Not many harps shatter on stage – and it wasn’t our intention for this one to. It's surprising it doesn’t happen more often when you consider all of two tonnes of pressure are exerted by the strings on a harp frame. Then again, most harp frames aren’t made from ice.
This was January 2014 and we were at the extraordinary Ice Music Festival in Geilo, Norway. If you haven’t heard about this magical event, check out this year’s lineup, the most ambitious and exciting yet. I had gone as a volunteer and ended up, unexpectedly, helping build Sidsel Walstad’s ice harp over the course of a few days.
Sidsel carries her supreme talent lightly and she bubbles with humour, enthusiasm and fun. It was a great delight meeting and working alongside her, especially in the somewhat extreme circumstances. There aren’t many world renowned concert harpists who’d be happy kneeling in snow for two days with frozen fingers threading and tightening their strings.
She had already played at the festival a few years before on a prototype instrument that was smallish and a little dry sounding - but an achievement in itself. This year, however, Sidsel and the festival’s organisers had bigger ideas, literally and metaphorically. Bill Covitz, resident ice sculptor, and Helder Neves, ice imagineer, had put designs in place for a concert-size ice harp. Could it be done? No one knew for sure, but that wasn’t going to stop them.
The structure was ingenious. It involved two crafted bits of Perspex: a curved crossbar at the top in which the tuning pegs sat, and the soundboard at the bottom anchoring the strings. I had to drill the holes for the strings to pass through, a nerve shredding experience. The angle and hole size needed to be just right in order to create the requisite friction - too wonky or too big and the strings wouldn't tune.
The bits of Perspex sat in a frame made out of a block of pure lake ice the size of a dining table. Bill chose his block with care to minimise the risk of cracking. He then chainsawed and chiseled out a beautiful hollow harp shape which looked at once elegant and reassuringly robust.
We positioned the Perspex in this frame and set about the fiddly business of stringing the instrument, which had to be done outside without gloves in the biting -20 degrees. Sidsel then began to tighten and tune each string, not yet fully, but close enough. Would the frame hold as the pressure increased? The pegs creaked in their holes, our eyes bored into the ice looking for signs of cracking. Finally the last peg was turned. And we had our ice harp.
She was extraordinary to behold, geometrically graceful, solid yet light, a grand, translucent vision. And the first plucking of her strings suggested a tone that would, when tuned fully, enlist the divine pure resonances of the lake ice.
A large team of nerveless volunteers manoeuvred her onto stage and Sidsel performed briefly that night as part of the evening concert. The harp sounded sweet but as yet the strings were not at full stretch and Sidsel knew there was more to come from her. She left her in position overnight to acclimatise and returned the next morning to soundcheck for the day's big concert.
I met Sidsel after the soundcheck. She was fighting off tears, clutching the bits of Perspex and tangled harp strings in her arms, like a wounded deer. She told me what had happened.
Before soundchecking she had tightened the strings as far as they could go - and the harp was everything she had dreamed of. It had sung with a tone as clear as a mountain stream, a glorious, bright sonic purity. Once the soundcheck had finished Sidsel had stepped away. And in that moment the harp had shattered, an invisible hairline crack, perhaps, losing its fight, the brittle frame snapping and collapsing in chunks, a dead, silent ice hulk lying on the stage.
Everyone was devastated. But Sidsel had a concert to play. Bill and Helder thought quickly. They just about had time to fashion a smaller, chunkier ice harp with the Perspex from the original prototype. The show went on. No one in the audience was aware of the drama. But for Sidsel and the ice festival team it was a bittersweet victory. If they listened carefully they could hear on the wind the distant ghostly song of the harp that died too young.