Freezing fingers play melting instruments at Norway's Ice Music Festival

February 23, 2017, 1:05pm

This segment originally aired Feb. 16, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

In mid-February, a group of international musicians got together in a small ski town in Norway to prepare for a concert. But instead of tuning their instruments and rehearsing in a warm, dry environment, they watched as sculptors shaped their instruments using chain saws and pickaxes in freezing cold weather. This was the start of Norway’s 12th annual Ice Music Festival — the world’s only gathering to celebrate the unpredictable melodies produced by instruments made out of ice.

The festival, which takes place in the town of Geilo, is the brainchild of Terje Isungset, a famous Norwegian percussionist. He came up with the idea for “Ice Music” — a genre he proudly says he invented — while playing a concert under a frozen waterfall in 1999.

“I decided to use elements of the waterfall,” he said while standing under an ice dome at the site of the festival. “So, we tried a bit of ice at that concert, and it was a total hit; it was so incredibly beautiful.” Since then, Isungset has recorded more than a half dozen albums of ice music. And he’s enlisted quite a few musicians and ice sculptors to take part in his annual festival.

The songs at this year’s Ice Music Festival were sometimes deeply beautiful and even haunting. But they were also often difficult to follow. Because the instruments are made out of ice — which melts when touched by hot, human bodies — the sound they produce can change significantly over the course of a 30-minute concert**.** The outdoor concerts’ temperature and the ice’s purity also affects the music. Because of this, some performers spent half the show figuring out how to play their instruments, which largely couldn’t be practiced with beforehand for fear they’d melt. And so, there were a few instances where the music never truly came together.

Hearing perfectly prepared pieces of ice music wasn’t the goal for many festival goers, however. Seeings the instruments themselves, which were beautifully — albeit hastily — crafted in the days and hours before each performance, was often the main attraction. And there’s something captivating about seeing seasoned jazz musicians familiarize themselves with awkwardly shaped, freezing cold instruments during a performance. Festival attendees — of which there were about 1,500 this year — seemed to get a real kick out of that.