Phil Kline, Avant-Garde Boombox Santa


It makes no sense to regret missed opportunities, but damned if they don’t come back to haunt you anyway. Case in point: The oddest question that crossed my mind upon hearing that maverick guitar hero and multi-tracking guru Les Paul had passed away this past August had to do with composer Phil Kline’s boombox composition-turned-happening Unsilent Night. Had anyone ever mentioned Kline to Paul? I’d always meant to, thinking that Paul, still a seemingly tireless and approachable performer into his nineties, would recognize a kindred spirit in Kline, whose singular brand of performance art takes to the streets (in the Village and in various cities around the world) each holiday season.

For his part, Kline has never cited Paul as an influence, but no matter: He’s done his fair share of guitar-playing, logging time in Glenn Branca’s decibel-raising drone fests and once co-leading a no wave band, the Del-Byzanteens, with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Still, it’s hard to miss the line that runs from Paul’s pre-rock, pre–digital studio mastery—building tracks one voice, instrument, and layer at a time, back when it was a real chore—to Kline handing out the cassettes containing various parts of Unsilent Night to the hundreds who’ll show up in Washington Square Park on Saturday, boomboxes at the ready. He’ll morph into new-music’s self-styled Pied Piper by ordering his techno-carolers to press “play,” leading them on a snaky promenade east to Tompkins Square. Everything within earshot is immersed in a cloud of eerily minimalist sleigh bells, chorals, and cascading keyboard glissandi.

So much has been said about Kline’s boombox compositions, however, that it’s worth noting that he’s comfortable with old-fashioned modes of composing and performing. A month ago, at BAM, as one of the backdrops for choreographer Wally Cardona’s Next Wave Festival piece Really Real, Kline draped the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in spiraling hymns that at some junctures stole the dancers’ thunder. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Kline is a choirmaster at heart; voices animate many of his multimedia works.

Liturgical music is also the basis of the suspenseful mass for six voices and string quartet he has committed to the new John the Revelator (Cantaloupe), even if some of the album’s text, by poet David Shapiro and Samuel Beckett, pales in comparison to the Cardona piece’s re-adapted Kierkegaard. With assistance from the vocal troupe Lionheart and the string quartet Ethel, Kline’s mass strikes a fascinating balance between the familiar and the avant. He briskly undercuts musical quotes from other sources on tracks like “Dark Was the Night,” giving away his influences (Philip Glass, Messiaen) in order to haunt you with them.

Kline has not completely given up on boombox pieces, however, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that both cassettes and boomboxes have been marked for extinction by the rise of the MP3. He features several “tape orchestras” on the recent surround-sound DVD Around the World in a Daze (Starkland), a two-disc package that envisions his seductive loops and violin-based phase-pieces being enjoyed in settings stripped of urban edginess. Surround-sound, with its promise of ruminative sonic immersion rendered by multiple stereo speakers and video stills, is admittedly a hard sell to space-strapped apartment dwellers, but the music’s power is undeniable.

In fact, several chapters of Around the World are built from sonics pioneered on Unsilent Night: “Svarga Yatra” is a multilayered string and tape piece with ascending figures that live up to its name (translated from Sanskrit as “Stairway to Heaven”), while “Pennies From Heaven,” a marathon of drizzling, then storming chimes, is capped off with subtle techno rhythms. And when Kline subjects canonical works by Wagner and Bach to clever technological alteration (“Luv U 2 Death” and “Prelude,” respectively), it’s as if he’s issuing a statement on participation, one as much about engaging with the classics as it is about listening to them.

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