Leader: Terje Isungset
It’s not often that a reviewer feels entitled to approach his or her work in a spirit of benign bafflement, but Arctic Ice Music is something outside our experience, often enthralling, but difficult to evaluate. This UK premiere kicks off a short tour of a project that is a perfect fit for the over-used word “unique”.
Terje Isungset makes and plays ice instruments – that is, instruments made of Norwegian ice – unusual enough in itself, but for Arctic Ice Music he has surrounded himself with three throat singers, two Inuit and one from Siberia, a Sami singer, a jazz/folk singer from Norway and two jazz instrumentalists from Norway and Sweden. Though hardly standard fare in the UK, even at an adventurous venue like the Howard, it’s not too surprising that separately individuals and groups make their mark. What is astonishing is that at times Isungset moulds them into a homogenous unit without losing their individuality.
The concert begins with the wheeling on of the ice instruments, substantial items for the most part, all wrapped up to prevent melting. Then one unaccompanied singer after another enters with haunting songs, gradually joined by the instrumentalists. As for the ice instruments, they are uncovered one by one by a splendidly capable and unobtrusive attendant. Later two ice horns will produce chilling or plaintive animal-like sounds, but at first percussion predominates, a basic scraping rhythm or an ice xylophone (marimba?) with a glorious bell-like timbre.
Isungset produces remarkable solos on these instruments, but even more impressive is his use of them in a group setting. For instance, he lays down the rhythm for what is otherwise a typically Scandinavian jazz trio: Amalie Holt Kleive singing with crystalline purity, Lyder Overas Roed’s trumpet and flugel giving a sense of space in his poised upper-register playing, Viktor Reuter carrying on the great Scandinavian double bass tradition – rich-toned and melodic.
It’s fascinating to discover two different traditions of throat singing. Radik Tyulyush, part of the Tuvan tradition in Siberia, rumbles in caverns measureless to Man while Inuit singers Akinisie Sivuarapik and Emily Sallualuk set up exciting counter-rhythms. Meanwhile Sami singer, Sarah Marielle Gaup Beaska, ranges from acute sensitivity to wild attack.
The most striking parts of a well-rehearsed, always atmospheric programme are when all these disparate, but united, elements come together, with Isungset taking his cow-horn (so it sounds) on a tour of the stage bringing in all the performers in turn or Tyulyush laying down an almost subterranean bass for the others to build interlocking patterns on.
On tour in England