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New York’s noise has a distinctive grain, a multilayered clangor that changes with the decades but retains its personality. Composers have often mined the soundtrack of the streets for raw material. John Cage wove an entire musical philosophy out of random noise. John Adams opened his 9/11 memorial symphony, On the Transmigration of Souls, with recorded sounds of a loud city turned low. These days, New York is probably more muted than it has been in centuries, except for the raucous yelling-out-the-window ritual that take place each evening — opportunities to vent, give thanks, and join a collective performance. The composer Phil Kline has harvested some of those regularly scheduled outbursts and assembled them into this two-minute collage, “Every Night at 7.”
The piece begins with a heartbeat, church bells, and clapping from a solitary pair of hands. Sirens strike up an urgent fugue, accompanied by cheering and banging. As the chaos accumulates, a drummer starts pounding out a furious beat, steadying a city that has temporarily lost its stride. Soon, the emergency subsides, church bells celebrate, and the voices of children are heard in the land. You can hear a range of intense emotions threaded through the piece’s brief arc: gratitude, terror, sadness, frustration, and bruised joy.
For Kline, collecting and editing these bits of pandemonium was a way to remain connected to the city while he waits out the epidemic 120 miles up the Hudson Valley. “Doing this helped ground me,” Kline says. “I’ve lived in New York for most of the last 50 years, and right now I feel like I’m in two places, or nowhere.”
Kline has a long history of twining his music together with the city’s. “In the old days, when I’d walk through the Lower East Side and listen, it sounded like the hum of the city’s central nervous system.” He’s best known for Unsilent Night, a Christmastime tradition he began in 1992 with a procession of friends snaking through the Village with boom boxes, all playing the same prerecorded cassettes (slightly out of sync). These days, participants in dozens of cities from Victoria, British Columbia, to Porirua, New Zealand, download one of four tracks and bring pocket speakers, creating an ever-changing but constantly magical mix.
The idea for his latest work sprang from the music writer Steve Smith, who tweeted a plea: “Meant in the most respectful way possible: I would love to hear a sound collage à la @unsilentphil [Kline’s Twitter handle] made from all the sounds that emanate from NYC windows every night at 7 these days. If I had any skill at such things, I’d try to make one myself.”
That was a challenge Kline couldn’t decline, and he put out a call for recordings. Smith sent a tambourine track from Jackson Heights. I contributed 30 seconds from my balcony on the Upper West Side. The percussionist David Cossin, a neighbor of Kline’s on the Lower East Side, hauled his drum kit outdoors and recorded himself rocking out. The photographer Andrew Garn, who specializes in portraits of New York pigeons, provided the bells from St. George’s Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square. In all, Kline got sounds from nine different spots. Some are at sidewalk-level and specific; others are “like you’re flying over the Earth and you can hear everything,” he says. The heartbeat is the only interior.
Kline says that even from a distance, the nightly pot-banging and clapping bring him solace, because the din contains elation, ready to roar back to life. “New Yorkers are good at making noise,” he says. “Some of these people could almost be at a Yankee game.”