The man who makes music out of ice in the coldest recording studio of the world

To underline the effects of climate change, Terje Isungset recorded his album Meditations in the arctic regions using ice instruments.

Norwegian musician and composer Terje Isungset asked the photographer Emile Holba to take some pictures while he was realising his seventh album, Meditations. So far so regular, but then Isungset used music instruments made of arctic ice chunks and recorded his songs in the island of Baffin, Nunavut, the largest and northernmost territory of Canada. On top of that, the album was recorded during the coldest period of the year, when temperatures hit -56º.


Terje Isungset
Terje Isungset playing one of his ice instruments © Emile Holba


In the exciting reportage for the magazine Roads & Kingdoms, Holba describes the long collaborative relationship with Terje Isungset and talks about this latest, epic adventure. The two artists worked for a week in extreme weather conditions and were helped by the qallunaat community (white people who have chosen, along with Inuits, to live in isolation) in the processes of ice extraction and sculpture.

Isungset, a musician since he was eight, is one of Europe’s most innovative jazz percussionists. Since the late ‘80s, he has been creating his instruments with natural elements such as arctic birch, granite, slate and ice. “The ice’s voice is enchanting”, he said. The idea for his project Ice Music came in 1999, after that he played in a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer. In 2006 he organised the first Ice Music Festival.


Terje Isungset
Terje Isungset’s live performance (right), Ice Music project


Once harvested, the ice is sculpted in the recording studio or in the place where the musician performs until it turns into a music instrument. the ice’s thickness determines the pitch and tone, while specific microphones amplify the volume that otherwise would be too low. “I have to listen to my instrument instead of deciding how it is going to sound. The instrument decides how I will play”, Isungset says in an interview.


Isungset says that naturally occurring ice has a surprisingly dynamic range of sound frequencies and, if used correctly, its intonation produces incredibly melodic and ethereal music. Artificial ice, on the contrary, is sonically dead.


Terje Isungset
Terje Isungset photographed after the recording of Meditations. This picture is the cover image of the album © Emile Holba


Holba explains that for Meditations together with Isungset he constructed an outdoor recording studio: “The makeshift control room was comprised of two engineers seated in the front of the 4×4, with the audio equipment placed across the rear seats. The engine could not be switched off due to the real possibility of it freezing. He played for a maximum of 10 minutes each time, which allowed for essential warm-up periods and valuable chances to check there were no errors in the audio capture”.


Terje says that he’s honoured to make music with the most important resource in the world, water. His goal is highlighting the effects of climate change using the ice of the seven continents to create melodies.

Cover image: Terje Isungset © Emile Holba

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