Phil Kline was standing on a bench in Washington Square, shouting to a crowd that had grown to thirty times the size when he began his annual avant Christmas pageant in 1991.
The rules were few: press play on your boombox (if you have one) on three, and follow him across town to Tompkins Square.
"Should we turn off our cell phones?" someone yelled back.
"I don't care," he replied. "They sound great."
Later, city sounds, traffic noise, diesel brakes and conversations from passers by would all become part of the roving installation. It's almost as if the city is bordering on breaking into song, car horns punctuating an arhythm through an East Village rendering of "Silver Bells."
Kline counted to three and together the assembled pressed 'play.' The effect was immediate. A New York City park becomes a holiday haven, a quiet, heavenly, surreal space. There actually is something magical about it. And spreading a little cheer might be the only thing left that would shock fashionably nonplussed New Yorkers. It's a Christmas tradition for a cynical, and not entirely Christian, city.
New York is a city of transplants, different cultures, different religions, and different levels of attachment to the beliefs brought with them. It's a place where Pakistani restaurants have prayer and meditation rooms for cab drivers to use during long shifts, and where parts of the prevailing Jewish population disparage others as "conveniently Kosher," becoming devout only on the high holidays.
Kline describes himself as "ethnically Christian." It's a spiritual nuance he said he envies in Jewish friends, and which people raised in Christian homes (he hails from the heartland, having grown up in Akron, Ohio) don't claim as eloquently: retaining the cultural aspects of a religious tradition without holding on to the more devout practices.
And, in a sense, being ethnically Christian is what led him eleven years ago to organize a group of friends and walk through Greenwich Village with two dozen boomboxes playing ethereal, angelic sounds to celebrate Christmas.
The motivation was to "do something that's about Christmas that's not about buying gifts, getting plane tickets, hating your parents," he said. "I thought 'Let's do something to put the magic back.'"
In the ensuing years, the soundtrack to his Unsilent Night has been revised, but the concept hasn't changed: a prerecorded Christmas caroling parade, tape recorders playing church bells, choirs and celestial sounds. There's a recording of a12th-century chant incorporated in his soundtrack, as well as a hymn by Martin Luther. "There are no bits of "Silent Night," however.
"In the first one there were, but they were so buried in the mix no one would ever know," he said.
Call it New Age with an edge. The tape recorders, dispersed through the crowd, create a formless, constantly changing soundscape, and because they don't all play at the same speed, and can be further affected by the cold, dissonance and overtones resonate as the boomboxes become increasingly out of sync.
Unsilent Night has been performed by groups working with Kline's permission across the US and Canada, and as far as Berlin. Kline makes tapes available to anyone willing to pay shipping and organize the night.
"I decided from the get-go that this piece should always be free," he said. "How can you charge someone to go Christmas caroling?"
Like the recording, the parade route underwent several revisions before settling on its Washington Square - to - Tompkins Square route, crossing from the West Village to the East Village in about 45 minutes.
At this season's parade on December 14, Kline led nearly 600 people in his DIY rite, gathering a group who heard about it through his email list, local press, and word of mouth. Most came without boomboxes, relying on the two dozen he brought (in 11 years, he's only lost one, and had two given to him after one parade).
The numbers were bolstered by a crew of drunken Santas, members of a noisy anarchist group calling themselves "Santacon." In the last few years, The parade has grown far too big for traffic laws to easily apply (and Kline doesn't go through the process of getting a parade permit). Now, self-appointed crossing guards stop traffic to let the carolers cross.
As the parade wound through the streets, reactions varied from eyes lighting up to confusion to holiday road rage and Village denizens too cool to let on they've noticed. With a wide grin across his face, Kline stopped at the entry to Tompkins Square -- a park famous for drum circles, homeless riots and young punkers asking for spare change -- and watched his flock walk past.
"It's not just any Christmas party," he said quietly.