The 2015 programme has just been announced. If you have time in early February I urge you to go. It is a festival experience like no other. Imagine: it’s late, the full moon peers from behind a few scraps of cloud, you’re sitting on reindeer skins in an amphitheatre made from snow and ice, you’re snug in your coat and mittens despite the -20 degrees - the hot chocolate is helping. Oh yes, and you’re listening to this most strange and beautiful and other-worldly music being created in front of you on an ice stage full of ice instruments.
I went to the festival as a volunteer - the only way I could afford to get there and experience it - and spent five days helping carve the instruments out of solid blocks of ice. It was hard work but monumentally rewarding. This is what I learnt about making a music festival from ice.
Lesson 1 - use the right ice
A concert programme in which all the instruments are made from ice, demands...well, the right sort of ice. The manufactured stuff won’t do - it’s acoustic properties are flawed. What you need is pure frozen H2O, preferably 1-tonne blocks cut from a lake in which the water has hardened slowly, squeezing out the air. Its beautiful, translucent greeny-blue colour is the giveaway. It’s this kind of ice, the kind that resonates with a tone as clear and bright as Norwegian sunlight - the kind that sings - that first inspired Terje Isungset to make an ice music festival.
Lesson 2 - find a good ice sculptor
To turn the ice into exquisite, playable instruments - marimbas, percussion, drums, cellos, guitars, harps, horns - employ the best ice sculptor you can get, someone who knows ice intimately, who can read its cracks like the grain in wood, who can wield a chainsaw and chisel as deftly as Rembrandt could a brush - someone like Bill Covitz. Bill advises, ‘Never use the ‘b’ word.’ (Whisper it, he means ‘br**k’.)
Lesson 3 - employ an architect who likes snow
What’s the best venue for music made from ice? A venue made from ice! Or at least frozen snow. And for that you’ll need an architect, like Helder Neves, who has the imaginative vision and practical experience to transform this most useful, albeit ephemeral, material into a comfortable, functioning, magical performance space fit for the otherworldly sounds of Terje and his fellow musicians.
Lesson 4 - find a small army of volunteers
Be warned, making a music festival from ice requires a lot of shifting, stamping, scraping, bulldozing, digging, hacking, chainsawing. And for that you’ll need willing workers, the sort who are happy to take off their gloves in -20° to hang an ice chime.
Lesson 5 - pray for cold weather
Cold weather is essential. You need snow, of course, to build the stage and seats, but most importantly the ice performs better, sonically speaking, when the dial is into subzero double figures. Only then will the ice sing.
Lesson 6 - hire musicians who like the cold
Playing ice is not for the faint hearted, so invite artists who are up for the challenge. Most will want to refine their instruments themselves, which could take hours of testing, chiselling and stringing in the driving wind and snow. And then comes the performance. Ice instruments are delicate and unpredictable - marimba bars break, horns melt, bass drums snap, cellos crack. It is a lesson in transience. Lead harpist for the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Sidsel Walstad, spent two days stringing and tuning her harp before it shattered on stage after one performance.