Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Unsilent Night Dallas 2011

I'm the kind of person who is compelled to do certain things. I stand in elevators and turn around to look everyone in the eye. I intimidate folks on airplanes. I've traveled to the arctic circle just to watch the sky... but I had no idea I had to do this one thing until it actually materialized...

Bart and I participated in the Unsilent Night event in downtown on Saturday... what a f&%$ing spectacular idea! I knew it was going to be a good time when I showed up at the railway station to meet up with the group and across the way, there were at least a hundred people dressed as Santas, in all forms. Zombie Santas, sexy skimpy Santas, nun Santas, Batman Santas, even a few Christmas trees and Jesus. There were Santas making out with each other, flashing body parts, a few hitting flasks... all of them were having a raucous time across the platform where we gathered for the event. Evidently there is a Santa pubcrawl called the Dallas Santa Rampage, which coincides with the Unsilent Night event in Dallas each year.

Our side of the platform was impressive as well. You know I'm a fan of public art, at Akard station, there is a 3-D relief map of the central business district, and it was covered in boomboxes, portable stereos and amplifiers.

We all milled about, snapping photos and getting acquainted until the instructions were given by the organizers. Most of us had never participated in the event before, even though this was the 4th annual walk. One guy had a contraption on wheels that used an APC battery backup to power an array of speakers strapped down and covered in Christmas lights.

There were all kinds of folks assembling in this group, kids, older folks, people speaking several different languages, quite an eclectic crowd. We were given cards to hand out along the way as people would surely ask us what we were doing parading around downtown in a cloud of noise.

We all readied our devices, and pressed play at the same time. A loosely organized arrangement started to waft up above the crowd, and we stayed there at the station for a minute or so before setting off in a peloton of sound. Each person was given one of four recordings to play along the route.

The random assignment, combined with the differing speakers and sound quality meant that we were all broadcasting similar, but not the same, pieces of music. As we set off toward the arts district, the group of 40 or so walked and talked, playing the recording as loud as they could.

Some people held iPod players as the walked, and some had boomboxes strapped to their backpacks. I had a set of powered speakers arranged in my bag, and their angle sent the sound right behind me, such that I couldn't even hear my own piece. As we walked, the group loosened... at one point near the Winspear Opera House, we walked almost single file around the courtyard before regrouping to cross the street. The piece of music evolved into several distinct movements. At times, especially when we were partially enclosed by a wall or overhead awning, our song was really loud and cacophonous, a chaotic mix of echoes of the same tones.

Sometimes, during a lull or when we were in open air, I had to check to make sure that my phone was still playing the piece, as it was so faint and swallowed by the vastness of the city overhead that I couldn't hear it at all. A few times, I ran ahead of the group, so I could stand stationary as the noise passed and hear it in motion. One man walked by swinging his stereo, adding his own rhythm and Doppler shift to the piece of music. We were the sound. We carried it, changed it, bounced it off of things and perceived it coming back. A sonic flock, migrating through the urban landscape with and of each other.

It was a truly beautiful experience. We walked for 40 minutes, transporting chiming, tolling, clicking and ringing soundwaves... Permeating the atmosphere. After the Winspear, we visited the dark face of the Nasher Sculpture Center, reverberated off the Dallas Museum of Art, pausing for a few minutes in the entry to the Crow Collection of Asian Art, where there is a huge fountain flanked by staircases. The water was so loud against the bells on our recordings that they almost disappeared in this space. All you could hear was the overwhelming noise of the water, filling the vestibule and leaving nothing unmoved by the perception of sound.

Sound is pretty powerful... I found this 40 minutes of my life passing as quickly as my favorite song would. I was consumed by the power of amplification around me. All of these people gathered and moved together to make the same noise, and I didn't want it to end. Others felt it too, as we walked, passersby had distinct reactions to us. Some stopped to listen and watch in wonder, some turned the other way to escape the field of sound that preceded us, and some held out their hands as we offered cards. Admittedly, we were all walking as one, and I missed a lot of the crowd reaction because I couldn't take my eyes off it myself. A moving cloud. I really like that I could slip behind the notes as they escaped from our collective stereo... I disappeared in plain sight in a veil of bells.

I will absolutely do this again. It's one of those brilliant ideas that, once you've participated in the execution, you can't imagine your life without it. Look out for many future thoughts and nags to join the party. Incidentally, you can join the facebook group unsilentnight dallas to find out about next year's event. I want to combine the walk with other pieces of performance art and maybe even the Santa pub crawl.. who has ideas about this?? Bravo, Phil Kline, you're a genius - manipulating the best kind of flash mob, one that makes something beautiful and leaves no trace.

Check out my fellow walker's blog too.

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