Design

These Ice Instruments Look as Beautiful as They Sound

by DJ Pangburn

April 13, 2016
Tim Linhart. Image by Karin Aberg

Half a world away, in the winter wilds of Luleå, Sweden, American ice sculptor Tim Linhart hand-carves ice instruments. He’s made guitars, drums, banjos, violins and even invented a couple new musical devices. One, the Rolandophone, is giant percussion tool that looks like a pan flute, and another is the Gravaton, a massive 37-string instrument sculpted from 2.2 tons of frozen water.

Linhart’s Ice Music concert series presents around 20 of these instruments to audiences each year. The Ice Music orchestra explores genres ranging from traditional folk to Hawaiian music to rock & roll and classical. It’s avant garde sonic tools draw crowds to Luleåeach year, which is no small feat considering the concert season runs through the city’s subarctic winter.

Image by Karin Aberg

But Linhart hasn’t always made ice instruments. Before getting into music, he was an ice sculptor who had worked at villages and ski resorts in Colorado for 16 years. Always pushing the boundaries of what could structurally be done with ice, Linhart would venture out onto the edge of a cliff, sitting atop a sculpture as he chiseled away. Precariously perched, Linhart spent a lot of time thinking about the properties of his chosen media—particularly areas of weakness and strength. One wrong move and he was dead. This critical thinking opened up other possibilities for Linhart’s artistic and, eventually, musical expression through ice.

“I had a friend who was building guitars, and the two ideas — the ice sculpture and guitarmaking— got close enough together, and we asked the question if we could build an instrument that was made of ice,” Linhart says. “At that point I had no knowledge of anyone else doing it. So I tried building a ten-foot high bass, like a giant violin, and put strings on it from a piano, tightened the strings, plucked them and heard the voice of the instrument come out.”

Image by Karin Aberg

Linhart, having no formal training in creating musical tools, thought if he just tightened the wires some more it would be louder. Instead, the frozen bass exploded into “a thousand small pieces.” That was the inauspicious beginning of his now 20-year journey into “ice music.” But he’s come a long way in the past two decades. “I’m quite uneducated, at least unofficially, as far as musical instruments,” Linhart said. “Now I’ve built 17 or 18 orchestras and well over 100 instruments, and played them through many hundred concerts, so I’m very familiar with how instruments work.”

To make an ice guitar, Linhart lays out a piece of plastic on a tabletop that has a drawing of the guitar body’s shape. Linhart then builds the guitar’s front and back plates with white ice, which is a mixture of snow and water. After letting it freeze overnight, Linhart carves the plates, then adds some finer details like f-holes before gradually building up the space between the plates with ice until they are sealed. From there, he adds a traditional neck, bridge and strings to complete the ice axe. “You start with the proportions that you’ve copied off of a standard instrument, and then you begin modifying those proportions in different ways to see how it affects the ice,” Linhard explains.

Considering Linhart’s pieces are made of solid H2O instead of resonant instrument materials like wood and metal, some can be a bit quieter than their traditional counterparts. But what they might lack in volume, Linhart insists they make up for in sonic beauty, “They have a more detailed sound—a brighter, richer sound,” he says. “The ice is volatile. It’s always moving. When it’s first formed, the ice is 10 percent bigger than it was as water, so there are all these crystals growing from different directions and there’s a lot of tension in them. But when you send vibrations through, all of those molecules that are under stress begin to release and the ice becomes more of an evenly-spaced and tensioned material. It changes the physical structure of the ice and more friendly to making music.”

Image by Graeme Richardson

As for the performance space, Linhart’s team builds a “cosmic igloo” for their ice orchestra. Each winter they construct a domed concert hill using snowblowers. “The concert hall that we’ve been playing in this year has two domes, and when you walk in the door the seating leads downward toward the stage, which sits between those two domes about 15 feet below the doorway,” Linhart explains. “The domes have holes in the roof to ventilate the heat from the bodies, while the instruments stay at the bottom in the pool of cold air.”

Concert season ends with spring, and a stage piece that requires six weeks to create simply begins to melt. The hall itself is disassembled in late March, and the musical instruments are stored in freezers for the summer. Come next January, the team will once again construct the concert hall and, if necessary, the instruments to entertain the audiences with their ice music.

Image by Karin Aberg
Image by Graeme Richardson
Image by Karin Aberg

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These Ice Instruments Look as Beautiful as They Sound