Jan 16, 2009

Entertainment - Norway's mountains alive with the sound of ice music

Pierre Henry Deshayes

GEILO, Norway (AFP) – Never has the phrase "sends shivers down your spine" more aptly described a musical concert. Inside a large snow arena tucked away in Norway's mountains, spectators marvelled as musicians performed for two days using instruments made almost entirely of ice.

Organised to coincide with the first full moon of the year, Geilo ski resort in the central mountain region separating Oslo from Norway's second largest city, Bergen, is home to the world's only ice music festival.

As short-lived as sandcastles, the ice-sculpted wind, string and percussion instruments give off surprising new sounds that vary according to the quality of the ice and the surrounding temperatures.

"Ice is extremely beautiful on a visual and musical level. It has additional qualities to other materials. It is abstract. Although it is cold it gives out a warm sound," said Terje Isungset, the festival organiser and a pioneer in ice music.

"It's nature which controls everything. The quality of the ice and the ambient temperature determine the tonality of the music."

The ice-made harp and fiddle, aided by speakers to boost their pitch, played centre stage at Norway's fourth IceMusic Festival that ended on January 11.

For the professional musicians, some of whom wore gloves during their performances, it was a unique opportunity.

"It is fantastic to play music that we know will never be recreated," said harpist Sidsel Walstad, who was restricted to playing just 18 chords against the normal 47.

Musician Nils Oekland said his ice fiddle sounded more oriental than a normal fiddle.

"In classical music we try to play something that rises out of the ordinary melody using our traditional instruments. Here, it's the instruments that are extraordinary," he added.

The spectacle owed a lot to American ice sculpter Bill Cowitz who made the festival's instruments in just two days from ice made of mineral water which experts say is superior to tap water.

His small compromise, however, was to insert small chunks of wood to support the strings that were made of nylon or sheeps' gut because metal ones "heat up when they move and would melt the ice," he said.

"This is the first time I've made a functional ice harp and fiddle. The challenge is to make them as light as possible to optimise the resonance but also strong enough," he added.

"My main concern is to make sure that they don't break. If they sound awful, we can always blame it on the musicians," he joked.

Despite their surprising resilience, the musicians had to content with the odd instrument malfunction as temperatures fluctuated, forcing them to improvise during the performances.

But this did not dampen the dozens of spectators' enthusiasm for the puzzling mixture of hollow noises and delicate chimes.

Their applause may have been defeaned by their mittens but one local resident called the concert "magical" and another couple from Oslo admitted they had "never seen or heard anything like it."

Meanwhile, festival organiser Isungset was only too happy to see the instruments melt back into the environment.

"They belong to nature ... I only borrowed them," he said.

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