“You have to treat ice with respect, otherwise it breaks. We should do the same with nature”Terje Isungset
The UK premiere of Terje Isungset’s ‘Arctic Ice Music’ takes place in Leeds on Tuesday 16 November. That evening, Leeds will hear music that it has never heard before and never will again.
Terje Isungset’s Arctic ice music
Terje Isungset is one of Europe’s most accomplished and innovative artists. He is marking 20 years of ice music with an international project that brings together artists with a long tradition of living in arctic conditions. Inuit, Sami and Siberian singers, alongside Isungset’s pioneering ice instruments and Scandinavia’s best jazz musicians, celebrate these ancient cultures’ longstanding respect for nature through traditional and contemporary music. Isungset will perform on a range of ice instruments, such as ice horns and percussion, carved from natural ice from the mountains of Norway.
Isungset is also one of Europe’s most innovative percussionists. He is a pioneer of ice instruments – extraordinary feats of sculpture, crafted from solid blocks of pure ice – along with instruments made from other natural elements such as arctic birch, granite, slate and sheep bells. He is one of the few musicians in the world to perform indoor ice music, and says he respects and values the gifts that nature has given. Some 20 years ago, in his first ice concert, inside a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer, Norway, Isungset first heard the sound of ice that has hooked him ever since.
In 2019, Isungset was commissioned by Greenpeace to produce Ocean Memories, which was performed on instruments made from arctic ice on location at Spitsbergen/Svalbard.
Musical instruments that melt in front of your eyes
I spoke with Isungset recently and started by asking him about the difficulties and challenges of performing music with instruments made of ice, which melt during the performance, changing the sound. He praised his well-drilled crew and pointed out that indoor performances do have fewer challenges, as the circumstances are more under control. But he emphasised that nature was always the boss and to be respected as such. Repeatedly in our conversation, Isungset mentioned his environmental perspectives and views about the necessary symbiosis between nature and humanity. He pointed out that in his performances, the metaphor of playing an instrument that is literally melting in front of the audience, makes any environment comment he might make needless; nature is making its own throaty melancholy cry.
The titles of some of his songs – ‘Frost’, or ‘Sildrandre’ (‘Trickling’) – do help make the awareness of environmental problems clear though. Isungset views his music as “thanksgiving for the Big Boss of the planet” and described nature as his friend. He views his pioneering ice music as being both celebratory of the beauty and fragility of nature, but also as a forlorn and undulating lament for all the environment that is being lost.
Warm and comforting ice music
Despite two decades of writing and performing ice music, it is clear that Isungset views himself as still developing as an artist. He continues to be dynamic. He still searches for “new and surprising sounds” and described the pleasure in discovering new sounds from year to year in the same place.
Isungset, perhaps unusually, describes his ice music as warm, comforting and mysterious, and suggests that it connected people to the land, while respecting and celebrating indigenous culture. He talked passionately about the different resonances and vibrations between the older ice and new ice that form his instruments and was clear that he was “only borrowing the instruments from the earth”.
His latest exciting project, ‘Ice only’ – to be released soon – saw Isungset perform inside an igloo. Interestingly, he explained that the features of inside an igloo – a stable temperature and 100 percent silent – make for a dynamic and multi-layered sound of nature. The fragile, natural musical instruments, protected by nature within the igloo, again create their own symbolism.
See this performance in Leeds
For his audience in Leeds, Isungset’s wish is that along with an enjoyable musical gig, a memory is created for those listening. That they appreciate that this ice music will be something that they haven’t heard before and never will again – as each performance is unique to the conditions of nature.
Isungset’s ice music demands to be experienced.
The hope is that this fusion of nature, music and culture will be locked in the audience’s memory, just as the ice itself has been locked in place into instruments to produce music. This is an opportunity for us all to stand still and take time out of our busy, hectic lives, to appreciate and value the natural world.
This is an opportunity for us all to breathe.
Tuesday 16 November, 8pm Leeds Howard Assembly Room operanorth.co.uk £20
Terje Isungset website: http://www.terjeisungset.no