How do you record music at -40c?

In short - with a lot of preparation, toil, expense, problem solving and outright dogged perseverance. No easy endeavour.

I was extremely privileged to bear witness and document this rarified musical alchemy. But how did I end up photographing such acoustic fragility on the edge of a brutally frozen Davis Strait northwest of the Labrador Sea?

*For those not affiliated with my association with Terje Isungset and Ice Music > a brief history is detailed at the bottom of this news post*

By 2013 and after much critical acclaim, Terje Isungset's personal Ice Music odyssey was entering unchartered territory in terms of global reach, as new recordings were being made with natural ice harvested from the wilds of Spitsbergen and Siberia, being played in Tromsø using 100,000 year old Antarctic ice core samples (supplied by the Norwegian Polar Institute) and high up in the Italian Alps, buried in a glacier. Terje’s 7th Ice Music album was rapidly developing into an epic adventure, with a huge artistic appetite to discover and refine the sound and timbre of the widest variety of naturally occurring ice, located in some of the world’s more fragile frontiers.

Terje had also decided that he wanted more of considered visual record of album's development and after a number of artistic collaborations, (both ice and non ice) he asked me to accompany him and photograph the most ambitious and extreme part of the recording process on Baffin Island (Inuktitut: ᕿᑭᖅᑖᓗᒃ) located in Canada’s northern Nunavut (Inuktitut: ᓄᓇᕗᑦ) territory during the coldest part of its winter cycle.

The opportunity arose through an invite to perform in Nunavut’s sole high school in the territory’s capital & administrative centre - Iqaluit (Inuktitut: ᐃᖃᓗᐃᑦ) and was organised by Heather Daley of the Alianait Arts Programme. Inuksuk High School is the sole secondary education institute in the territory, catering for an area equivalent to the size of Mexico or Indonesia, yet harbouring a population of just under 32,000 people spread across only 28 communities - profoundly demonstrating the sparse nature of Canada’s newest territory, whilst also being the only local space large enough to handle an audience of hundreds. With the invite in place and attracting financial support by Norwegian Embassies and affiliated Canadian cross-cultural outreach funds, Terje made extra plans to make a studio quality recording of Ice Music there and arranged for sound engineer god Asle Karstad and ice carving guru Bill Covitz to make the journey too. Afterall, this was probably his only chance to capture the precious Nunavut material for his 7th Ice Music album.

Extracting sea ice 1.5km off shore. Temperature dropped to -56c that day. 

Extracting sea ice 1.5km off shore. Temperature dropped to -56c that day. 

Accessing one of the most remote regions on earth is relatively straight forward - by air from Ottawa was our chosen route. Not your regular ‘steel bird’ flying experience though, as one is seated in 9 rows jammed into the rear of an adapted Boeing 737-200 Combi cargo plane operated by Canadian North. As an advance party of one, I flew along side a heady mix of scientists, indigenous Inuit (Inuktitut: ᐃᓄᐃᑦ) and temporary contract government workers as Iqaluit’s population of 6,000 caters as a one-last-stop-for-everything-shop for anyone involved in scientific high Arctic research, Polar exploration and connections deeper into the oil & mineral industries’ highly secretive operations littered around the northern polar regions (out of sight and out of mind).

There are no roads to or from Iqaluit. There are no railways, only long range snowmobile trails if one is experienced, daring and properly equipped and airplanes are the territory's taxi service. Boats do have access for around 3-6 weeks each summer when the ice floes are broken up enough for shipping to get relatively close to Frobisher Bay. During this brief summer time of temperatures rising above 0c, the town receives its annual supply of fuel (2 diesel generators power the entire town, both commercial and residential and have a military evacuation plan in case of downtime as the mean temperature is so cold) along with all the regular items we take for granted. Shipments include toilet roll, TVs, olive oil, white goods, clothing and toothpaste and are delivered via family rented standard Intermodal shipping containers packed to order throughout the year at large ports on the North Eastern Seaboard of the USA and Canada. Families receive a full ‘sea-can’ in late July and then exchange it empty for a fresh, full one 11 months later. Get the order wrong and one has to wait another 11 months for the sea ice to open up again. Air freight is simply too expensive for anyone but large commercial operations.

I spent 9 days on Baffin Island and during that time I wanted to discover a little of the area’s vibe and focus on the various people in the community who would practically assist in making the high school concert come alive and the new Ice Music recording shine.

