Coolest melodies ever played |

Coolest melodies ever played

Kate Stepan
Special to the Daily Tim Linhart, a Vail Valley artist, doesn't just sculpt guitars out of ice.

VAIL – Tim Linhart has created a genre of music that takes the term “cool jazz” to a whole new level. This new genre, defined by the instruments’ construction rather than technique or composition, spans all known musical boundaries and categorizations.The genre is ice music, borne of Linhart’s boundless imagination and belonging solely to him and the very few others who practice “ice lutherie,” the art form of building musical instruments out of frozen water. “Of course sensible people know that is impossible to do, so let’s just leave those folks here at the start and go on with the story,” writes Linhart in the liner notes of a 2001 CD recording, “Kiss My Ice Music.”And so begins a tale of sub-freezing temperatures, nature’s most pure of raw elements, and an irrepressible creative flair. It all started with a question. In 1997, after 10 years of ice sculpting in Taos, N.M. and the Vail Valley, Linhart was attempting to build a violin out of ice. Tony Sutherland, a guitar maker and friend of Linhart’s, mused upon the sound of such an instrument.”Tony was like, ‘How’s it going to sound?'” Linhart said. The idea became a life passion. After outfitting the 8-foot violin, known as an octabass, with grand piano strings, Linhart eagerly awaited to hear the previously silent voice of ice. The first note was music to his ears. The next sound Linhart heard was a loud pop as he tightened the strings and the instrument shattered at his feet.But Linhart was hooked. In the winter of 2000, he holed up in an igloo in the forest near the Beaver Creek ski area summit and set out to create the world’s first ice orchestra. There, at almost 11,500 feet, he finally had conditions consistently right for what he was trying to do – make music from the ice and snow falling from the heavens.The result was the creation of five new instruments -two octabasses, a churchbass and two cellos. That March Linhart hired the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to perform an ice music concert in a dug-out snow amphitheater, a gig he claims was the first of its kind, featured on the front page of the next day’s Denver Post.Music without woodLinhart’s next foray into the untapped realm of ice music was the 2001 “Fiddling While Rome Burns” Ice Music Festival held in Taos Ski Valley, N.M., where the 25-track “Kiss My Ice Music” was recorded. With Sutherland’s help, Linhart added six-, 10- and 12-string guitars to an octabass, two ice cellos and a 10-string Irish bouzouki, another long-necked string instrument.The concerts featured music from Mozart to Hawaiin-luau style, greeted by thunderous, glove-muffled applause and ski-boot hulas.With lilting melodies and rich, booming bass lines, the guitars resonate as profoundly as the female voices that accompany them on the CD, which showcases the talent of some extremely nimble-fingered musicians. The instruments’ tones come through indescribably clear, like the lucid, mysterious material from which they are crafted. “Ice Cello Blues,” a fast-paced, rhythmic tune performed by Mark Summer, is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the art itself, with lines like “Can’t feel my fingers, can’t feel my toes, can’t feel my cold, frozen nose/Sure wish I was warm, but I miss these ice cello blues.”

Linhart’s girlfriend, fellow ice artist Birgitta Johansson, describes ice music as a “really clear, crispy sound.””You can hear the lack of wood, something else making the sound,” said Johansson, who has carved and sculpted many pieces for the Ice Hotel in her home country of Sweden. Johansson also has work on display in Beaver Creek this winter.”To me, it’s the most exciting idea in winter,” Linhart said over Thai food at Avon’s Narayan’s Nepal Restaurant in Avon recently.”Skiing,” he added, “we’ve already been there.”Queen’s birthday partyBut the most exciting part of his story is yet to come. Two years later, Linhart was hired to provide entertainment for the Conference of Scientists, which seeks to open discussion between art and science, at the Ice Hotel in Sweden.A Swedish tradition, the hotel is constructed each winter entirely of snow and ice, offering guests an unmatched albeit eerie overnight experience.”It’s like working inside of a glacier, it’s the most amazing color,” Linhart said.Linhart traveled to Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Music to study with Gunila von Bahr, a renowned flute player, in order to add flutes and percussion to his stringed ensembles. The visit concluded after a whole year of music at the Ice Hotel and a recorded album, “Voices of Ice,” on which some composers integrated joyking, the yodel of Swedish reindeer herders, into the ice music.In December 2003, Linhart built an ice orchestra for the Queen of Sweden’s 60th birthday party.”That was a real high,” he said. “She was definitely the best audience member I ever had, the most attentive and appreciative of what she’s hearing.”The night before that performance, Linhart and his crew shattered the ice cello while moving it. After patching the “Humpty-Dumpty” cello all night, Linhart said it turned out to be the “best sounding cello I ever heard.”After the performance for the queen, Linhart began building an ice pipe organ in Johansson’s hometown of Lulea (pronounced “lu-lu”). The two had previously met at the Ice Hotel, where Birgitta was designing guest suites and building sculptures, and their new physical proximity allowed romance to blossom. “I told him to call me,” Johansson said shyly, in between bites of pineapple curry at Narayan’s. “I wasn’t picking him up, I just wanted to take care of him in my town.””Innocent as new-fallen snow she was,” Linhart added. “I invited myself to stay on her floor.”

