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Musicians playing on instruments made of ice

CHILL VIBES: Musicians play ice instruments at a festival in Finse, Norway.

©2017 EMILE HOLBA

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS4.A

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 9

TEKS: 6.2A, 7.2A, 8.2A, P.7B

Frozen Concert

At an annual festival in Norway, musicians play instruments made of ice

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how the design of an ice instrument helps it produce sound.

JIM MCMAHON/MAPMAN®

Every February, hundreds of people from around the world travel to Finse, Norway, for a four-day music festival. Winter temperatures in the remote mountain village can dip well below freezing. But that doesn’t stop visitors from filling up an outdoor theater—they just bundle up and huddle together to keep warm. The visitors are willing to put up with the bone-chilling conditions to hear a series of special concerts performed on instruments made of ice.

Every February, hundreds of people from around the world head to Finse, Norway. They travel to this remote mountain village for a four-day music festival. Winter temperatures there can dip well below freezing. But visitors still fill up an outdoor theater. They just bundle up and huddle together to keep warm. The visitors are willing to put up with the freezing cold to hear a series of special concerts. The music is performed on instruments made of ice.

ANDY RAIN/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

ICY BLAST: Terje Isungset plays the ice horn that he helped carve.

In fact, almost everything at the festival is crafted from ice—even the stage the musicians play on. To design their icy instruments, performers work with professional ice carvers. Together, they make everything from drums and guitars to horns and harps.

Why go to all this trouble to make instruments out of ice instead of metal or wood? According to Norwegian musician and composer Terje Isungset (TAHR-yeh EE-soong-seht), who founded the event 13 years ago, music created using ice instruments has an unforgettable quality. “It’s a surprisingly warm and gentle sound,” he says.

In fact, almost everything at the festival is made from ice. The musicians even play on an ice stage. Performers work with professional ice carvers to design their icy instruments. Together, they make everything from drums and guitars to horns and harps.

It’s a lot of work to make instruments from ice. Why not make them of metal or wood? Norwegian musician and composer Terje Isungset (TAHR-yeh EE-soong-seht) founded the event 13 years ago. He explains that music created with ice instruments has a special quality. “It’s a surprisingly warm and gentle sound,” he says.

MAKING MUSIC

Isungset plays drums and other percussion instruments that make sound when you strike them. He was first inspired to build ice instruments about 20 years ago after being invited to perform under a frozen waterfall at a music festival in Sweden. He decided to try tapping on the hanging icicles during the concert. “When I first heard the sound of the ice, I fell in love with it completely,” he says.

Isungset started making his own ice instruments and playing them. He began with simple shapes he could carve himself, like chimes and xylophone keys. When you hit one of these ice instruments, it vibrates just like a typical percussion instrument would. “As the instrument vibrates, it pushes on the air around it,” says Randy Worland. He’s a physicist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Worland researches musical acoustics, or the science of sound.

Isungset plays drums and other percussion instruments. They make sound when they’re struck. He became inspired to build ice instruments about 20 years ago. That’s when he was asked to perform under a frozen waterfall at a music festival in Sweden. He tried tapping on the hanging icicles during the concert. “When I first heard the sound of the ice, I fell in love with it completely,” he says.

Isungset started making and playing his own ice instruments. He began with simple shapes, like chimes and xylophone keys. He could carve those himself. When you hit one of these ice instruments, it vibrates. That’s just what regular percussion instruments do. “As the instrument vibrates, it pushes on the air around it,” says Randy Worland. He’s a physicist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Worland researches musical acoustics. That’s the science of sound. 

The jostled air particles around a vibrating instrument bump into their neighbors, which then bump into their neighbors. This chain reaction continues, creating a sound wave that eventually reaches your ears.

Materials emit different sounds because they vibrate differently when hit, says Worland. A xylophone, for example, has wooden bars. The notes they make when struck aren’t as clear or as long lasting as those produced by the metal bars on a similar instrument called a vibraphone. A bar made of ice will also produce a different sound than one made of wood or metal, he says. That’s why Isungset’s music is unlike anything most people have experienced.

The air particles around the vibrating instrument move. They bump into their neighbors, which bump into their neighbors. This chain reaction continues and creates a sound wave. Finally the wave reaches your ears.

Different materials give off different sounds. That’s because they vibrate differently when hit, says Worland. For example, a xylophone has wooden bars that produce notes when struck. But their notes aren’t as clear or as long lasting as those from an instrument called a vibraphone. It has metal bars. And a bar made of ice will produce a different sound than one made of wood or metal, he says. That’s why most people have never heard music like Isungset’s. 

©2017 EMILE HOLBA

SOLID SOUND: Unlike a regular string bass, this ice version is solid, not hollow.

COOL CARVING

In 2006, Isungset invited other musicians to perform with him at the first Ice Music Festival. He brought in professional ice carvers, like Bill Covitz, to help make more-complicated instruments than Isungset could create on his own. Covitz, who’s based in Connecticut, has worked on the festival almost every year since. During that time, he’s carved just about every type of instrument, from a tiny kazoo and a curvy guitar to a 1.8 meter (6 foot)-long horn, out of ice.

