Fittingly, on the day that we woke to the first frost of the season, we went to Manchester to see the Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset perform his Ice Music at the Royal Northern College of Music. I wrote last year, on the occasion of his performances at Somerset House in London, how much I wanted to experience one of these events: now at last I had the chance.
Although he has become more widely known in recent years as a result of his ice music performances, Terje Isungset is an outstanding percussionist who has played in folk, jazz and avant-garde contexts, appearing on innumerable recordings as well as composing and writing for the ballet and theatre.
In his solo work he displays something which many Norwegian musicians share – a deeply-felt passion for nature. He has recorded music played on found materials from nature, and the first half of last night’s Manchester concert exemplified this: solo pieces played on wood, stones and granite, including drum sticks and brushes shaped from roughly prepared branches and twigs.
In fact, the first half of Isungset’s performance at the RNCM consisted of his Tribute to Nature which utilized birch and granite percussion, a ram’s horn, bells, voice, an extended solo on a tiny mouth harp, and moments when he was scraping and prodding the drumkit with hand-held objects as well as his feet. Chris Jones, reviewing one of his albums for the BBC, had this to say:
Terje Isungset, like many of his Nordic compatriots, straddles the divide between jazz, avant garde and even folk. A lot of this has to do with the inherent Scandinavian respect for nature and its power on the imagination. Isungset, a percussionist who has worked with just about every major name in Norwegian jazz, is a man who uses nature’s materials to make his music. Anyone who has seen him perform knows that he can express himself more fully with a ram’s horn, a bunch of twigs or a couple of pebbles, better than most musicians could with a whole fjord full of modern gadgetry.
After the interval Isungset was joined on stage by singer Lena Nymark to perform Ice Music, performed against the evocative backdrop of The Idea Of North, a film created by Phil Slocombe. Now Isungset switched from rock, stone and wood to play a variety of ice instruments that he carves himself from the ice of Norway’s mountains and 600 year-old frozen water from the glacier Jostedalbreen (see YouTube video below). These included an ice marimba (top), and an ice horn (below). As Terje said, they are ‘the only instruments you can drink after you’ve finished playing’. All of them are eventually recycled, returned to ther place of origin.
The back-projected film, The Idea of North is a collaboration between Terje Isungset and Phil Slocombe of the Leeds based arts organisation Lumen. Using rare archive film and footage its intricately patterned, often mysterious imagery complemented the intensely physical soundscape created by Lena Nymark’s vocals and Terje’s haunting ice sounds.
Every ten minutes or so an assistant would remove an instrument before it came too close to altering its state to liquid, and delicately replace it with another (above). The timbres of the ice instruments are dependent on the temperature of the ice as it freezes and the different quality of the ice in different areas. Isungset has said of his ice music recordings, ‘All the sounds you hear are pure. They are recordings of frozen water – no computers, no manipulation, just ice – in sculpted, crumbled and sliced form’.
It was unbelievably atmospheric music that conjured into being the sounds of the natural world, perfectly complemented by Lena Nymark’s haunting vocals. Some of the sounds seemed to have been frozen in time, only now being set free from deep within earth and ice. When Isungset raised the ice horn to his lips and blew a deep, resonating note, the sense of something primeval was intense.
After 45 minutes, Terje brought matters to a close saying, ‘Well, if we stay too long… you know what happens!’
A clip of a concert in 2010 by Terje Isungset, with Lena Nymark (vocals) and Sidsel Walstad on an ice harp held during the Ice Music Festival held in a cave carved out from the Val Senales glacier in Italy’s south Tyrol. The ice horn is made out of the ice of the glacier where the concert took place.
The opening track from Terje Isungset’s most recent CD Winter Songs (2010) features Terje Isungset (icepercussion, icehorn, iceofon), Lena Nymark (voice), Sidsel Walstad (iceharp), Nils Økland (ice Hardanger fiddle), Espen Jørgensen (ice guitar), withChrista and Gerhald Schønfelder (glass harmonica). In the FinanciaI Times, David Honigmann wrote of this album:
The Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset has an almost-shamanic power to conjure music out of unmusical objects, scraping stones or knocking wood. Now his medium is ice, and all the mysteriously beautiful instrumental sounds here are made with frozen water – including ice fiddle, ice guitar and ice Hardanger fiddle. Lena Nymark’s vocals are like clouds of breath on a frosty morning.
Terje Isungset’s Ice Music recorded in November 2008 at St Pancras Room, Kings Place, London:
Terje Isungset making ice instruments, Winter 2011: