Ellen Mueller

Interview with Phil Kline

by Ellen Mueller on October 23, 2023, no comments

person walking down the street at night

Credit: Phil Kline

As part of the release of the hardcover release of my book, Walking as Artistic Practice (softcover comes out in April!), I’m going to be publishing some brief interviews with the various artists, authors, researchers, creatives, collectives, and platforms whose art practice, written material, or other works I cite and mention.

My tenth interview in this series is with Phil Kline. A survivor of New York’s downtown scene, Kline is known for his range and unpredictability. From vast boombox symphonies to chamber music and song cycles and stage works, his work has been hailed for originality, beauty, and subversive subtext. From the suburbs of Akron, Ohio, Phil came to New York City to study poetry with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro at Columbia. After graduation, he moved downtown and is still there writing things like Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs, the mass John the Revelator, and the song cycles Out Cold and Florida Man, written for Theo Bleckmann.

EM: First, thank you for chatting with me about your book Unsilent Night (1992–). I cite your work in chapter two (Analyzing Walking Works) in the subsection on “Audio.” How would you describe this work for people who might not be familiar with it?

PK: Unsilent Night is an outdoor audience-participation musical event which processes through the streets annually during the winter holiday season. The inspiration for the piece came from my memories of Christmas carolling with friends as a child in Ohio.

Originally, the music was played on cassette boomboxes, but as boomboxes have become scarce, most people now download the tracks online and play them on smart phones. First presented in New York City in 1992, it is regularly done annually in 40 cities around the United States and Europe.

EM: What are your thoughts on walking as artistic practice?

PK: I’m tempted to say “see above.”

As a musician and composer, I’m acutely aware of the way things sound while moving in space, and never more than when I am walking. I love to “watch” birds, but walking through woods in spring, with the warblers mostly overhead, I lead with my ears. One usually hears the lazy “zur-zee-zu-zu-see” well before you look up and see that it’s a Black-throated Green Warbler. Living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I have reveries of the wild histories hidden beneath the pavement of the irregularly patterned streets I walk. Walking is a meditation.

EM: Can you tell us about any recent or upcoming projects you are excited about?

PK: 1. An opera-like object about Nikola Tesla in a haunted hotel, co-written with Jim Jarmusch and starring Anthony Roth Costanza as Tesla.

2. A dramatic song cycle about Isabella Stewart Gardner which will be first heard and seen in the Museum she built.

EM: Below is video documentation of Unsilent Night: