When I first talked to Phil Kline about his boombox Christmas carol “Unsilent Night” (for a Village Voice article in 2002), I went in assuming that Kline was Jewish. Nothing weird about that, I figured; “White Christmas” is by Irving Berlin. Wrong. Kline was raised by devout Christians in Pennsylvania. Still, he rejected the idea that his piece was religious music.
I disagree with him entirely. There’s no dogma attached, but “Unsilent Night” feels to me more spiritual than some of the self-consciously modern Christian compositions of Sir John Taverner, for example.
Now “Unsilent Night” has spread all over the country and overseas as well; there are dozens of performances in December, in small towns (Milledgeville, GA; Traverse City, MI) and large (NY, LA, SF). Studio 360’s Jonathan Mitchell documented one performance a few years ago, and his artistry in weaving the voices of participants with the music does justice to Kline’s piece. If “Unsilent Night” isn’t playing in your town, get your hands on a copy quick; and late on the 24th, crank it up loud enough to drown out the sound of hoofs on your rooftop.
P.S. Kline might not be disavowing his religious bent any more. His most recent recording, one of the highlights of the year, is a mass for six voices, and it’s hardcore New Testament: “John the Revelator.” You can hear a 2008 performance of the work on John Schaefer’s New Sounds.