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Ice Cellos – Meant for the Moment

Struck by Inspiration – It Started with a Marimba

Bill Covitz constructs an ice cello using a wooden neck. Photo: Emile Holba.

Bill Covitz constructs an ice cello using a wooden neck. Photo: Emile Holba.

About 20 years ago a professional percussionist asked ice artist Bill Covitz if he could help him make a marimba for an ice festival in Norway. The man was an active professional and professor at a major American conservatory and could not afford to injure his hands. Prior to this Covitz had never been asked to make functional musical instruments, and he was intrigued.

As a professional ice artist, Covitz found it “relatively easy” to shape the instrument. He and the percussionist worked together and were able to get different sounds from different shapes and sizes. Moreover, they “hit it off and had fun.” The percussionist jokingly said Covitz should accompany him to Norway. Covitz went, as he said: “for the adventure.”

The Magic of Norway

It was love at first sight; upon his arrival in Norway, Covitz said it felt “magical” and that he “fell in love with the place instantly.”

As Covitz found the ice marimba straightforward to make, he found himself with some time on his hands, so he approached the organizer of the festival, Terje Isungset, to see if he could assist with anything else. As there was some trouble in making the ice amphitheater and some other instruments, Covitz jumped in with Isungset to help and made logos for festival sponsors.

A Passion for Ice Instruments

As this was such a successful arrangement, Isungset asked Covitz to return to Norway the next year as the ice instrument maker. Covitz returned each January for over a decade and a half, until the pandemic.

Covitz worked with Isungset on ice instrument projects not only in Norway, but also in Switzerland, Greenland the Arctic, and Canada. Together they worked with Greenpeace as well. Covitz said of Isungset that he

never met anyone with more passion than Terje.

Covitz finds Isungset’s enthusiasm and passion for his work infectious, and this gave him lots of energy to take on new challenges, including sculpting horns and string instruments – including cellos – from ice.

Covitz’s Ice Cellos

Over the years Covitz has experimented and played with the design of his cellos. He made his first ice cello about fifteen years ago, and he found it an enjoyable challenge.

It took Covitz some time to overcome the obstacles present in bringing the ice-bodied cello up to pitch. He had to prepare the instrument to be under that great tension to keep it from exploding.

Covitz learned about exploding instruments the hard way when working with an ice harp. The harpist was practicing and got the instrument perfectly in tune, leaving it at pitch overnight. It snowed during the night, and in the morning when they went to use a blower to remove the snow, the harp blew up due to the high tension and rapid temperature changes.

Bill Covitz making an ice cello. Photo by Emile Holba.

Bill Covitz making an ice cello. Photo: Emile Holba.

Cello Construction

Through his experience, Covitz has learned to create his cellos with bodies completely made of ice. However, to be functional, he uses wooden necks, standard fittings, and a metal rod to hold everything in place under tension. In addition, depending on the temperature, he sometimes puts a piece of wood between the ice and the tailgut.

Over the years, Covitz has constructed 10 to 12 ice cellos as well as a bass. No two cellos are the same; Covitz experiments with the shapes of the instruments. He often works with the cellists who play them and creates designs specifically for them. Covitz enjoys creating instruments that match the image in the mind of the cellist.

Bill Covitz working with a cellist on an ice cello. Photo: Emile Holba.

Bill Covitz worked with the cellist on the design for this ice cello. Photo: Emile Holba.

Covitz has not made wooden instruments, and perhaps this is one reason he is so innovative and has such freedom of expression with his cello designs. He told me that “it’s usually more about variety” than standardization. He said it’s about

creation versus replication. It’s free, very free.

In the following video you can hear the sound of the cello pictured above, the design of which was influenced by the performer:

It takes Covitz four to five hours to construct a cello if he’s got everything he needs available. In our interview, he reminded me that when you make these instruments, you’re not usually in a shop with everything you need at hand. Sometimes you’re out in the wild, and if you don’t have everything you need, you must wait a significant amount of time to get supplies.

He explained that he has to bring fittings such as extra pegs and strings to the festival site. For example, in Greenland, he doesn’t have access to what one might think of as a usual supply. If something breaks due to the cold, he says you have to think of the usual supply time as “times three” due to the remote nature of the sites of the concerts. In 2002 he had to wait for snowmobiles to go down and back up a mountain if he lacked anything. He said one needs to be prepared for the cold, especially with such a long wait time.

Unlike making standard cellos, Covitz says the biggest challenge he faces in making ice cellos is Mother Nature as she’s 100% unpredictable.

Practice Makes Imperfect

It is impossible to overstate the impact that temperature has on ice instruments. If it’s extremely cold, then it’s possible to get the top of the cello to vibrate, which gives it more sound. The warmer it is, the more the vibration is sucked into the ice. Either way, variation in temperature causes ice cellos to become fragile.

Unlike wooden instruments, ice instruments cannot withstand too much practice. Once the instrument is set the way a player likes it, more practice will change the temperature of the instrument and create changes. Covitz says this is both a challenge and what makes creating and playing ice instruments “so much fun.”

To protect cellists – and all of the ice musicians – usually concerts are shorter than standard concerts and with greater variety. Each performer plays much less, perhaps playing only one piece.

Ephemeral Cellos

One of Bill Covitz's ice cellos in performance at the Ice Festival Norway. Photo: Emile Holba.

One of Bill Covitz’s ice cellos in performance at the Ice Festival Norway. Photo: Emile Holba.

Many cellists value old instruments over new ones. Ice cellos by their very nature cannot fit with that way of thinking. Covitz says that ice instruments are

meant for the moment. [They exist] on borrowed time.

For this reason, ice cellos are not something you could commission unless you had a cold environment. If you think air travel with a wooden instrument is dicey, imagine the complications of shipping or traveling with an ice cello!

Readers interested in playing or hearing an ice cello might find it a more meaningful experience to go to an ice music festival, such as the Ice Music Festival Norway.

Take, Create, Show, and Leave

Participating in ice music festivals brings performers and makers into a close connection with nature and the environment.

Covitz told me that the reason they create and play ice instruments is that

we only borrow the ice. We harvest ice, transform it into a stage and instruments, and then take home all of the non-natural elements and leave the ice to melt back into the earth. [We leave the site] as it was when we arrived. Take, create, show, and leave.

Every musician is told to expect nothing – have no expectations at concerts. This is an experience. A challenge.

The performer is challenged to interact with this new environment. It’s about the experience, as much for the maker as much as it is for the performer.

It’s magical.


Contact Bill Covitz

Learn more on Covitz’s Ice Matters website.

Contact him via the above link.

Read more about him here.

Also, be sure to read about his instruments in our Innovations in Cello-Making Materials exhibition.


Sources

Phone interview with Bill Covitz 16 September 2020.

Photos by Emile Holba provided by Bill Covitz.


Thank You

Thank you to Bill Covitz for the wonderful phone interview. Getting to learn about new cellos from their makers is one of the greatest pleasures of curating The Cello Museum.


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