Terje Isungset: Meditations
All Ice Records

Terje Isungset is clearly not your everyday percussionist; in fact, it wouldn't be overstating it to say there's probably no other percussionist like him. To my knowledge, no one but Isungset has crafted instruments from arctic birch, granite, slate, sheep bells, and ice—yes, ice. In fact, he's been a pioneer in so-called ice music since 1999 when he was commissioned by the Lillehammer Winter Festival to perform a concert in a frozen waterfall. After presenting material arranged for trumpet, vocals, nature percussion, and ice at the festival, Isungset was approached to create more ice music, this time for the Ice Hotel in Sweden (where the 2001 CD Iceman Is was recorded), and eventually established in 2005 All Ice Records, which releases music played on ice instruments only.

Yet while Isungset is credited on his latest release with “icehorns, ice percussion, iceofon, crushed ice, voice, and icedrums,” not all of the sounds on Meditations were ice-generated. He's joined on the ten-track set by vocalist Lena Nymark, double bassist Anders Jormin, viola d'amore player Mats Eden, ice cellist Svante Henrysson, keyboardist Reidar Skår, and on two tracks trumpeter Arve Henriksen. While Isungset's contributions are understandably critical to the release, those of his guests are equally important in the way their natural sounds warm and humanize the music.

The atmospheric potency of “Northwest Passage” is intensified by the incorporation of archive recordings of vocalizing by Inuits in Igloolik, Canada, but the material is distinguished as much by Henriksen's trademark musings, Jormin's bowing, and Isungset's tinkling ice percussion. Much like “Northwest Passage,” “Lomonosov Ridge” derives much of its distinctive character from Isungset's arsenal, but it's the keening sound of Eden on viola d'amore that imbues the material with added personality. His string playing similarly elevates “Glacial Motion,” though in this case it's Nymark's wordless vocalizing that leaves an even bigger mark. Isungset shouldn't be overlooked: he's always present, whether he's playing the iceofon (see “The View” and “Inuit Living”) or augmenting the others' playing with the rustle of crushed ice.

There are times when the music exudes a folk jazz-and-world music vibe, and one could be forgiven at such moments for thinking of ECM recordings by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Terje Rypdal. Though it might be tempting to see Isungset's ice music concept as a gimmick of sorts, doing so would undersell the music. Meditations is first and foremost about composition, arrangement, and musical interaction; that it happens to involve instruments created from ice is a secondary though not irrelevant matter.

June 2015