Playing it Cool with Ice Musician Terje Isungset
Willona M. Sloan
It all started about 20 years ago. When Norwegian percussionist and composer Terje Isungset was invited to compose music for a concert in a frozen waterfall in Norway, he had the idea to incorporate natural sounds such as floating water, crunching snow and the clinking and tinkling of ice. Something special clicked—Isungset has been jamming with ice ever since.
“I got stuck with that idea,” says Isungset, who creates meditative soundscapes, Scandinavian folk music and improvisational jazz, all with ice instruments he sculpts himself.
From live improvisations to original compositions, he has pushed and stretched the boundaries of the idea. In 2001, Isungset recorded what he says is the first-ever ice music CD, “Iceman Is.” He recently released a new album, “Beauty of Winter,” on which the upbeat single “Arctic Ice Music” features a collaboration with several Arctic musicians.
In 2006, Isungset founded All Ice Records to retain the rights to his music and to focus solely on making ice-centric songs. Most of the albums were recorded in igloos built specifically for the recording sessions. “It is the only record label in the world, I think, that is actually building new studios for every recording,” says Isungset.
In 2006, Isungset co-founded the Ice Music Festival with Pål Knutsson Medhus. Held in Isungset’s hometown, Geilo, at the first full moon, the festival allows audiences to enjoy ice music concerts under the stars in the dead of a Norwegian winter. For each festival, which is held annually in February, a small group of about 10 to 20 musicians from around the world collaborate to make ice music together.
“The original idea is that I wanted to invite lots of people to be creative without any kind of limits, except for one rule: everyone has to deal with snow and ice. I wanted it to be like a creative center, where lots of people could gather together and see if we could create something fantastic that our audience doesn’t expect to see or hear,” says Isungset.
The musicians just have to build their own instruments. “We used to have a fantastic carver from New York taking part. In the most recent year, the musicians started carving their instruments themselves. That is going to be a part of the job. It is pretty hard work,” says Isungset. He offers advice along the way, but for the most part, the musicians must try, fail and try again. Arrive early, Isungset tells them, as trial and error is part of the process.
Carving an instrument from a block of ice isn’t a clear-cut process. First, Isungset tests the ice. “I cut some pieces and I listen to it very closely. Then, I will know what it is possible to make—what kind of instruments,” says Isungset. “If the ice sounds amazing, with a long, resonant tone, for example, long, sustained, I can make completely different instruments and different music than if it’s pretty dead.”
Finding good-sounding ice is the hardest work, says Isungset, who explains that the ice must be natural, frozen ice from a lake or a river. Where does he find this resonant raw material? “I have some secret places,” says Isungset. He doesn’t reveal his sources.
Some years are better than others for ice harvesting. “I think of it like, it’s OK, nature decides this. It is not possible for me to decide, because it is out of my control,” says Isungset. Instead of fretting, he rolls with it.
“At the Ice Music Festival, I have one goal to create and invent a new instrument every year,” says Isungset. “It has been a lot of experiments. Some really lucky ones, and some a little bit ... but that is a part of the game.”
Imagine it: playing a standing ice bass, an ice clarinet or even an ice piano. As soon as you start working, the thing starts melting.
When an ice instrument is played, its sound is affected by many factors: each minute it is held by the musician, especially if he or she is wearing gloves; each note played; and the body heat given off by the audience. The concerts are kept short, 30 minutes at most, because as the instrument melts, its pitch changes and forces the musician to adjust and adapt. For that reason, the musical output can have mixed results.
Also, it looks really, really painful to play an instrument made of ice in temperatures below freezing. For that, Isungset doesn’t offer much advice—except to endure.
“I don’t give any courses. I can promise you, it is really hard work. Maybe that is the reason, probably, I am still the only one that is doing this. For sure, the indoor concerts, I know that I have never seen anyone else doing that. It is the closest that you can get to doing the impossible,” says Isungset. “For the horn, I use a little protection for my lips. I don’t want that to be frostbitten. I put just a little piece of leather on the mouthpiece.”
The Ice Music Festival has sold out every year, but in 2018, the event was moved to Finse, a small town that can only be accessed by train. “We moved this year to be more up in the mountains. It’s a smaller place, and a more limited audience,” says Isungset.
The concerts were outside in temperatures that dipped down as a low as -25°C. “It’s not that cold. You just need some clothes,” says Isungset. The biggest benefits of the new location are its remoteness and quiet. “There is absolutely no pollution, because this is in the middle of nowhere. There might be one train passing by, but that is very, very rare. It is the sky, the mountain and nature,” says Isungset.
While he greatly prefers outdoor concerts, Isungset performs all over the world, giving about 100 concerts a year. He performed at the Nobel Prize Banquet in Stockholm in 2017, where he played the icehorn and iceofone to accompany vocalist Lena Willemark and vocalist Ulla Pirttijärvi, who performed a traditional Sami joik.
If you’re not familiar with the iceofone, you’re not alone. It’s a xylophone-like instrument that Isungset plays with gloved hands. He manages to produce a light, bouncy rhythm with the ice blocks. From the icehorn, Isungset elicits a mournful, wailing sound.
At the end of his most recent 30-concert tour in the early summer , Isungset plans to head next to Greenland, where he will give a performance and also have the opportunity to collaborate with scientists from multiple countries.
“It is a big project, with a chartered Hercules flight to get there. The weather has to be good for it to be able to land,” says Isungset. “They had some problems with polar bears coming into the camp. So, maybe this is my last interview.”
If all goes well in Greenland, he will rest before hitting the road again to tour Europe, and he has received invitations to perform in Canada, U.S., Japan and Russia. He is also ready to start work on another album. The next one will be only ice—no voice or other instruments, says Isungset.
For Isungset, this incredible journey of creating with ice has been about more than just making music. “I think the project itself is much bigger than music. It has to do with much bigger things than the human beings on Earth. It has to do with the Earth, in general; with water, with lack of water; with the climate changes; with respect for nature and respect for animals or human beings,” says Isungset.
Working with ice for so many years has showed Isungset who’s boss. “When you deal with ice, you are always reminded that nature is stronger than human beings, and that you have to treat nature very gently,” says Isungset.
Willona M. Sloan is a writer, editor and literary host.