Ice Music Artist Spotlight No.2 - Harpist Sidsel Walstad

In the second part of our series focusing on different aspects of what makes the Ice Music Festival so unique, we speak with harpist Sidsel Walstad about her up and coming ice music performance in Geilo.

As well as one of Europe’s leading concert harpists, Sidsel is also a champion of the electric harp - pushing the musical boundaries of the harp by combining effect machines & pedals. When she is not working on solo projects and international artist collaborations & recordings, Sidsel is resident lead solo harpist at KORK - The Norwegian Radio Orchestra.   

Q: When did you first play an Ice Harp and what was that experience like?

A: I was invited to play at the Ice Music Festival by Terje Isungset in 2009. Constructing a harp from ice sounded very exciting and a world first, so I accepted the invitation immediately. Working out how to build it though took a lot of time (almost one week) as we had to create many trial ice templates before finding one that was musically playable.

We nearly ran out of time that first year, as the last harp string was attached less 1 hour before the opening concert. This meant that there was no valuable practice time to get used to the harp’s unique dynamics before the live performance. I usually have full control when I perform but in 2009 I had no control whatsoever - however the combination of intimate atmosphere, light from the full moon and stars, coupled with the magical ‘silence’ of Geilo’s mountains was simply unforgettable. And luckily the ice harp sounded amazing!

Q: What are the key differences between the ice harp and a regular acoustic harp?

A: Mostly the weight, as the ice harp weighs well over 400kg and is extremely hard to move, whilst an acoustic harp is made mostly of wood and weighing a far more sober 40kgs -  allowing considerably easier transit.

The rest of the ice harp’s design reflects that of a wooden one, i.e, the ice body transmits all of its vibrations directly through the strings, just like a regular acoustic one. I use normal harp strings for both harps (a mix of natural sheep gut and metal wire) and both harps require tuning pins to secure the strings to the instrument.

During playback the acoustic harp does not need any kind of amplification because of the great warm and big sound that comes out from the harp’s sound board. The ice’s structure in the ice harp also produces a huge range of frequencies but at a considerably lower natural amplification. To combat this Tor, the ice music sound engineer, precisely places a contact microphone on the ice harp’s body to pick up and delicately amplify the sound.  

So although the the ice and acoustic harp transmit their sound & energy the same way, their sound couldn’t be more different. Amusingly, the huge ice harp sounds considerably ‘colder’ and more gentle than the far smaller, lighter and ‘warmer’ wooden acoustic harp.

Q: What is the biggest challenge constructing this unique musical instrument?

A: The main challenge is the constant battle with cold temperatures. The low temperature (construction has taken place in temperatures below -26c without windchill) requires a lot of time and patience to build, as the cold simply slows all processes down. Luckily ice carving ‘god’ Bill Covitz does an excellent job preventing his many carving tools and body from freezing.

Tuning is also a massive obstacle biggest because the harp strings are not made to perform in the cold (combine this with how fiddly stringing any instrument is, let alone one very heavy ice harp in sub-zero cold!). I simply cannot place the same tension on the strings as I would normally with an acoustic harp at room temperature, so I have to constantly adapt my playing technique. It is also really intriguing just how much the sound of the instrument changes with temperature - just a few degree celsius of temperature movement drastically alters the feedback and ‘feel’ during play.

Q: Anything else you would like to share?

A: I’ve been so lucky to have played in Geilo twice now. In 2009 we made one harp ice harp, in 2010 we made three different harps - one triangular, one circular and one rectangle shaped. I fell in love with all the instruments and I feel fortunate that the instruments were built exclusively for me for such a few special concerts.

Once the Ice Music Festival finishes, the instruments quietly melt back into nature, which is wondrous. I am so grateful to Terje for giving me the opportunity to be the world’s only ice harpist!

Q: Will there be a new ice harp design at 2014’s Ice Music Festival?

A: This year the ice harp will sound even better, as we are attempting to accurately mimic the shape of a regular acoustic grand harp instead of merely creating enough ice ‘mass’ to keep the strings tensioned.

Helder Neves (Ice Music Festival stage and arena architect master) has looked very closely at the specific stress points of a regular wooden harp and with some careful behind the scenes preparation between himself, Bill and I, we are confident that we can construct a more elegant ice harp for me to play. Our fingers are firmly crossed!

If you would like to read about Helder Neves, the Ice Music Festival's arena and stage architect, then take a peek here.

Fancy hearing Sidsel perform with the ice harp? Tickets are available at Ticketmaster - Sidsel will be performing with different musicians and artists over the 3 days of the festival. Click here to book.

Ice Music Festival