When Tim Linhart started making instruments from ice, they were more likely to explode with a bang than produce music. Things have since, however, come a long way.
Today, the US-born artist is in charge of an ice orchestra of musicians playing a series of concerts at sub-zero temperatures in a vast, custom-built igloo high in the Italian Alps.
“I made snow and ice sculptures in a ski resort … and then I decided it would be cool to make a sculpture of a violin,” Linhart, 59, said.
“I heard the sound coming from inside and thought, ‘If I just tighten up the strings a little bit more, it would be louder’,” he recalled.
Overtightening the strings, however, caused the instrument to shatter into little pieces, he recounted. “But I had heard enough. It was the beginning,” said Linhart.
In the Passo Paradiso winter sports station in Italy, at an altitude of 2,600 metres, instruments still at times implode due to the brittleness of the ice. When they do, though, it’s not altogether a lost cause.
Here, the artist has built a violin, viola, timpani drum set, xylophone, double bass, mandolin, cello and even his own invention, the giant Rolandophone, a huge percussion pipe instrument, all from ice.
Linhart uses a white-ice mix of water and snow to build the instrument’s walls, around a metal backbone, over which the strings are stretched and tightened.
A mandolin takes five or six days to make. Bigger instruments can take months.
“It’s a great material because you can both grow it and cut it away, and it’s free,” said Linhart. “The only setback is that it melts.”
Cellist Nicola Segatta, who helped build his own instrument out of ice, says their sound is “more crystalline” than the classic wooden instruments. “They’re incredibly fragile. When you’re building them, there’s the constant risk that they’ll disintegrate into a thousand pieces,” said the musician.
But the intensity of the music produced by the ice instruments brings out a strong emotional reaction in the audience, in counterpoint to their fragility, he added. The ice instruments require amplification, and technicians battle constantly to keep the sound coming in the adverse conditions.
As the audience enters the igloo, where temperatures average -12 degrees Celsius, it warms up, and so do the instruments, forcing the musicians constantly to retune.
But the ice’s flexibility is also a blessing, as it adapts to being played.
“The instruments, when they’re first newly built, sound kind of tinny. The more you play them, the bigger the sound gets,” Linhart said. “Within the first couple of hours, the sound will be twice as big as it was before and much nicer, sweeter-sounding, because the ice is responding to this vibration passing through it and getting warmed up like it’s getting a massage.”
Linhart spends the summer with family in northern Sweden, gardening and creating non-ice art, while some of the instruments are kept in a freezer for the next winter.
“If they’re old and worn we’ll just hit them with a hammer or leave them out in the sun and let them die,” he said.
His current project is teaching people like Segatta how to make the instruments, and the concert hall, themselves.
But this means resisting the constant temptation to think up even bigger instruments in “the cutting edge, the invention side of ice music again”, he said.