Although very experienced in photographing in cold climates and owning the appropriate clothing and equipment required for deep cold, I was still taken back at how both consistently cold and constantly cold the area was. There was a 3 day stretch where the air temperature crept between -30c & -25c and that really felt like t-shirt weather - literally - and I was abruptly reminded to layer up sufficiently and not get caught out. The shifts in temperature were also colossal, I recall going into my apartment for 1 hour with the sun out and no wind only to venture out again with a full 25c drop in temperature and wind approaching blizzard conditions - that night developed into a full snowstorm that closed the entire town under a ‘cold’ curfew. With windchill, temperatures easily reach the low -70s and early -80s below celsius. People die, experienced indigenous hunters die - as 1 hunter died from exposure a few days before I arrived, as he misjudged the weather warning and was later found at the end of the runway trying to re-enter town.

During the days before Terje, singer Mari Kvien Brunvoll, Asle and Bill arrived I met all types of townsfolk who were all excited that such a unique performance and recording was being under taken. These most resourceful characters are featured in my photo story ‘Qallunaaq of Iqaluit’ - they assisted with ice extraction (from both inland lake and out on the solid sea ice pack) AV, lighting, sound tech and practical transport such as the ubiquitous and immensely versatile Qamutiq. And without them, the performance and recording would have stalled immediately.

Forward notice of Terje’s wish to make a HQ audio recording made it to the ears of Toronto born Chris Coleman, who has made a name for himself in Nunavut as the ‘go-to’ for studio recording and audio tech supply. Practically speaking, Chris spends his time setting up recordings in the warmth of his own studio environment or whilst on location in the security of a warm building, not out in the exposed hostility of deep cold, afterall cable casings freeze solid and metals do strange things when the thermometer drops.

Once the successful Inuksuk High School performance was over the pursuit for a suitable location for the recording began in earnest. Aside from the bone crushing cold, the other main hurdle was seeking somewhere quiet without the ever-present noise penetration of modern living - from vehicles, aircraft to dogs barking and snowmobiles revving. Iqaluit’s hubbub was a sound engineer’s nemesis. However with no roads leading away into the silent wilderness and the possibility of severe weather arriving within an hour’s notice, time was running out in finding a practical solution.

Chris then had a brainwave > the Hudson Bay Company’s desolate and long-ruined fur trapping head quarters on the shoreline of the tiny settlement of Apex around 6km east of Iqaluit. Aside from the disused HBC HQ, only a broken red boat, that looked like it had been washed up since the hellish days of the 19th century Nantucket sleighrides and an extinct 1987 Ford F150, that looked like it was last driven in a ‘doomed-to-fail’ getaway circa 1994, were present. The old building offered a perfect environment for the Terje’s Ice Music recording, offering natural shelter from stray wind (infact my basic iPhone app registered a ‘quiet’ 30db - low enough for a great recording) easy accessibility for our 4x4 full of audio tech and off the beaten path, not to be disturbed by random passers by (yes they exist even in deep cold temperatures).

The penultimate day of Terje and Asle’s time on the island was booked and the weather could not have been kinder to us, with a uncharacteristically still air temperature fluctuating between -38 & -40c. We had a plentiful supply of both land-locked lake ice and ‘experimental’ blocks of sea ice carved from the frozen floes 1.5km off-shore and a team of 5, (Terje, Asle, Chris, Daniel and myself) raring to create musical alchemy.

Orange 4x4 was the make-shift studio control room with the building in-between preventing stray engine noise polluting Terje's performance on the right. 

Orange 4x4 was the make-shift studio control room with the building in-between preventing stray engine noise polluting Terje's performance on the right. 

The make-shift ‘control room’ of this outdoor recording studio comprised of Asle and Chris seated upfront of the 4x4 with the audio tech placed across the rear seats. The 4x4’s engine could not be switched off because the engine would freeze and more immediately, Asle and Chris had to keep warm, so a fantastic system was employed whereby the 4x4’s tailgate was left open just enough for the microphone cables to slip out and run 30m around the front of the Hudson Bay Company building to Terje’s pioneering ice array. The building also acted a perfect barrier to stray engine noise. 

