Phil Kline: Cascades of Vigorous, Multi-Dimensional Sound

The New York-based Boombox Impresario Introduces His Music

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Phil Kline is a composer of the Bang on a Can generation, championed by that collective and sharing with them good deal of common aesthetic ground, fusing an experimental sensibility and minimalist processes with rock sonics and vigor.

Some of his best-known work is for voice, in particular the Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs, composed on found texts for the extremely versatile Theo Bleckmann. Kline drew the Zippo lyrics from inscriptions American G.I.s in Vietnam made on their standard-issue lighters, and the Rumsfeld texts from the utterances made by the then–Secretary of Defense at press briefings on the war in Iraq. The composer played electric guitar in the backing band, with David Cossin on percussion and Todd Reynolds on violin.

Reynolds is another longtime champion of Kline's, whose singing string music has been recorded by string quartet Ethel both during (The Blue Room and other stories) and after (John the Revelator, for quartet with vocal soloists) Todd Reynolds's tenure with them, as well as by Reynolds solo (A Needle Pulling Fred).

But for all his success in writing for voices and violins, Kline's primary instrument may be the boombox. In 1992, he wrote Unsilent Night, a carol to be played on any number of tape/CD/mp3 players, each of which presses play on one of four prerecorded tracks and then slowly goes out of phase with the others over the course of a public procession. Unsilent Night has since exploded, with annual performances across America (and in the UK and Canada). There is a CD release, but of course that's only a shadow of the experience, which combines a sense of community with an immersive, spatial work of mobile sound art.

Fortunately there's Around the World in a Daze, Kline's surround-sound DVD for the Starkland label, which at least preserves the sense of space. Along with original electronic works, including exotic remixes of familiar works from the classical canon, Daze presents some of Kline's music for violin and boomboxes, string quartet and boomboxes, boomboxes and more boomboxes. It's the only logical step for such a 3-D composer, and includes works like Pennies from Heaven, a process piece built out of a massive cascade of tiny, chiming tones.

Pennies certainly deserves another listen, and probably another performance. It was composed for a procession through the Financial District of Manhattan, in an artistic gesture foreshadowing the Occupy Wall Street movement—a firm gesture of community, the reclamation of a public space.

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