Unsilent Night took over downtown Kent for the first time on Dec. 9. Jeremy Brown/The Portager

Unsilent Night, a moving public performance, came to Kent for the first time

In 1992, musician Phil Kline, who grew up in Northeast Ohio, created a participatory mobile sound sculpture inspired by portable electric instruments, boomboxes and Christmas caroling. 

Since then, his creation known as Unsilent Night has been played all over the world during the holiday season, and, this year, it finally came to Kent.

The delicate tones of chiming, chants and synthesized sounds filled the air in the streets of downtown Kent on the night of Dec. 9 during the area’s first ever exhibition of Kline’s original interactive performance art, Unsilent Night.

Over 140 people showed up at Hometown Bank Plaza to participate in the event that required each attendee to play one of four pre-recorded, 44-minute Unsilent Night tracks on their smartphones and bluetooth devices during a walk around town. 

Listen to the performance:

Many of those who attended the event brought colorfully lighted items, such as necklaces, wands and hula hoops, and some wore festive attire.

The walk led participants north on River Street, where they entered the Portage Hike and Bike Trail. Attendees gathered inside the tunnel under Fairchild Avenue to hear the sounds of the Unsilent Night tracks reverberating from the walls.

The procession continued across the Fairchild Avenue bridge, over the railroad tracks and south down North Water Street, ending back at Hometown Bank Plaza.

Alicia Patrice, a local business owner, raised the idea of bringing Unsilent Night to Kent to Main Street Kent after experiencing it twice when she lived in California.

“I just thought it was a really magical way to come together as a community at the holiday time, that doesn’t have anything attached to it.” Patrice said. “It’s just sound, moving sound. It’s a mobile sound sculpture.”

Alicia Patrice brought the idea for Unsilent Night to Main Street Kent. Jeremy Brown/The Portager

Before the walk began, Patrice addressed the crowd to make sure everyone had downloaded the sound file from the Unsilent Night website, or downloaded the Unsilent Night app, which plays any chosen track automatically. 

Then, the crowd counted down from five, and everyone pushed play on their devices at the same time. 

The creator of Unsilent Night, Kline, lives on the lower east side of New York City, but during his childhood years he lived in Silver Lake, Stow and Cuyahoga Falls.

“Kent’s always been, in a way, very important to me culturally, because of the rock life,” Kline said, “because of the musical life, and you know, spending evenings in basements with Joe Walsh, or whatever. The Kidneys are from Silver Lake, and one of my younger brothers knew one of the younger ones. 

“The last time I played at Kent it was at Filthy McNasty’s sometime in the late ’70s.”

Jeremy Brown/The Portager

After graduating from Cuyahoga Falls High School, Kline moved to New York City and never looked back. He started a band in New York in the early ‘80s called The Del-Byzanteens with his childhood friend and filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, who lived three blocks away from him in Silver Lake.  

It wasn’t until the late ‘80s when he would come up with the idea for Unsilent Night. 

Kline said it happened in about five minutes and was ultimately a combination of “portable electric instruments, boomboxes and remembering Christmas caroling in Ohio” that gave him the idea.

“I think it was a couple of things that just suddenly joined each other,” Kline said. “One of them was, this was around the time in the late ’80s, early ’90s when Casio was making these tiny keyboards that you could walk down the street and play them with batteries, and we were just joking around like, wouldn’t it be cool to have a Casio marching band.”

But when one of his friends mentioned Christmas caroling, the idea for Unsilent Night came to be.

“Someone else who was from the Midwest said, ‘Did you ever do Christmas caroling when you were a kid?’ I said, ‘sure. I remember doing them with kids at Silver Lake school.’ I didn’t really think about it, but suddenly the ideas just kind of merged.” 

The orchestration of Unsilent Night was influenced by the music Kline was listening to at the time.

“I had been working with tape machines as music instruments,” Kline said, “like early Brian Eno stuff, and tape loops. I had come up with the idea of working with boom boxes that were playing cassettes loops, so I had that equipment and I had this idea of a mobile electric music band, where people didn’t actually play.”

Jeremy Brown/The Portager

And in 1992, the first Unsilent Night took place in New York City. Since its inception, Unsilent Night has been performed in over 165 cities and on five continents around the world.

“When we hit play in December of 1992 in West Village, I just couldn’t believe how the sound took off,” Kline said. “It sounded like it was everywhere. i just couldn’t believe how cool it sounded, and it’s still true the way it changes on a different street, or cutting through an alley way or something. It just echos.”

Unsilent Night in Kent went exactly as Kline had imagined it to be over 30 years ago. It was a magical soundscape that brought people together during the holiday season.

And if you missed it this year, you just might get the chance to participate next year.

“I think it was a great success,” Patrice said. “People attended, the weather was amazing, there were lights and costumes, and I think everyone really enjoyed it as something unique and different. It seems safe to say that both MSK (Main Street Kent) and I are interested in making this a regular happening.”

Jeremy Brown
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