward us, west on Morrison…clutching a black bouquet!

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At the intersection of Burnside and Powell’s Books, mayhem ensues! Sound is bouncing off everything: Sizzle Pie pizza joint, Pod (the sculpture), then boomeranging back across Burnside from Powell’s, intercepting cars racing by, wrapping around light posts and whiplashing back at us! Despite what Phil Kline wanted — for us to be our own audience — EVERYONE around us, in cars, walking the streets…EVERYONE is the audience! Shoppers, strollers, couples out on dates, brides, skeleton dancers, moviegoers exiting Living Room Theaters, you cannot escape the puppy onslaught of “Unsilent Night.”

At Powell’s, we are into full-on electronica, a church organ-like foot pedal bellowing out low notes with screes of electronic seagulls above. And one very hip chick in thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots gives us the metal sign (arm extended above her head, fist with pinky and pointer in the wall shadow shape of a bull) and yells, “Right on! Unsilent Night!!” and continues walking, her blessing imparted. This is the sign that we would indeed make it through the Burnside intersection without casualties. Angels come in all varieties.

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Kline’s “Unsilent Night” and his demeanor as it comes across in his telling about himself and his piece are all about community, inclusiveness, joy.

“Writing “Unsilent Night” in 1992 was about combining my love for experimental electronic music and memories of Christmas caroling as a kid in Ohio,” he remembered.

Kline did NOT pander to an audience; he wrote an atmospheric ensemble piece capable of being experienced, enjoyed and even performed by almost Anybody! Ordinary people can love this kind of inclusive contemporary classical music…to the point of wanting to be active participants!

I have a natural disinclination toward celebrities and the -isms connected with them. My inclination is toward democracy and inclusion, away from fawning and hierarchy. Mitchell Falconer, Brent Emerson and Phil Kline with their community spirit and joyful ambition made “Unsilent Night” happen because they wanted to communicate, commune, spread that joy — share it with a whole bunch of people.

Did I mention “Unsilent Night” is not a ticketed event? IT’S FREE! And in true Portland fashion and history “Free is a very good price!”

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North of Burnside, the Pied Piper leads us to Northwest 13th Avenue in Portland’s Pearl District, where the sidewalks are a skateboarder’s dream, built up in concrete to a height six feet above us and glued to the buildings. We single-file between these concrete catwalks, herded through the middle, brushed by a trickling stream of cars. Behind the cliff walls of this gorge reside, among others, the brick buildings that house Wieden+Kennedy on our right and Andina restaurant on our left. And the sound swells as church bells peal again, antiphonal—thrown back and forth from the cement of one elevated sidewalk against the adjacent sidewalk. It’s dark. Not much in the way of street lights. I’m waning. Blame the bombardment and overstimulation of all my senses, including my sixth.

Ahead of me on the march, itty-bitty urchins, arms upstretched, hold their parents’ hands, caught up in the magic, skipping along with the stamina of Energizer Bunnies. Beautiful people—one in particular in a form-hugging, long black sequined skirt matching his lusciously upswept black hair, with his equally gorgeous girl fawning over him. They walk arm-in-arm with their caroling instruments. Even a little black doggy, a Toto miniature, happily trots along, taking in the commotion.

We continue walking and caroling north as far as Tanner Springs Park, deep in the heart of The Pearl, picking up another disciple at the entrance to the park, wielding his smartphone as a camera. And as we start back, the music ends. The Pied Piper turns to face his flock, raises his arms and declares, “It is over.”

The flock insists on retracing their tracks and wending back to the Portland Art Museum, not ready to call it done. The Pied Piper assents, the Not-Too-Grim-But-Tired-Reaper gamely follows, losing his water thermos under a car tire and retrieving a flattened souvenir when the driver helpfully moves the car—in the wrong direction. The Reaper’s only victim this evening.

“Unsilent Night” is so popular this year that I overhear excited plans being hatched, in true Portland DIY spirit: “I think we should create our own composition and do this more than once each year, maybe seasonally!” says a petite twenty-something young woman in my midst.

The consensus seems to be that if we set some parameters like same tempo, a designated track length, same meter (maybe), same key signature and maybe a few more similar things, perhaps Portland composers might contribute a track and we can wind through the streets with our own Unholy Night!

Back at the Portland Art Museum, the flock, still substantial, recedes, like a camera panning back and up on a long boom. But it’s just me with the 100 eyes of a peacock, leaving this surreal happening, an out-of-body experience exacerbated by what-are-the-chances? What are the chances that my companions in this magical reality would have been Death, a winter bride, buildings that came alive and talked back to us in music, skeletons dancing, wicked-hip angels, the Pied Piper, cars that caressed us and a soundtrack that oddly shifted to accompany every weird frame that popped up on our film trip?

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Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming…if we wanted the same old joyful thing or if we wanted to follow rules, we’d live in Manhattan or LA! I would love to see a summer version concocted by Portland composers. The warm fuzzy in me loves Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” and the Libra that I am wants it both ways!

“This is a city of artists, musicians, generally creative and DIY types, playful families, and folks who stay young well into retirement,” says Emerson. “I can’t wait to see how many we’ll be in 2014!”

***

Walking back into the real world, the same fresh crisp air on my face, cooling my eyelids, I climb out of my dream state, the people look like people again instead of characters from Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld,” and the buildings sound like buildings. The music is over, but drifting over from the earlier wendings a couple blocks east, glitter still hangs in the frigid air.

Portland pianist and writer Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    Wow! It almost seems to spoil the effect, superfluous to say “well done” to Phil Kline the composer, Mitchell Falconer the prime organizer and leader, and Maria Choban the magically evocative chronicler. If you want your spirit of Christmas back, just read this, listen to the “ambience” clip, and imagine yourself there. Thanks to Maria it’s easy.

    P.S. Please, if we invent our own, do NOT keep it all in the same key all the time. Please!!

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