We recently talked to Jo Ross of OCM about their event Unsilent Night when the streets of Oxford will be filled with music. Read on to find out more AND how you can take part!
Unsilent Night has quite a history could you tell us something about it?
It started in New York with the composer Phil Kline and a group of his friends. He loved the idea of hearing music out in the city - filling the streets and bouncing off the walls in Manhattan. He was also fascinated by the sound that Boomboxes make, especially with cassette tape where there is a slight warping and stretching of sound. So he composed a piece of music in 4 parts, rather like a choir would sing, only using festive electronic music including bell and choir sounds. And he distributed the parts to a few dozen friends and they went ‘carolling’ for the 45mins of the piece between East and West Village.
He says the effect was amazing:
“an evanescence filling the air, reverberating off the buildings and city streets as the crowd walked a pre-determined route. In effect, we became a city-block-long stereo system.”
It then became a tradition and has since been celebrated in 101 cities in four continents. In New York and San Francisco 1000s of people take part. We were part of it in Oxford in 2010 and 2011 and people adored it so we thought ‘why not do it again’?
What do you think makes the experience so magical?
As all good soundtracks do, it creates an evocative atmosphere - people experience their city in a different way as they walk the route. They slow down for a while and really listen and look to what’s around them. We are incredibly privileged to have beautiful and historic streets in Oxford so we get to see and appreciate them in a new way. But it’s also got a bit of a cheeky edge to it as we reclaim the streets from the traffic for a little while.
Most of all, though, it brings people together to create something that’s bigger than each individual or family, rather like good carol singing does. Some people dress up or get inventive with fairy lights which all adds to the charm and sense of occasion.
Why do you think this event has spread around the world and still happens today?
My guess is that it’s a combination of a great idea, easy to make happen and the power of the music. Phil Kline’s composition is timeless. It reminds us of the holidays with its festive sounds, but it also sounds remarkably fresh even nearly 30 years on.
And people who experience it in one place take it elsewhere. The idea to do it in Oxford came from music theatre composer Matt Winkworth who was at the New York event and was really inspired by it. So OCM teamed up with Matt to make it happen here. I suppose in that sense it went viral before the internet claimed that phrase. But the internet also helps people appreciate and feel part of the worldwide phenomenon. People can do it wherever they want - with a group of 4 friends or a huge community – and post pictures and videos to share with other cities taking part.
How does it work in practice?
So first you will need a Boombox – the old fashioned variety with cassette is ideal, CDs are okay but can jump when moved around. Phone speaker attachments can work if they have enough volume. We encourage people to book on the OCM website and we can supply cassettes or CDs in advance or reserve you one for the night. You can download your part or stream it online if you have good 3G or 4G at unsilentnight.com
Wrap up warm and come and meet the others taking part in Radcliffe Square. We all press play at the same moment then set off on the 45min walk lifting your system high to get the best sound. It’s really simple.
You’ve curated an Unsilent Night several times. Would you recommend people who’ve done it before come again or should it be something for those who are completely new to the experience?
If you enjoyed it last time, absolutely come again and bring friends and family. The more people with Boomboxes, the bigger the sound and the more magical the atmosphere for everyone. We’d love it to become a tradition here in Oxford too.
What kind of music players would you recommend people taking part should use in order to create the best communal sound?
You can be inventive about the sound system, bring your own, play it through a megaphone, carry a big Boombox, use some phone speakers. Phil Kline recommends the old cassette tape players.
Phones on their own aren’t really loud enough. But if you don’t have anything at home already, we are running a workshop the weekend before to make your own DIY Boombox from recycled materials led by Nicholas O’Brien of Upcycled Sounds. You can book for that online too.
And what do they need to know or do in order to take part?
We need to plan for the numbers of people taking part, so do let us know if you’re coming and book in advance through the Eventbrite link on OCM’s website. Download the music in advance if you need to. If you need a cassette or CD let us know a week in advance and we’ll get a copy to you.
Be sure to bring a boombox or speakers. You don’t have to limit yourself to one per couple, family or group either – the more the merrier!
Unsilent Night is on Saturday 16th November
The DIY Boombox Making Workshops on Saturday 9th November
Visit ocmevents.org for more information