Arctic IceMusic Brings Glacial Grace

Bergen International Festival • Bergen, Norway • May 25, 2018

Cynthia Albers

Photo: Emile Holba / Geilo 2012

There was a chill to the air as we entered the Peer Gynt hall on the third night of the Bergen International Festival. But in contrast to bundling up in parkas to hear Ice Music performed inside of a frozen igloo, in a rustic location, in the middle of winter, the indoor performance was practical.

Solo singers opened the program, each announcing their presence in song as they ascended the stage. Dressed in the traditional garments of their region, Tuvan throat singer Radik Tyulyush, and Inuit throat singers Beatrice Deer and Evie Mark, produced stunning overtone vocals, and Norwegian vocalist Sara Marielle Gaup Beska sang in the traditional  joik style of the Sami people.

Photos: Terje Isungset and Sara Marielle Gaup Beska •
Tuvan singer Radik Tyulyush

Two large ice platforms served as a centerpiece from which director Terje Isungset worked his ice-percussion magic. Ice sticks and slushy ice were employed to create a rhythmic track that evoked the sounds of nature, and I was mesmerized by the crystalline resonance of the ice marimba. Norwegian jazz vocalist Maria Skranes, whose style is both lyrical and ethereal, sang alongside Isungset.

It’s difficult to describe the sound of ice, other than to say that its timbre is closer to that of wood than metal. The ice horns were more conch-like in tone.

Emile Holba
All instruments are kept at -20˚C prior to performance. Photo: Emile Holba

 Instruments of Wood and Brass

The downside to an indoor Ice Music concert is that instruments with strings attached are not reliable in warmer temperatures. That is to say, stringed instruments melt too quickly to maintain their structural integrity, and thus their tension and tuning. My comfort in the warm theater came at the cost of not experiencing the ice bass, and that was a big disappointment. But the sublime playing of Swedish bassist Anders Jormin would have been sorely missed had his instrument been compromised. His playing was pure elegance.

Likewise, Swedish trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose exquisite work often resembled the gentle weavings of a flute, added beauty and balance to the ephemeral ensemble.

I now wonder if this performance replaced the desire to attend a winter Ice Music Festival—or, maybe it strengthened a resolve to pursue more?

Some Background

The instruments are made (with a chainsaw) from blocks of ice harvested from lakes and rivers—wild water. Isungset says that artificially manufactured ice does not posses the rich sound found in natural ice. But he adds that when your instruments end up melting at the end of each gig, your first task at a new concert site is finding some frozen water. A recent performance in Japan required the ice to be harvested on site.

There are good years and bad years for ice, says Isungset. He taps on harvested ice blocks to determine their resonance in the same way a luthier would test a block of wood for its potential of becoming a violin.

Isungset likes the symbolism of making music out of “the most important resource in the world.” He refers to the global urgency of protecting and preserving water, in all of its forms.

The 2018 Ice Music Festival was held in the exotic mountains of Finse, Norway.

Ice Trailer 2018
Bringing ice instruments on the road involves traveling with a freezer trailer.

Terje Isungset

Terje Isungset has been exploring the sound of ice since receiving a commission from the Lillehammer Winter Festival in 1999. The commission was to devise a concert from inside a frozen waterfall. Since then he has partnered with craftsmen to create instruments and performing spaces, all made of ice—an unpredictible pursuit that achieves spine-tingling results.

© Cynthia Albers, All Rights Reserved



  1. Wow. Impossible to imagine. Incredible to make it possible. I think only the people of the cold could do so. Again thank you, thank you.I have a couple ideas I’d like to discuss with you in the future. No time element involved. Just get in touch when you have a mind to. Cheers Deanne

    Sent from my iPhone



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