It was agreed that Terje would try and play for a maximum of 10 minutes each time, allowing for essential warm-up periods and a valuable chance to check there were no errors in the audio capture. Practically speaking there was another problem we had to tackle and that was the type of clothing Terje would wear - i.e. no noisy shell fabrics and comfortable enough to play the range of amassed ice persuasion and ice horns. Donning a pair of locally sourced white Ascis FDX Antarctic research boots, many layers of merino wool and goosedown, topped with his trusted Dale (near silent wool) weatherproof jacket, we all agreed that 10 minutes a-go was possible. And so we proceeded.

The feeling and emotion during that hour of recording was nothing short of extraordinary. The peaceful location, stable weather, views of the sun lowering itself over nature’s raw, frozen wastelands of churned sea ice partnered with Terje eking out the smallest amount of sonic energy from the ice was a totally mesmerising and all consuming experience. Then, during the last minute of recording something astonishing broke through the aura of calm and tranquility that tapped right into the soul of nature’s wonder…a primeval call & response.

Terje lifted his ice horn for the last time and milliseconds after his lips left the mouthpiece a Raven screeched back nature’s reply. My heart stopped, Terje replied and eerily, the solitary raven answered again - back and forth for nearly 30 seconds in harmony before the Raven took off towards the hills behind. If ever there was signal to end a successful recording, that Raven's conversation registered it.

Terje and I couldn’t contain our excitement and rushed to Asle and Chris to see if they had caught the exchange on the recording. Just as excited jumping out of the 4x4, their first words to us were, “did you hear that Raven!?”. After much joy we rushed to complete a posh group selfie against the broken boat before the temperature dropped further, making it too difficult to pack away the microphones and audio equipment.

Once we packed the gear away Terje walked off across the sea ice for the enduring sunset. I stayed ashore and trained my eye / camera on his travel through the roughness of packed sea ice. Just as the sun’s orb dropped below the horizon, I fired one last frame of the day. That single frame made the cover of Terje’s latest album called 'Meditations' that was released this month. A perfect moment during a 4 year journey of aural adventures. 

The Raven and Terje’s call and response made it into the final mix too. The opening passage of ‘Industrial Arctic’ broadcasts those screeches, along with parts of tracks ‘Glacial Motion’ & ‘Polar Aurorae’, whilst ‘Inuit Living’ is only comprised of material recorded on Baffin Island during those magical days.

After seeing Terje, Asle, Marie and Bill off the next day, I stayed on Baffin Island for another 3 days to assimilate more of Baffin Island’s ferocious, merciless yet hypnotic, wondrous and enchanting land / seascape. I vowed to return one day.

I've long been interested in Terje Isungset's challenging percussive compositions - since first hearing his output on BBC Radio 3's Late Junction (a 12 minute epic called Floating Rhythms accompanied by Arve Henriksen's punishing vocals) way back in 2000. Roll on to autumn 2008 and I was commissioned by Serious to be their official photographer for the London Jazz Festival (one of Serious' stellar productions). On the 'performances to photograph' list was Terje's Ice Music, which was being showcased within 'Scene Norway' at Kings Place, curated by Fiona Talkington. Although only 10 minutes in length, I was transfixed by the madness of making music with ice before it melted into the not-so chilly modern office spaces of central London.

Not only was I beguiled by the sound of ice music live, I was particularly intrigued to find out the location of the ice's source (I like to say 'birth' of the ice). I made contact with Terje and proposed a photo essay documenting the ice's journey from extraction in the fjords of Norway through its shaping in to a functional instrument and on to being played onstage or in a recording. Unknown to me, Terje had been refining Ice Music since 1994 but no one had asked about the ice's heritage, let alone propose a pictorial narrative. Excited, Terje asked me to wait for winter and arranged from me to join the preparation stages of the Ice Music Festival with co-founder Pål Medhus. The resulting photo story was a great success and my long standing relationship with the Ice Music Festival began in earnest. More information and an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs of BBC 6 Music here.

Don't fooled by Asle & Chris's lack of clothing on the right. They ran out of their 4x4 (only 5m to the frame's right) just before I hit the self timer...lol! L to R: Daniel Gardner, Terje Isungset, Emile Holba, Asle Karstad and Chris Coleman. -40c = Team Apex.

Don't fooled by Asle & Chris's lack of clothing on the right. They ran out of their 4x4 (only 5m to the frame's right) just before I hit the self timer...lol! L to R: Daniel Gardner, Terje Isungset, Emile Holba, Asle Karstad and Chris Coleman. -40c = Team Apex.