karin rehnqvist: ice music for chamber orchestra

To compose for instruments of ice requires a large dose of intuition and a pinch of craziness. How will these instruments possibly sound? One has to guess: most likely softer or probably not so expressive as a traditional instrument. The lowest register of cello and double bass are certainly not as sonorous and dark.

What must be taken into consideration due to the constant chill of the concert hall? To avoid quick passages since the musician’s hands will become easily cold. Not to write too long a piece lest the musician’s backside freezes to the icy stool. How can an ice flute work as it is filled with the warm breath of the flutist? Best to compose few, well-chosen and sparse notes, so that the instrument will not melt irreparably during performance….

— Karin Rehnqvist on composing Ice Music Fantasy

It takes a pinch of craziness to explore remote ice regions, and a deep musical ability to take that ice exploration and turn it into a melodic sound experience. Karin Rehnqvist (b. 1957) is one of Sweden’s best known and most widely performed contemporary classical composers, and her list of works includes two ice-celebratory compositions: Arktis Artkis! (2000-01) and Ice Music Fantasy (2003). The first is about ice, and the second is for ice – music to be played on ice instruments.

From chamber music to orchestral, stage and vocal works, Rehnqvist has evolved a distinctive compositional and performance style. She was recently appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (a 2009-2012 position), which makes her the first woman to hold a chair in composition in Sweden.

Rehnqvist is mostly famous for her use of “kulning” – an ancient type of highly specific calling that Swedish girls and women used to drive in their herds. Each family would use a different pitch for their herd, and that note would be handed down through the generations. This vocal technique formed the poetic and musical centre for Rehnqvist’s Sun Song, performed at the opening concert of the Venice Biennale this past September.

But the Ice Cubicle, of course, zeroed in on this versatile composer’s relationship to the ancient, and ongoing, sounds of ice.

Karin Rehnqvist (photo Jan Harstedt)

Arktis Arktis! is a work in four movements, composed for the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, where Rehnqvist was composer in residence from 2000 – 2004. In this role, Rehnqvist had the chance to travel on a Swedish ice-breaker – the Tundra nordväst (”Tundra Northwest”) – up to the Arctic Ocean streaming by northern Canada.

“The wide open spaces, the wilderness, the light, the often-changing weather conditions – all were overwhelming experiences which, after returning home to Sweden, I felt the need to express in musical terms,” she notes on her website.

“And the ice – so fascinating! Forceful and enormously varied both in shape and colour. Not always beautiful. Not always white. When it disintegrated great drama was created.”

Ice Music Fantasy is written for singer, recitation and ice instruments (flute, percussion, 2 celli and double bass). It was performed at the season opening of the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, in 2003.

The vocalist sings words beginning with ice: ice music, ice dream, ice bird, ice blue, etc. The speaker whispers geographic names of places about the North Pole, beginning with Nuuk on Greenland, proceeding west and ending in Tromsö in Norway.

You can hear a sample of the first few phrases here. It’s lovely and lonely.

The drama of ice sounds that I’ve heard myself varies from loud crashes of ice banks disintegrating; to gunshot-sudden sharp noises when thick ice cracks or shifts; to tinkling, almost frilly sounds of crushed ice coursing by in a spring river. I envy Rehnqvist her greater exposure to the ice sounds of the Arctic Ocean, and when I listen to the opening of her  later Ice Music Fantasy, the cello textures seem like layers of ice-thickened water floating by.

When I read Rehnqvist’s generous descriptions of her composition process on her site – complete with  non-pretentious statements about admiring the Arctic Ocean and feeling like it’s a bit crazy to write for ice instruments – I hoped she would be the kind of incredibly talented person who still somehow finds time to chat with the rest of us. And she is, as you can see in the email interview below. (All photographs from Karin Rehnqvist’s website, http://www.karin-rehnqvist.se.)

One of Tim Linhart's ice cellos used in the 2003 performance (photo by Hans Persson, from Rehnqvist's website)
Ice cello used in the 2003 performance of Ice Music Fantasy (photo Hans Persson)

Ice Cubicle:
Did you have a chance to hear the ice flute or ice cello instruments before you wrote a composition for them?

Karin Rehnqvist: No, but I guessed it would be best not to use to many pitches. I think I kept it to just two or three. I also guessed it would be difficult to tune.

I also thought it was the best to have many rests. If the flutist had to play a lot, I thought, the flute would get warm around the mouth piece, and perhaps get out of tune.

Ice C: What was the most surprising experience you had when the composition was actually being played at the Ice Hotel?

KR: First, that the instruments worked! The dynamic was soft. You had to listen carefully. The cellos didn’t have the deep sound they normally do. Instead it sounded a bit like playing “sul pontecello” (closer to the bridge) on a normal cello. This made the instruments have a gentle quality.

Ice C: Your work is frequently described as blending folk music and art music – you are trained in classical music, and you’ve written songs based on the calls of herders. As well, I see that one of your most recent works, HAYA! uses an invented folk language.

Did Ice Music Fantasy mix folk music and modernist music in any way?

KR: I have used the herding calls (“kulning”) a lot. In the case of Ice Music Fantasy, the work was sung by a singer who is a specialist in Swedish folk traditional singing, and used some elements like ornaments from our folk music.

Ice C: In 1999, you journeyed on the Tundra Nordvast ice-breaker for a month, to experience the vast spaces and the acoustic specificity of the North. Arktis Arktis! was the most direct composition to come from this journey, but is there also a connection between that journey and the Ice Music Fantasy?

KR: If you have been to the Arctic you never forget it, so yes there is a link between Arktis Arktis! and Ice Music Fantasy– but not consciously.

Ice C: If it’s possible to see a jpeg or scan of even one page of the score for this work, I would love to post that on the site along with these thoughts.

KR: Yes, please see the score samples below for the opening of Ice Fantasy. The full score can be ordered online too, if you wish.

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