Dressing the musiciansMeanwhile, Linhart was spending two weeks at the Gronlunds Organ Co. educating himself on the building and technical workings of the complex instruments. He built a fleet of different sized copper pipes, which he then packed snow and water onto, iced, shaved and blew warm air through to slip the ice pipes off.”All the old men in the factory were shaking their heads like ‘this is never going to work,'” Linhart recalled. “Finally we brought the wind to it. It was kind of cool to win their confidence and after that they were very supportive and I had a great time working with them.”This reaction is a “common theme when introducing people to ice music,” Linhart added. “It’s too fantastic for people to believe,” he said.On April 4, the 56-pipe ice organ was unveiled before an audience of about 450, including Linhart’s parents, in the bar of the Ice Hotel. Musicians from the Pitea Musical Academy, including a wolf-skin-clad organist and choir of 20, performed stunning pieces in ice.Musicians are some of the toughest to sell on the concept of ice music, Linhart said. “It’s not their environment,” he said. “You’ve got to teach them everything about dressing themselves. Blue jeans and a scarf is their idea of dressing for the cold.””Some people showed up without long johns,” Johansson added, shaking her head.Once they sit at an ice instrument and hear its clear tones, Linhart said, most can’t argue with the results. As for cold hands?”Some wear gloves. Everyone has a different style, a different level of commitment to the music,” he shrugged, adding composers of ice music try to keep pieces less than seven minutes long to accommodate people and the ice. But temperature change can cause instruments to go out of tune. The crowd at the organ concert created such a temperature change, which is why Linhart is now drawing plans for a large concert hall of ice for performances, one that would maintain a steady 20 degrees for acoustic and tuning reasons.He has proposed such an idea in Sweden, where Linhart said he is finding more support for ice music as an art form than anywhere else. He is working on plans to build a seasonal structure that could be built for the winter and taken down, or melted, in the off-season, “without the manhandling component.”New instrumentsSince arriving in Sweden earlier last month, Linhart and Johansson have acquired a large igloo-shaped balloon they use to create ice domes 21 feet in diameter and 15 feet high. Linhart plans to build a small ice concert hall out of two interlocking igloos at the Pitea Musical Academy and bring the balloon to Colorado next winter.”I would love to see it come to Vail or Beaver Creek, because this is where it started and this is where it belongs,” said Linhart, a Kansas native who had a stint as a “punk in L.A.” before hitchhiking to Taos. “I want this to be Beaver Creek’s gift to the cultural world.”

Working in the Vail Valley since the earlier days of Beaver Creek about 15 years ago, Linhart has carved and sculpted ice for Two Elk Lodge, Cascade Village and the Vail Hyatt.An artist at heart, Linhart says he is “self-taught in everything” he does. He began sculpting ice at age 24, hoping to score a free season pass in Taos while “looking for a place to be a ski bum.””If I’m interested I just ask questions and learn. For some reason I can pretty much step in at expert levels at whatever I do,” Linhart said, including playing the guitar, violin and flute.This is how he found himself knowing nothing about organs last January and standing in front of a perfectly working organ of his own creation in April.Linhart, in his mid-40s, now ponders the possibility of new instruments suggested by ice. When pulling his arm out of a tight ice cylinder last winter made “a really cool sound,” Linhart may have created what he now calls the piston drum, bubble drum or unbeating drum.The challenge, he said, lies in “trying to catch up with thousands of years of development of other materials used to make music.””With ice we’re not limited by having to pick it up and carry it,” he said. “The sky is the limit. I think that ice can create some of the most beautiful music in the world.”Ice and aviation?He headed to Sweden for the winter earlier this month “because that’s where they’re going forward with (ice music),” he said. There, Linhart will work on creating an ice music curriculum at Pitea Musical Academy with about 12 students, and also educate the local parks and recreation department on how to build ice sculptures.With his husky build, trim beard and flannel shirt, Linhart looks more the part of mountain man than aspiring artist, but he cannot disguise his passion for what he does. Or his love for Johansson, who, with a warm smile and quiet yet inviting demeanor, is no ice princess herself.”Every time he tries to introduce this, people think he’s a lunatic,” Johansson said.”It’s winter, what else are you going to do, sit and watch TV?” Linhart chimed in. “I’m pretty much the only person in the world who’s seriously considering it. It’s the most unique thing anywhere. “Everyone disbelieves in the beginning,” he added. “There is a bottomless well of enthusiasm for ice music that can be tapped by actually experiencing it.”So what’s next for this self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades?”Aviation,” Linhart stated matter-of-factly. “I’ll get there. I will build a glider out of ice and fly it.”But, he said, “I might have to deal with architecture along the way.”Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism