Last Saturday after dark, about 60 people gathered at a Seattle’s On the Boards theater to begin a neighborhood walk called “Unsilent Night.” Created in 1992 by New York composer Phil Kline, it is a “luminous soundscape” enacted for 45 minutes on a single night in December. This year, 37 American and Canadian cities joined in.
Participants downloaded one of 4 separate but complementary music tracks of ambient minimalism on their phones, and carried portable speakers as they walked the streets together in a collective mobile sound sculpture. NPR has described Unsilent Night this way: “chiming and chants bounce off walls and windows, transforming the coldest urban area with the warmth of musical fellowship.”
And so we began, moving block by block, a mesmerizing river of sound flowing slowly along the sidewalks of the city. An initial shimmering of bright cascading notes eventually evolved into the low rumble of droning chords, succeeded by percussive xylophone patterns, as if Steve Reich were composing for gamelan. Those metallic notes later gave way to more drones and electronic chords, which became the ground for choral fragments: Gregorian chants, wordless repetitions of ‘ah’ pitched at varied intervals, and melismatic Alleluias. Despite this discernible evolution of musical shifts and changes, the cumulative effect felt unhurried and relaxed.
The Queen Anne neighborhood is a lively mix of small shops, restaurants, and theaters, plus a cinema and basketball arena. A diverse assortment of people was already out looking for the heart of Saturday night, so there were many witnesses to our sonic procession. But surprisingly few showed much reaction. Some stared blankly, as if this unexpected phenomenon eluded their emotional register. They simply didn’t know what to make of it. Others looked away, perhaps wishing us into invisibility. Such a thing should not be happening in their world, so they pretended it wasn’t. Still others wore earbuds, disabling any receptivity to a reality beyond their own self-enclosure.
Yet some indeed had ears to hear, responding with smiles or looks of wonder. Car windows rolled down to let in the sound. The Latino doorman of a boutique hotel grinned ear to ear as we passed. A homeless woman in a wheelchair gave us a knowing smile, as if we were a welcome sign of sad times ending.
Like the best liturgy, it created community out of strangers through a shared action, and forged our collectivity into both sign and instrument of mystery and wonder. It was a perfect rite for Advent, contesting the old order while announcing an “impossible possible” drawing near. For the 45 minutes of the sound sculpture, sidewalks designed for functionality (keep moving to your next purchase, or go home!) became spaces for play. The ugliness of traffic noise was challenged by sweeter sounds. Strangers were invited to smile at one another, forgetting their solitudes for a few precious moments. And the birth of something deeply poetic usurped the accustomed prose of urban life.
As Twylene Moyer has written concerning participatory public art, it invites us “to re-evaluate what we mean by quality of life, to reassess what we think we know, and to reconsider how we choose to live with ourselves and each other.”[i] Why shouldn’t we feel fully at home in our public spaces, experiencing them as places of human affection and delight, inclusiveness and solidarity, joy and wonder? Why can’t we?
Theologian Langdon Gilkey makes an even more sweeping claim for such a re-visioning process. Art, he says, “makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.”[ii]
Seeing “the truth hidden and within the ordinary,” piercing the “not seeing of conventional life” with the inbreaking of deeper reality – these comprise the essence of Christianity’s annual Advent project. Not everyone welcomes this kind of seeing, and many reject its very possibility. But for at least some of us who experienced the wonder of Unsilent Night, a richer account of the universe, making room for the transcendent, felt more persuasive than the alternatives.
As I walked in this procession of glorious sound, an Advent hymn came to mind:
Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say.
Not everyone would put the name of Christ to what we did and the sound we made together, but that doesn’t alter the content of the experience.
If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking “place,” or “being here now.” You didn’t have to name it to live it.
Toward the end of our walk we were led into a bit of open space set back from the street, where the music was not so compromised by traffic noise. And there our little speakers, one by one, began to ring with a peal of sonorous bell tones, until we were all immersed in such a joyous tintinnabulation that I could imagine myself in heaven. Every face I saw around me glowed with amazement. If the Incarnation were a sound, this would be it, suddenly sanctifying a scrubby vacant lot in Queen Anne.
As the bells faded, we processed one more block, back to our starting point, where we stood in what felt like a prayer circle while the final portion of the composition slowly faded into silence. Some closed their eyes, and everyone seemed rapt and attentive, in a state of peace and gratitude.
Once the music ended, the spell was quickly broken. We went our separate ways, strangers once more, but perhaps “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”[iii] For a moment we had known something better, and would not forget.
[i] Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 8
[ii] Langdon Gilkey, from an address given at the Art Institute of Chicago, published as “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90
[iii] The phrase is from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” expressing the incompatibility of what the Magi had experienced in Bethlehem with the unredeemed world to which they returned.