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Ice Cube Cello Played by Charlotte Moorman

Ice Cellos – Conceived by Jim McWilliams and Played by Charlotte Moorman

The original ice cellos were a collaboration between composer Jim McWilliams and cellist Charlotte Moorman. In 1972, he created one of her signature works: Ice Music.

McWilliams gave her verbal instructions for this new work: she was to make a cello out of ice and then play it until it melted – while wearing only a garland of fresh flowers around her neck. The idea was that the piece would last “forever” and when the ice melted, she’d be left with nothing.

The Meaning of the Piece

The theme of McWilliams’s piece was time – the time it took for the ice to melt, the time it took for the flowers to wilt, and the time it took for the music to be made. At the end of this time, both performer and audience are left with nothing tangible.

Ice Cube Cello at the London Premiere

The premiere of the piece was in London – the International Carnival of Experimental Sound (ICES), organized by the composer Anna Lockwood and her journalist husband Harvey Matusow. Lockwood organized the ice cello for Moorman.

Lockwood found a soft cello case, filled it with ice cubes, and convinced a sorbet and ice cream company across the street from the concert venue to put it in one of their freezers.

The result was a blob of ice cubes stuck together in the shape of the interior of the soft case.

Moorman did not like the results, but performed on the ice cube cello anyway, using a narrow piece of clear plexiglass for a bow.

The Performance

Moorman bravely performed Ice Music for London even though she had recently had gallbladder surgery and was not fully recovered. She removed not only her clothes but her bandages, too, to play the piece.

It took about an hour for the ice to fall apart into water and ice cubes.

The reviewer, Carman Moore, described Moorman’s performance of McWilliams’s piece as

a virtuoso performance, legendary in proportion. Few could top Miss Moorman’s piece for those qualities that are pure in the avant-garde.

Protective Gear

Sitting naked next to a block of ice for about an hour requires bravery on many levels. Aside from possible fear of nudity, one might fear the pain of the ice on bare skin for so long. Luckily, Moorman was both brave and tough as a performer.

Moorman always followed McWilliams’s instructions about performing this piece in the nude, but she took a few precautions to protect herself:

  • she took a prescribed antihistamine to avoid frostbite
  • she taped pads on her left hand and knees to protect her skin

The Only Ice Cube Cello

Although Moorman performed Ice Music six more times, she never again used a cello made of ice cubes.

Instead, for later performances she hired ice sculptors to make more realistic ice cellos, sometimes sending paper templates for them to use.

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  • Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library.
  • Rothfuss, Joan. Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman. The MIT Press, 2014, 276-79.

Charlotte Moorman

Madeline Charlotte Moorman (18 November 1933 – 8 November 1991), from Little Rock, Arkansas, was a classically trained American cellist, student of Leonard Rose, and graduate of Julliard. She is often called "The Topless Cellist" and is known as a performance artist and advocate for avant-garde music.

Jim McWilliams

Jim McWilliams (born February 10, 1937) is an American artist and graphic designer who was active as an avant-garde performer and composer during the 1960s and 1970s.

After 1966, McWilliams's artworks and performances were often realized in collaboration with Moorman. He composed numerous works for her, including Ice Music (1972), in which she used a file, a saw, a long strip of plexiglass, and other tools to play a cello made of ice until it melted.