Music from the Arctic

I am always excited to find out about musical instruments from different parts of the world and am fascinated by the inventive ways people have found of creating them out of everything from a coconut to an armadillo shell. My most surprising recent discovery happened when I came across Norwegian musician Tjerje Isungset who plays musical instruments made from ice! Yes, ice! Who doesn’t love the sound of ice on those coldest of mornings, crunching frozen snow under foot or hearing a frozen puddle creak as you step on it? Tjerje Isungset has been exploring the potential of this unlikely and transitory material for many years and I have recently been catching up with his music online. 

Here’s Tjerje Isungset playing a xylophone created out of huge slabs of ice cut to size (an ‘iceofon’) which complements Lena Nymark’s singing in a performance recorded in the Arctic in 2014. Two sets of ice chimes add to the bell-like texture and if you’ve never seen this before keep watching till about 3.35” for an unlikely ice instrument.

One good idea often leads to another and so in this next clip, from a performance recorded in support of Greenpeace in 2019, the range of ice instruments has expanded to include an ice-cello! Now, I thought I had seen everything cello-related – from bowing the spike, to using the spike to (appear to) stab someone in a performance – but an ice cello is new to me and although it works amazingly, I don’t think I’ll be trying that (nor the stabbing thing) any time soon.

My favourite clip of Isungset’s performances is from a concert recorded in 2018 that was broadcast online last year, as part of the Bergen International Festival, when we were in the middle of lockdown. 

There’s a huge block of ice centre stage. Terje Isungset pummels a hollow in it, with two sticks of ice, making a rhythmic crunchy sound to accompany a folky sounding melody, sung by vocalist Maria Skranes, who is also on electronics and percussion – ice percussion of course. She clinks the oblong ice tiles, suspended on strings, as Terje taps a hollow block of ice, making a bell-like sound, plays long notes on the icehorn or with gloved fingers, taps a melody on the iceofon.

How this works indoors I have no idea and am too engrossed in the music to think about it. I love the sounds of these ice instruments combining with Anders Jorman’s wide-ranging double bass playing and Arvo Henrikson’s smooth jazz trumpet to make a gorgeous mellow vibe. The band are appropriately enough, dressed for the Arctic.

What makes this concert particularly special is that it features singers from three distinct vocal traditions from the Arctic, each remarkable in itself. When put together, Tuvan throat-singing, Inuit throat-singing (katajjaq) and Sami joik, in collaboration with Isungset’s ice-band, create a unique sound world.

These three traditions are now well known here in the West but I remember having to stop the car in amazement the first time I heard Tuvan throat singing on the radio. The technique involves the vocalist making two or more sounds at the same time, producing melodies on harmonics above a resonant low-pitch. It’s a sound that reflects its origins, inspired by the high plains where hunters would imitate animal calls and the sound of the whistling breeze. We hear Radik Tülüsh (from the band Huun-Huur-Tu) creating astonishing sounds.

The sound of Katajjaq also stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. It’s performed here by Beatrice Deer and Pauyungie Nutaraaluk, superb exponents of this style of throat-singing in which the duo alternate back and forth, making breathy sounds or imitating the sounds of creatures. It was originally a game made up by Inuit women for their own entertainment but in recent times was recognised for its cultural significance and revived for public performance. 

The third vocal tradition highlighted is joik, a semi-improvised chant-like singing which is strongly connected with Sami identity and spirituality. It’s performed here by Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska, who is from a family of joikers from northern Norway.

These striking musical voices are heard in turn and then seamlessly interweaving, subtly mingling with instrumental and ice sounds. The effect is atmospheric at times, then the mood shifts, as the band pick up in folky jazz style with Maria Skranes’ exquisite vocals. Electronics and video art are used skilfully to add the finishing touches to this stunningly inventive performance.

The whole concert is musically and technically sophisticated but playful at the same time and it couldn’t be more at one with nature and the environment of the Arctic. It carries a serious message about the loss of habitat that climate change is bringing as the polar ice melts. This music seems to spring, literally (and I mean literally) from the elements. As the ice melts when will the message drip through…

Watch the whole concert here … set aside an hour, it’s a real treat. If you are in a rush, watch the last 10 -15 minutes.

  • Terje Isungset icedrums, iceofon, icehorns, icepercussion
  • Beatrice Deer, Pauyungie Nutaraaluk Inuit throat-singing
  • Radik Tülüsh (Huun-Huur-Tu) Tuvan throat-singing
  • Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska joik
  • Maria Skranes vocals, electronics, icepercussion
  • Arve Henriksen trumpet, vocals
  • Anders Jormin double bass
  • Anastasia Isachsen video, lighting design
  • Atle Sekkingstad sound design​

If you don’t have time right now, this shorter clip, from the premiere of Arctic Icemusic in concert at Norway’s folk festival 2016, shows highlights including throat-singing and joik.

If you’d like to hear more of Isunget’s music, I’d recommend the following track from the album Beauty of Winter at All Ice Records. It features Inuit throat singing (at the start) followed by Tuvan throat singing and of course ice music. Don’t forget to put on a warm jumper.

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