Playing it cool: these artists make music with ice

Using frozen drums, horns, and harps, an emerging art form takes its cues from nature.

Published 2 Mar 2021, 13:14 GMT
Making Music with Ice
Photograph by Emile Holba

Brittle bursts that mimic cymbals. Deep hollowed notes reminiscent of metal drums. These are some of the surprising sounds that Siberian percussion group Ethnobeat created from Russia’s frozen Lake Baikal in a 2012 viral video that introduced millions around the globe to ice music.

But similarly haunting melodies had been filling dark Arctic nights across Norway and Sweden for several years. In 2000 Norwegian composer and percussionist Terje Isungset performed the world’s first ice music concert inside a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer.

Six years later Isungset founded the annual Ice Music Festival Norway, drawing curious adventurers willing to brave subzero temperatures in order to experience this unique way of bonding with nature through music. (This winter’s festival was cancelled due to the pandemic, but he’s planning to livestream a concert on March 14.)

For Isungset, who was already experimenting with natural elements such as stone and wood when composing music, his foray into ice was an organic next step. “When I first started playing on clear ice, I found its pure sound surprisingly warm and gentle compared to the sound of crushed ice beneath your feet, which is a very cold sound,” he says. 

Photograph by Emile Holba

Isungset has now performed hundreds of ice music concerts, including one at the 2017 Nobel Banquet, and recorded eight albums under his own All Ice Records label. He considers the art form his life’s work.

So what exactly is ice music? Musicians tap beats out of naturally occurring ice or play instruments crafted from ice. Many of the instruments may seem familiar, but with ice music, nature takes centre stage—and brings more than a few notes of unpredictability. Both the making and playing of the instruments are processes that can’t be fully controlled, which only adds to the art’s appeal.

Carved instruments can be either completely made of ice, such as horns and percussion, or hybrids, like harps, in which the main body is ice with metal strings attached. Isungset collaborates with award-winning ice sculptor Bill Covitz, who is based in the United States but travels to concert destinations around the world to make instruments on location.

Another American artist, Tim Linhart focused on snow and ice sculptures in the U.S. before moving to Europe and building a reputation for crafting ice instruments. Thirty-six years later he has created hundreds of them, as well as 19 ice orchestras and 11 igloo-style ice music concert halls in places from Luleå, Sweden, to the Italian Alps.

By studying and intricately blending materials—such as homemade clear ice and carbonated water, plus crushed mountain snow—Linhart can make instruments like violins and tune them as close to perfect as nature allows. It’s a process he calls “icemanship.”

Photograph by Emile Holba
Photograph by Emile Holba

Years as an ice sculptor helped him learn the structural strengths and weaknesses of the medium. “When you approach that breaking point between the tension of the string and the thickness of the material, right there is where music truly happens,” says Linhart, who honed his craft through trial, error, and a few exploding instruments.

(Discover 15 musical wonders to see—and hear—around the world.)

Now based in Italy, he builds ice orchestras that are used to play genres from rock-and-roll to classical at an igloo-theatre atop the Presena Glacier in the Pontedilegno-Tonale ski resort, northeast of Milan.

Carving the instruments usually takes a minimum of three days to several weeks. Both harvesting the ice and its quality depend on the weather. Like wine, some years bring excellent yields. Other years, the ice chooses silence.

When the show starts, other complications arise. “Ice is always in motion; expanding, contracting and sublimating away into the atmosphere,” says Linhart. “Warm bodies melt instruments. Audiences increase temperatures because they are breathing. Instruments need to be re-tuned differently. Some drop several notes, others rise.” To mitigate this, he designs domed concert venues that ventilate heat away from the instruments.

Another hazard? Horn players’ lips can stick to the mouthpieces of their instruments. And most of the time, the performers can’t practice on their delicate tools, so they often compose music live and improvise in front of the audience.

Photograph by Jack Affleck, Ice Music

These compositions are also at the mercy of the ice. “I find the crisp sounds of ice instruments so fascinating and special,” says German musician Anna-Maria Hefele, who’s been trying her hand at the ice harp. But she notes that the possibilities of the instrument are limited, because there are no pedals or levers to change the tuning while playing or during breaks between pieces.

This means that other instruments such as the “iceofon”—a cross between a xylophone and a marimba that pairs nicely with the harp—need to be tuned differently to avoid playing entire concerts in one tone.

While harpists are known for delicately plucking strings to create ethereal melodies, details like the temperature of the musician’s fingers affect the sounds the ice harp produces. “It’s nice to have warm hands as a harpist, to be fast and precise in playing,” Hefele says. “If the hands are cold, the fingers are slower than usual.”

Ice music comes with plenty of headwinds, but many musicians see it as an opportunity to fine-tune their skills and boost their creativity.

“I’ve always enjoyed new challenges and exploring different types of music,” says Swedish double bassist Viktor Reuter, who has played at the Ice Music Festival Norway and toured in Germany and China with Isungset. “Playing an acoustic wooden double bass, your body is always in contact with the wood and you feel those deep vibrations.”

Reuter explains that with ice, which is denser and heavier, the bass becomes a completely different instrument. Harmonies must be simplified and played more slowly, requiring improvisation and a renewed state of mind.

Producing and maintaining the instruments, preparing the venues, and drawing attendees to the frigid settings continue to make ice music a challenging endeavour. But for these maverick musicians, adjusting to the unforeseen comes with the job.

The artists often have to take their music directly to audiences. In addition to traveling to China, Isungset and his team perform some 70 concerts a year in places ranging from Australia and Japan to India and the U.S., often in indoor concert halls and using local storage freezers to preserve the instruments. Meanwhile, Linhart is working on a major proposal in a bid to include ice music as part of the 2026 Winter Olympics celebrations in Italy.

For Isungset, it’s not just about the music though. He’s also making an environmental statement. In partnership with the Bergen-based Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, the Ice Music Festival Norway presents discussions and art installations illuminating the effects of climate change on snow and ice.

“The most important thing for us is artistic expression that is abstract,” says Isungset. “Instead of telling people what not to do, we share our message subtly.” The event itself metaphorically mimics global warming as it melts away every spring after the audiences have gone.

After all, says Isungset, “Ice music isn’t a human project, but one fully directed by nature.”

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is a Nigerian-born travel writer, author, and photographer based in Stockholm, Sweden. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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