Terje Isungset on his Arctic Ice Music

In the past 20 years Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset has brought new meaning to the phrase ‘cool jazz’, performing in such venues as a frozen waterfall, igloos and a snowbound archipelego illuminated by the midnight sun.

Acrtic Ice music creator Terje Isungset. Picture: Emile Holba
Acrtic Ice music creator Terje Isungset. Picture: Emile Holba

Isungset’s ability to fashion instruments from blocks of ice has made him something of a pioneer. Next week he premieres a programme of Arctic Ice Music in the UK, starting at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.

Joining him for the concert will be Sami singer Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska, Inuit throat singers Akinisie Sivuarapik and Emily Sallualuk plus Tuvan throat singer, and member of acclaimed band Huun Huur Tu, Radik Tyulyush. The unique line-up also includes Norwegian singer Maria Skranes, trumpeter Lyder Øverås Røed and Sweden’s Viktor Reuter on double bass, plus video by acclaimed artist Anastasia Isachsen.

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“It’s actually based on the idea of gathering together people who have been very closely related to nature for generations,” explains the 57-year-old percussionist via Zoom from his home on the edge of a picturesque Norwegian forest.

“That’s why I wanted to invite Inuits from Canada, they used to live in igloos, and a Sami singer, they used to live very much out in nature even in winter in small tents, and a Siberian singer, again with a very close relationship with nature, how to deal with it and respect nature, until the last 100 years when things started to change.

“Parts of the concert are based on their traditions where they will sing about things that have to do with winter or about nature, and it’s a fantastic combination of singers because they are so different but at the same time they have something in common. Then I contribute with my ice instruments – that is the element that all of them have in common for sure.”

The programme will include traditional songs and Isungset’s own compositions. “There’s kind of a jazz quartet inside this band of singers, so that makes a mix of all of this,” he says. “It’s not so much improvised, everything is pretty much planned, but there will be improvisations within the frames.”

Performing with ice instruments does provide certain challenges, Isungset admits. “They can melt so we need to plan things pretty well. Timing is quite important, so that also limits how much you can improvise.”

The ice percussion and horns were created for Isungset’s own Ice Music Festival, that he has staged annually in Norway since 2006. Isungset says: “They are on trolleys and in boxes in a freezer trailer that my ice handler will take from Norway and it will go by boat to the UK, so the trailer is really important because we need to keep the instruments cold.”

Not only are Isungset’s instruments environmentally friendly, he suggests: “It’s probably the only instrument that is really healthy; you can drink it all and it’s still healthy.”

A renowned jazz musician, Isungset had utilised stones and wood alongside conventional drums in “ordinary bands” before he decided to create his first ice instruments for a festival staged at a frozen waterfall in Lillehammer in 1999. “I thought maybe we can use this as a resource, instead of thinking ‘it’s cold, it’s slippery, its terrible’,” he says. “We harvested ice from the lake and I also used sounds from the river and the waterfall by putting microphones underneath the ice. It was not a proper ice concert, it was a combination of instruments, but it was the beginning of the ice story.”

Each piece of ice has a unique tone. Isungset says he only uses ice that has been naturally frozen for his instruments because “artificial ice will not have sound at all”.

“We go to lakes and we take a saw and harvest blocks of ice,” he says. “There are some varied lakes around but from year to year the ice will sound different. There are good years and bad years, and there is no guarantee. It can also be that blocks from the same lake will also sound very little or sound fantastic. I think only nature knows why it’s like this.

“Also for the tour we are doing, I have to fix and repair the instruments every day because they will change a little bit. For some of the songs I need them to be in tune.”

Pollution can also affect the sound of ice. “I have some experiences of that,” Isungset says. “I think water is maybe something more than only water. Maybe it has a story to tell us. I was once in Russia and I had 100 pieces of ice from the same lake but only seven of them had sound. I know there was a lot of pollution in this area, so it could be the sound was affected by pollution.”

The use of natural materials accords with Isungset’s environmental beliefs. His Ocean Memories project in 2019 involved working with Greenpeace. “All my life I’ve been very much into environmental issues, since I was a teenager it has been on my mind,” he says. “And also I think it’s really nice to use those natural elements in a musical setting. Maybe it has a message to the listener. A piece of rock or stone is very concrete but also it’s very abstract with the sound because it’s something else, so I like these combinations.

“Also with the ice, the main reason I started was searching for sounds but it gradually built to be more and more complex. The fact that it is water became quite quickly very important for me, the mysterious thing that some ice sounds and some doesn’t sound and why. Water and ice has been on the planet much longer than human beings, it has a history and it’s the most important resource for sure: with no water there is no life. So there are many aspects with the music and with my instruments but I try to focus on creating my music, that number one, and also letting them tell their story.”

Arctic Ice Music is at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on November 16. www.terjeisungset.no