Unsilent Night has been around for a while now, not only in New York, but also in Philadelphia, where the new music ensemble Relâche—which has also been around for a while—plays host to the event. This year, the promo postcards branded the event Relâche and the Holidays, signaling both the ensemble’s drive to renew its public profile, as well as the warm and fuzzy patina that’s attached to the downtown ritual.
While most new music events in the city draw fewer than 100 attendees, I was delighted to discover a crowd of what looked to be more than twice that waiting on the southwest end of Rittenhouse Square, just before 7pm on December 19. They’d already run out of boomboxes by 6:30pm. Several elementary school students appeared to have beaten the rush—a number of boomboxes were in small, mitten-clad hands. Fun for the whole family.
It had been a while since I’d participated in a public spectacle. As the parade of gently pulsing, ethereal harmonies processed down Walnut Street—one of the city’s major commercial thoroughfares—the confused and entertained appraisals by onlookers were unavoidable. Digital cameras seemed to appear from the pocket of every bystander. Cell phones captured scraps of sound for someone somewhere else. The sharply-dressed saleswomen in the United Colors of Benetton stood with their arms crossed and their hips out, watching the crowd march bravely through red lights. Drivers honked and stopped; rolling down the window, they asked what was going on: “Unsilent Night!” we shouted, as though it explained anything.
Walnut Street is the street where I work. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being inside a dream: that slightly shifted, deconstructed version of the day. Last night I was walking down Walnut, and you were there, and we were in this huge crowd of people, all carrying boomboxes…No, nothing really happened. Everyone just smiling and carrying boomboxes. The hypnotic, decentralized soundtrack combined with the familiar strip of asphalt and the—still—somehow sacred space of the holiday season convinced me, just a little, that I’d wandered with a few hundred strangers into the surreal.
Down Broad Street, back up Locust, following a side street detour and several disgruntled motorists, the group gathered back in the middle of Rittenhouse, under the pleasantly gaudy colored lights hung from the park’s trees. Unsilent Night and its dream world ended with cheers and a reception at the Ethical Society.
Alyssa Timin works as program associate at the Philadelphia Music Project, where she helps to fund Greater Philly’s flourishing music scene. She edits PMP’s self-titled in-house magazine to which she recently contributed a feature article on music education.