Circumpolar artists Matthew Burtner, Paul Walde, Jana Winderen, and Terje Isungset bear sonic witness to Arctic warming.
‘Nature is the boss’
For more than twenty years, Terje Isungset has been sculpting his own genre, which he calls ice music, carving blocks of frozen H2O into wind, percussion, and even string instruments—all of which are playable during their limited lifespans. While Jana Winderen approaches climate-inspired music as science, Isungset approaches it more like spirituality. “I am very connected to nature, and I have been this way all my life,” he says. “And not in a religious way, because I’m not religious at all. But with ice, you have to trust nature. It decides everything with the music. It decides the quality of the sound, depending on how the ice freezes. Imagine if you’re playing a piece on a piano and you don’t know if the piano will have sound or not.”
A low-key mystic with a long history as a percussionist in Norway’s jazz scene, Terje Isungset conducts a practice that is about bringing music back to its origins in the natural world, performing on wood, rocks, and animal bones. His interest in ice began when he was invited to perform a concert at a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer in 2000. A year later, he independently released what he claims was the world’s first ice-music recording.
In Isungset’s ice music, there is a quiet intimacy. But performing and recording it comes with its own set of challenges, related to the ephemeral nature of the instruments. “It’s very important to have a stable temperature, and a place that is silent. No noise, because some of the ice instruments are very soft-sounding. We need to gain everything up really high and sometimes the noisiest part will be my stomach!”
The shimmering, crystalline tones that Isungset draws from the blocks of an iceofon (ice marimba)—which he strikes or taps with gloved hands—can be mesmerizing for audiences. For his ice horns, he uses a piece of leather, given to him by one of the Sámi people, to protect his lips. This sense of spectacle extends to the Ice Music Festival Norway, which the artist has organized annually since 2006, and which take place inside structures made of ice and snow. These gatherings in the cold, dark, remote Norwegian winter bring together musicians, dancers, architects, and poets, as well as scientists giving talks on the effects of climate change.
Although the 2021 edition of the festival was cancelled due to COVID-19, Isungset organized a virtual concert entitled On Nature’s Conditions, which he describes as “an interdisciplinary climate-related project, where nature will control the environmental conditions,” or more succinctly, “Nature is the boss!” Isungset performed solo on an iceofon from within an igloo, while outdoor solo-dance and visual ice-arts performances happened simultaneously. The artist viewed the event as a way of dealing with both climate grief and loneliness.
“Human beings, we are very small and not very important at all,” muses Isungset. “And we’ve been on the planet such a short time, like one millisecond and then we destroy everything . . . and then it’s goodbye.”
Top Photo by Jana Winderen. Matthew Burtner photo and Glacier Music cover by Matthew Burtner. Video still of Paul Walde performing Ice Record (part of Alaska Variations) taken by Michael Conti. Photo of Jana Winderen hydrophone recording in the Barents Sea taken by a crew member of R/V Helmer Hanssen research vessel. Photo of Terje Isungset taken by Emile Holba.