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The festival where every instrument is carved from ice

Icy harps and frosty saxophones – at the Ice Music Festival in Geilo, the sound of frozen nature is the real star of the show.

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Brittle percussive sounds traveling like echoes of cavernous water droplets through cold air. Deep glassy vibrations coming from thick sheets of ice struck by mallets. Wild howls amplified through giant see-through horns the size of a man.

The Ice Music Festival in Geilo, opening this Thursday, is not just a thing to hear, but also to behold.

For twelve years now, the annual festival has been putting on concerts with miked-up instruments made from ice and snow, played outside at sub-zero temperatures.

The festival's origins date back to Norwegian percussionist and drummer Terje Isungset, who pioneered the idea of ice music when he was commissioned by a festival to play by a frozen waterfall.

From there, an annual festival in Geilo followed, with Isungset and co-founder Pål Medhus inviting a number of artists to participate every year.

According to the festival's media manager and official photographer Emile Holba, the instruments are completely constructed out of ice, save for some elements such as the strings that may be needed in order for an ice guitar to function.

"I think people have this illusion that it's instruments encased in ice, but we make everything. From a cello to percussive instruments like a marimba. And also an African instrument called a Balafon, that's a crowd pleaser.

 

It is not simply a matter of pouring water into molds and waiting for it to freeze – every instrument must be carved out and sculpted in a refined and delicate fashion, courtesy of US-based professional ice carver Bill Covitz.

And by necessity, all the ice is extracted from Norwegian fjords.

"If you manufacture ice, it has zero acoustic properties. But if you extract it from a naturally frozen lake, it has an extraordinary frequency range, really wide. It really sings."

The festival continually tries to innovate from year to year, crafting new instruments and experiences as they go along. According to Holba, this year features a number of highlights, such as an ice village built by the Bergen Academy of Art & Design.

"On Thursday, the village will have acoustic ice music without all the electronics inside a really beautiful igloo made for 40 people. It will be really silent and delicate, and we will have an amazing joik singer from Finnmark called Sara Marielle Gaup."

 

Another highlight is a talk by Kerim H. Nisancioglu, professor of climate dynamics at the University of Bergen.

"He is a specialist on climate change and how it is affecting the Greenland ice sheet. This year, he is going to do a presentation about the Greenland ice sheet and is bringing a core sample of the ice with him," says Holba.

"Terje Isungset will create music as Nisancioglu is speaking, and we're making the instrument from the core sample."

On the topic of instruments, the ice saxophone that Polish sax player Grzech Piotrowski will attempt to play ranks among the more unusual ones this year. Also featured for the festival's Finnish Moods concert is an ice version of the Kantele, played by Kantele master kantele Minna Raskinen from Finland.

 

Holba himself got interested in ice music nine years ago, while working as the official photographer of the London Jazz Festival.

"In 2008 one of the concerts was Terje and his ice music. I thought it was mad, complete lunacy. In a very cold room in central London, he played for ten minutes and then the instrument had melted too much."

There are also challenges at the other end of the temperature scale, as instruments become too fragile at minus 28 degrees celsius and tend to break. However, Holba says that up to that point lower temperatures equal better sound.

"The colder it gets, the higher the fidelity. If you listen to ice music at minus five, it sounds great. But if you listen at minus fifteen, it's like vinyl versus mp3.

The Ice Music Festival runs between Thursday the 9th and Sunday the 12th of February. 

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