Preparations for the festival begin about a week before the first performance. Using large saws, workers cut giant blocks of ice from frozen lakes surrounding Finse. They hoist the blocks into trucks that carry them to the festival site. Each block weighs about 1,600 kilograms (3,500 pounds)—almost as much as a small car.

In 2006, Isungset planned the first Ice Music Festival. He invited other musicians to perform with him. He brought in professional ice carvers, like Bill Covitz from Connecticut. They helped make instruments that were more complicated than Isungset could create alone. Covitz has worked on the festival almost every year since. During that time, he’s carved just about every type of instrument. He’s made a tiny kazoo, a curvy guitar, and even a 1.8 meter (6 foot)-long ice horn.

About a week before the festival, workers start getting things ready. Frozen lakes surround Finse. Workers cut giant blocks of ice from the lakes with large saws. The blocks are lifted into trucks and moved to the festival site. Each block weighs about 1,600 kilograms (3,500 pounds). That’s about as much as a small car.

When the trucks drop off the ice blocks, Covitz and the other carvers inspect them. Imperfections like air bubbles can dampen vibrations, dulling the sound. The carvers choose only the clearest pieces of ice to make the festival’s instruments. The rest become things like benches, decorations, and instrument stands at the performances.

It takes several hours to craft each ice instrument. Covitz first cuts out the rough shape from a block of ice with a chain saw. Then he uses smaller tools like chisels to carve details. Both the shape and the size of an instrument are important. These characteristics affect the frequency—number of vibrations per second—of sound waves an instrument can produce, explains Worland (see The Shape of Sound). Last, musicians and carvers work together to fine-tune the instruments by shaving off bits of ice.

The trucks drop off the ice blocks. Then Covitz and the other carvers inspect them. Air bubbles and other flaws can lessen vibrations. That dulls the sound. The carvers choose only the clearest pieces of ice for the festival’s instruments. The rest become things like benches, decorations, and instrument stands at the performances.

It takes several hours to make each ice instrument. First, Covitz cuts out the rough shape from a block of ice with a chain saw. Then he carves details with smaller tools like chisels. Both the shape and the size of an instrument are important. They affect the frequency of sound waves from an instrument, explains Worland. That’s the number of vibrations per second (see The Shape of Sound). Last, musicians and carvers work together. They fine-tune the instruments by shaving off bits of ice.

©2015 EMILE HOLBA

FROZEN TONES: A musician plays a xylophone made of ice.

Some ice instruments, like cellos, are solid. But others, like ice horns, need a hollow chamber to amplify, or strengthen, the sound waves produced when musicians blow into them. To carve this chamber, Covitz starts by slicing a piece of ice in two. He cuts a groove in each side, puts the halves back together, and sprays them with water. In the cold air, the liquid spray quickly freezes solid, gluing the two halves of the instrument in place (see States of Matter).

Some ice instruments, like cellos, are solid. But others, like ice horns, need a hollow space inside. Sound waves are produced when musicians blow into the horn. The hollow space  amplifies, or strengthens, the sound waves. To carve this space, Covitz slices a piece of ice in two. He cuts a groove in each side, puts the halves back together, and sprays them with water. In the cold air, the liquid spray quickly freezes solid. It glues the two halves of the instrument together (see States of Matter).

IT’S SHOWTIME!

An ice music concert is a cool experience—literally. The musicians perform at night, when temperatures in Finse can drop to a teeth-chattering -26°C (-15°F). The performers wear thick gloves and use leather lip guards to protect their skin while they play their frozen instruments. Blankets on top of the ice benches keep the audience from freezing in their seats.

An ice music concert is truly a cool experience. The musicians perform at night, when temperatures in Finse can drop far below freezing, to -26°C (-15°F). The performers must protect their skin when they play their frozen instruments. So they use thick gloves and leather lip guards. Blankets lie on the ice benches. That keeps the audience from freezing in their seats.

©2019 EMILE HOLBA

BLOWN AWAY: The festival features unique instruments, like this huge curved ice horn.

The cold air helps the instruments stay solid, which makes them sound better, according to Covitz. “If it’s cold, then the instruments sing beautifully,” he says. If an ice instrument warms past ice’s melting point of 0°C (32°F), parts of it start to turn into liquid. That changes the instrument’s shape and makes the sound duller. This can happen during performances, for example, as a musician’s warm breath heats up a horn.

Isungset says the shifting sound is part of what makes ice music so interesting. “The idea is to experiment and to try to create new types of music,” he says. “My favorite thing is when the audience gets surprised.”

The cold air helps the instruments stay solid. That makes them sound better, explains Covitz. “If it’s cold, then the instruments sing beautifully,” he says. What if an ice instrument warms past ice’s melting point of 0°C (32°F)? Then parts of it start to turn into liquid. That changes the instrument’s shape and makes the sound duller. This can happen during performances. For example,  a musician’s warm breath can heat up a horn.

The sound changes, but Isungset says that’s one reason ice music is so interesting. “The idea is to experiment and to try to create new types of music,” he says. “My favorite thing is when the audience gets surprised.”  

©2014 EMILE HOLBA

WORK IN PROGRESS: An ice carver begins to transform a block of ice into a musical instrument.

USING MODELS: Use the text and diagrams to explain how ice instruments produce sound.

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