Music

Mess Hall

Charity doesn't last. The crowd was already booing by the time Kool G Rap took the B.B. King's stage on the night after Christmas. Four underwhelming openers (even the noble Cannibal Ox couldn't spark a flame) had come and gone two hours prior, and G Rap faced an unruly midnight mob high off the DJ's mix of late-'80s classics. As author of a few of those, he figured to charm them easily. Sporting a retro mink jacket with matching cap was a good start; vanishing after five songs—no "Talk Like Sex," no "Streets Of New York"—was a bad finish.

Ghostface Killah was left to serve cleanup duty. The previous week he'd lounged in a bathrobe at the Wu-Tang reunion show. This time the attire was more rugged—fur-lined parka and Yankees ski cap atilt—and the subject matter was too. After a medley of familiar hits ("Incarcerated Scarfaces," "Ice Cream," "C.R.E.A.M."), Marvin Gaye's "Distant Lover" blasted over the speakers as Ghost grinded an imaginary partner and screamed, "We them '70s babies. . . . When they was fucking, they was fucking off of shit like this, so when we fuck, we fuck off of shit like this."

Christmas jeer: Kool G Rap faces the mob.
photo: Jake Price
Christmas jeer: Kool G Rap faces the mob.

Then, rather than reclaiming order, Ghost went outsider art on the crowd—"Fuck this jewelry, fuck this gear, all we want you to do is just feel our souls"—wailing about roaches in the fridge, anonymous pink medicine, and wiping his face with a sock as a kid for want of clean towels. Those details are the essence of Ghost's lyrical gift, but they'd have been more endearing had he not kicked the same spiel the prior week. Only on "Never Be the Same Again," on which Ghost and partner Raekwon sang the Carl Thomas loverman hook, and the exuberant "Ghost Shower" did Ghost's charm gleam.

After demanding three seconds of silence for the victims of 9-11 ("Whoever had beef with us, them niggas ain't playing"), Rae wondered aloud, "Where the funny nigga at?" Ghost's chum Tracy Morgan (of Saturday Night Live) sauntered up to the stage, bewildered. Earlier in the night, he'd gamely shielded a few females from a testosterone scuffle in the V.I.P section. Now he just seemed lifted. Boasting "some Richard Pryor shit," Morgan turned freak: "You motherfuckers don't know nothing about a cock ring," proffering what appeared to be a limp, pink specimen from his pocket and wagging it at the people. Morgan's routine fizzling, Ghost implored his friend for a respite: "Make me laugh, yo. Do me that solid." But like every other human on that stage—29 at final count—Morgan wasn't up to the task, and the night's tragedy continued unabated. L'enfer, c'est les autres. —Jon Caramanica


Holy Strollers

The four well-coiffed blonds on St. Marks Place were nonplussed. A 10,000-strong crowd cheering a stream of mammoth inflatable dolls is one thing, but 400 people toting boom boxes down a side street is another. Out they came onto their stoops, the diners put down their knives and their forks, the staff of Other Music piled out and declared, "It's fantastic." "What is this?" the coiffed ones asked a straggler. She shrugged, both knowing and quizzical. "It's Unsilent Night."

Unsilent Night names a composition and the event at which it happens; no one "performs" Unsilent Night. The piece's four parts are recorded on cassette tapes, and you either bring your own boombox or borrow one from Phil Kline, the composer and organizer. Kline has done multiple-boombox pieces solo, but on a recent Sunday (as annually since 1992) in Washington Square Park, he handed out the tapes, gave the signal, and we the people pressed play. Then we were off, holding our tape players high in a wordless protest march against . . . shopping?

Caroling originated as a way for rowdies to get drinks on the houses after the pubs shut. Unsilent night indeed. For Christmas music is what those boomboxes are blaring: mechanical carols, sort of. Kline has recorded bells a-tolling, organs a-swelling, glockenspiels a-tinkling, synthesizers a-oscillating, and Gregorians a-chanting. Like the Brooklyn nativity scenes where Frosty nudges in between the three kings bearing gifts, Kline's pastiche of sacred and profane references is not so much Christmas as Hyperchristmas. The manic pileup of bells, underlaid by Glassian metallophone runs, is Kline's own "Joy to the World." But when the last voice on the last boombox died away at Tompkins Square, the night seemed silent and holy indeed.

On a new Cantaloupe recording, Unsilent Night has the solemn mystery of Arvo Pärt, one of the so-called "holy minimalists." The influence of Brian Eno runs strong about the Bang on a Can group of composers lately, and Kline's ambient take on Christmas music also reflects a New Age angle. But on the hoof, the piece has a very different upshot. Crossing against traffic to the honking of horns, dodging a phalanx of cops on Broadway, jostling around fire hydrants, Unsilent Night struggles for spirituality and purity against the distractions and neglect of the world: This carol is less sleigh ride than passion play.

For boomboxes run out of sync; they distort; they resonate at different frequencies. The vocal parts warble queasily and the glockenspiels submerge. Where you stand in relation to others goes a long way toward determining what you hear—a neat metaphor for religious belief. My friend Katie called the sound "vague," and that vagueness is the result of truly accepting chance operations in public performance (John Cage certainly didn't want performers stopping for cigarettes). In terms of concept with a big C, Unsilent Night owes a debt to Alvin Lucier's distorting tape loops. But in pulling off a Christmas music that's both postmodernist and unironic, Kline shows himself a little bit Rudolph after all. —David Krasnow

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