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Terje Isungset Makes Musical Instruments From Chainsawed Chunks of Ice

Live from the cold, it's ice music in Norway.
March 15, 2014, 4:00pm

Terje Isungset is unlike most percussionists. After all, he is an ice man from Norway, carving out his musical instruments from huge blocks of ice.

Ice Music is spearheaded by Isungset, a Norwegian composer and percussionist who takes his ice from frozen lakes with a chainsaw (but not always). For each concert, ice is sourced locally and built from scratch, unless shipped from a freezer in Norway. Each hour-long set always sounds differently.

It all began in 1999 when Isungset was commissioned to create a concert in a frozen waterfall. He started to use local materials for his piece, including stones, wood and ice. His first ice CD was released in 2001, recorded at the Ice Hotel in Sweden. A pioneer in the now-growing ice music scene, Isungset co-founded the Ice Festival in Geilo with Pål K Medhus, every winter in Norway, and Ice Records, a label which releases records by ice musicians. Everything has a hollow, bassy and almost ghostly spiritual vibe to it.

Currently on tour, Isungset plays over 50 shows a year (even in summer). He chatted to us about being an iceman, the art of glaciers and storing instruments in the ice freezer on his parents’ farm.

NOISEY: This all began in 1999. How much has ice music grown since you began Ice Records and the Ice Music Festival?
Terje Isungset: It has been an ongoing project and still is in the beginning only some concerts a year, but still a lot of work in studio with CDs. Now, we play 50 or 60 concerts a year plus studio work. It is quite a lot besides my ordinary concerts on drums etc.

Which one is your favourite ice instrument to play?
This is depending on the quality of the ice. It never sounds the same. If the ice is fantastic my favorite is the percussion set up as a total. If you do see my instrument as one unit - and everything sounds good – wow.

When you tour, you have to build your instruments yourself. Is the process different every time?
In Norway or Northern Europe we can bring my ice trailer with the instruments from my freezer storage. For most concerts which are held outdoors, we do build new instruments for every gig. One or two carvers are doing most of the work. I do decide the design and sizes and instruments – I also tune and make most of the sounding parts at the last minute before the shows.

Can you tell me more about your freezer storage? How big is it, where is it and what do you keep in there?
It is at Geilo where we have the only ice music festival in the world. The storage is situated at my parents’ farm. It’s a rather small freezer room which is 16 square meters. I do store good sounding ice and some instruments for touring with my freezer trailer.

Weather is crucial to your performances. How do you adapt?
You simply have to deal with it. Weather decides the sound of the instrument and also what to be able to play. Rain is very difficult indeed. You can say that nature decides it all – so I to relate to that – and trust nature.

What did you do at your recent show in France when the weather failed?
We moved two of the concerts indoors. That was no problem, but it would have been great to do it outside in the amazing nature. Maybe next year.

How cold do you and your musicians get doing these performances?
While playing music, you normally do not feel the cold, as music itself heals you in a way. If it is very cold (like below 30 degrees Celsius) we have to play a shorter concert, this is also because of the audience.

How long are your sets?
An ice concert can last up until one hour - even indoor or in summer.

What is your next ice record upcoming? When will it be released?
I am about to finish it now, it will have environmental focus with recordings from the arctic, Antarctic, Greenland, Canada, Siberia and Norway. Lots of glaciers. The release date is autumn.

Lastly, what do you do all summer without any ice?
I play hundreds of ordinary concerts at festivals, concert halls every year. Mainly I play with drums, but also with ice, as we do can perform in concert halls or during summer as long as we do have the freezer trailer nearby the stage.

Nadja Sayej aspires to one day take a selfie in an ice bar. She's on Twitter. - @nadjasayej