Icy Sonic Wonder

In 2021, Ice Music Festival Norway will celebrate its 16th year at Bergsjøstølen, Norway in February. I will be joining the festival for my 12th year - producing the photography, designing the website and managing the extensive media interest. 12 years is quite a commitment, so I thought I’d offer my mini backstory and relationship with the festival.

Terje at the controls.

After photographing and experiencing Terje Isungset perform his Ice Music in London in 2008, I became very curious about where the ice came from, as I felt there was a story to be told. An email exchange followed, along with a chance summer meeting in 2009, and a plan was set to join the annual Ice Music Festival in Norway - back then commencing its 4th year. So in Jan 2010, I made a trip deep into Norway’s winterscape to make a story about the process, skills and effort required to produce the Ice Music Festival.

I arrived on a mid-week evening train from Oslo that rolled into a very snowy and desolate Geilo station. I was greeted on the platform by the festival’s co-founder Pål Knutsson Medhus (Pål and I later created a book called Generation Geilo and we have forged a long creative relationship too, though that is another chapter in my Norwegian photographic odyssey). Pål checked me into the cosy Bardøla Hotel and explained that Even Rygg would pick me up at 6am to head out into the mountains to extract ice.

Epic 01:17am close to Feb 2020’s festival, just before coronavirus upended society.

It was -23ºc that following morning and throwing my gear into a Nissan pick up loaded with chainsaws, generators and gallons of black coffee, definitely offered a taste of what was to come - 10 arduous hours harvesting ice from a lake high up in nearby Ål kommune. Assisted by his friend Knut, we three extracted 12 x 600+kg blocks of ice from the lake that winter’s day. The cold, the diffused light, the location (working on a frozen lake, like it was completely normal) and the opportunity to make some insightful documentary photography - yep, I was hooked.

Shameless selfie alert in a comfortable -27ºc.

Over the course of 10 days, a skilled team consisting of Bill Covitz, one of the world’s finest ice sculptors, a hardy group of volunteers (from many different countries and professions, from Portuguese architects - yes you Helder, to English oil industry engineers - yes, you Adam) musicians, artists and sound engineers descended on the mountainside at Kikut to construct a venue and install an incredible range of ice instruments.

Battling deep cold, blizzards and 2am finishes, the team were ready with a grand venue to welcome a truly international audience. Incoming from the USA, Japan, Australia, just about every EU country, Nordic neighbours, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and China - icy sonic wonder attracted music fans with an ear for the something a little different, and who wanted to venture into a white, moon illuminated wilderness.

Ice extraction and ice instrument fabrication, Geilo style.

I left Norway that year with a lovely photo story, along with great memories made with a brilliant team, receiving super Norwegian hospitality and just hanging out in stunning mountain-scape for 10 days.

Roll on 2011 and there was a gap in my diary when the Ice Music Festival dates fell (traditionally guided by the first full moon of the year) and the temptation to return was strong. You guessed it - I went back to join the team, with camera in hand. Roll on 2012, 2013,  2014 and, well, every year since.

For the first couple of years, I simply photographed the whole production process, to document fresh venue designs, changes in the musicians’ line-up and wildly ambitious ice instruments - which included a 650kg Ice Harp and 9ft long Ice Tuba. I also combined those photographic duties with ice extraction in some beautiful (yet secret) locations in Hol & Ål kommunes with Even. The serene calm and stillness when the chainsaws stopped was simply wonderful.

As the years passed, I took on additional roles of building the website and managing international media. You name a big network; BBC, CNN, Russia 1, CCTV, ZDF, Deutsche Welle, Vice, HBO, ABC, Reuters, NRK (to name just a few) - they have all visited the festival, along with countless noteworthy freelance journalists, tenacious radio correspondents, brilliant film makers, intrepid travel writers and the new wave of social media junkies. And each and every time they arrive in person, all are completely beguiled by the festival’s spirit and unique atmosphere.

Geilo’s kaleidoscope of colour and big stage sound.

The festival increased in scale and size, with some years attracting over 1,000 people, resulting with nearly two weeks of work to complete the venue construction. Elaborate lighting and projection systems were employed and the festival morphed into a visual, as well as a musical spectacular.

In 2018 the festival moved up to higher ground 30 miles away in Finse and also took on the full time presence of design and architectural degree students from the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design at the University of Bergen. A design team led by Professor Petter Bergerud, who has built extraordinary structures from snow & ice for decades.

Finse proved stormy and remote.

During this transition, the festival continued to expand its compelling programme of talks and presentations focused on climate change, hosted by world leading scientists from the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, including Professor Kerim Nisancioglu - who creates insightful narratives about the damaging effects of climate change.

Our time 3 years in Finse was also noted for the area’s extremely harsh weather, with 2+ day storms with near national record breaking wind speeds and bitter temperatures, with 2019 seeing our venue completely destroyed, twice! Working in shift patterns with lights to guide teams through the blizzards, it felt more like a scene from The Thing. We delivered the festival that year though (on time) after many long nights.

This exposed environment strangely complimented the more intimate nature of the festival, an intimacy with the remote area enhanced by the fact that Finse is accessible by train only. Once the few daily trains departed, nature’s silence returned. This change in location and weather also offered me a different tonal palette to work with.

But when the wind dropped and the sun broke over Finse…

Ice Music itself is performed by Terje in other parts of the world throughout the year, and in some places he’s known for his musical ice skills before his composition and accomplished percussive talent. Over the years I have accompanied Terje and his small team (normally consisting of a mini ice shaping crew, singer and sound engineer, with Maria Skranes & Asle Karstad in the current aforementioned roles) to a few of these performances, with a notable trip to Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada.

Polarman of Baffin Island.

Qallunaaq of Iqaluit offers a glimpse into my time in the coldest of winters on one of the world’s most remote islands. Deep cold took on a new meaning there, with air temperature low of -56ºc at one point (definitely a living a scene from The Thing). On the island for 11 days, I made a story for Roads & Kingdoms called The Sounds of Silence where I wrote about recording music in -40ºc and the local community that supported it.

Recording in a perfectly still (32db) and -41ºc on the shore of the frozen Labrador Sea.

Composing this journal post in December 2020, near the end of a year mostly restricted under a curious SARS-CoV-2 haze, I am really looking forward to returning to the mountains of Norway to co-produce Ice Music Festival Norway. The festival is close to my heart (and I speak for the fellow organisers’ too) and being so closely involved for such a long time is a commitment that is not rooted in commercial gain (the festival is a non-profit organisation) but for the simple art of expression and developing ideas in a collaborative way. Challenging for sure - I once stated in a TV interview that the festival balances a very fine line between art & lunacy, as it is completely dependent on the climate and weather.

2021 will be a little different though, as we are ensuring that the festival complies with covid safety restrictions. These restrictions have forced us to rethink and imagine what we can offer with a reduced audience in a new, exciting location at Bergsjøstølen. Fresh creative opportunities have arisen from that rethink too, with a new ice music project in development. So watch this space.

Sea ice extraction on the Labrador Sea.

Terje Isungset takes a walk after his recording session on Baffin Island.

In the meantime you can check out the new Ice Music Festival Norway website, where you’ll find all the details of 2021’s events and also more about the festival’s history.

I shall leave you with a few screen grabs from the new site and also a few frames showcasing the excellent sonic experimentation found at the festival, with DJ Bendik Bakaas live sampling and Jo David Lysne spinning the world’s first ice dubplate!

We built our own moons in Finse.

Until 2021 in Bergsjøstølen!

Jo David Lysne debuting the world’s first ice dubplate.

DJ Bendik Bakaas live sampling in Finse.

Using Format