There are hundreds of music festivals all around the world, from famous ones like Glastonbury to more niche ones like the Southern Soul Festival in Montenegro. But probably the most bizarre and beautiful all in one go is the Ice Music Festival in Norway.
What Is The Ice Music Festival?
As its name suggests, the Ice Music Festival Norway is like any other music festival, with people coming together in an outdoor setting to listen to music. The only difference is, the temperature is sub-zero, everyone is wearing thermal layers and ski gear instead of floaty sundresses and wellies, and all the music is made from ice. Yes, you heart that right. Music made from ice. Sounds weird to me too – but it turns out it IS possible, and someone has done it.
That someone is a Norwegian guy called Terje Isungset. That’s him in the photo above. He’s a percussionist and experimental musician who decided one day to see if he could make music with ice. I guess if you’re Norwegian you’re so used to being surrounded by snow and ice that you might start trying to think of other uses for it. In the UK every time it snows we’re all too busy posting overexcited photos of it on social media and complaining about the trains not running.
What Is Ice Music?
Ice music is exactly what it sounds like: music made from ice. All the instruments are made from ice, sculpted by hand with chisels and chainsaws from blocks of ice carved out of nearby frozen lakes. Performers are recruited from around the globe – there was even a guy from Burkina Faso. You wouldn’t think that for a guy who grew up in a hot country playing an ice instrument would come all that naturally to him, but he seemed to manage just fine!
How Do You Make Ice Music?
With extreme difficulty! The musicians have to be incredibly skilled and talented. Every instrument is obviously brand new, and they can’t practise on them before the performance in case they melt. Terje told me that the wind instruments are particularly challenging: just breathing into them causes them to melt, so they change in tone as the performance progresses. You have to be an incredibly talented musician to be able to keep in tune while your instrument is disappearing from underneath you!
Concerts are performed at an amphitheatre dug out of the snow, with rugs draped over the seats so your bum doesn’t get cold. You probably don’t want to jump up and do too much wild dancing in case you slip over, but then it’s not really that sort of music anyway.
Some of it was beautiful, some eerie, some a bit too experimental for my tastes. But when you’re sitting outside with the snow falling, it works. And it looks AMAZING!
While music is the main focus, the festival also uses its unique style and location to highlight an important issue: climate change. Using ice as the source of everything they do throws a spotlight on the issue of global warming and the melting of the ice caps. The festival works with the Bjerknesinstituttet global warming research institute in Bergen, and the team there also give lectures during the festival. Since almost everything is made from ice, which melts away with the spring, it’s one of the most environmentally friendly music festivals there is.
So What Does Ice Music Sound Like?
I could do my best to describe it further, but it’s probably easiest if you just have a quick watch of this video.
How to get to the Ice Music Festival Norway
For many years the Ice Music Festival took place in a town called Geilo, is a tiny ski resort in the mountains in the middle of the country, about halfway between Oslo and Bergen. When I visited in 2016, that’s where it was held. For me, it’s one of the coolest places to visit in Norway.
However for technical reasons, in the last couple of years they’ve relocated to Finse, which is about 40 miles east of Geilo. They may move back to Geilo at some point, so where you end up will depend on when you visit and if their plans have changed again.
Either way, the easiest way to get to the Norway Ice Music Festival is to fly to either Bergen or Oslo, and then take the train. In the summer you could take a road trip across Norway, but during the winter, when the Ice Music Festival is held, there’s no road access at all due to the snow, so the train is the only way to get there.
But don’t think of this as a chore – far from it. The line between Oslo and Bergen – the Bergensbanen – is the highest mainline railway in Northern Europe and generally considered one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.
Where To Stay At The Ice Music Festival Norway
Pretty much the only place to stay in Finse is the Finse 1222 hotel, which has a package deal with the Ice Music Festival. Because it’s the only place, you’ll need to book early to avoid missing out.
If you do, however, there are plenty of places to stay in Geilo, and then it’s easy enough to get the train across to the festival. To allow for people doing this, the festival organisers have scheduled the concerts to coincide with the arrival and departure of the trains, so you shouldn’t have any problems.
Click here to check out some of the options for places to stay in Geilo.
Top Things To Do at the Ice Music Festival Norway
The festival lasts three days, with concerts taking place in the late afternoon and evening only. That means you’ll have the daytime to explore all the other amazing things there are to do in the area. Here are my top three.
Skiing in Geilo
The number one thing to do in Geilo is go skiing. With 38 pistes from nursery slopes to black runs, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to hone your skills and enjoy some fresh powder while you wait for the Ice Music Festival events to start.
Geilo sits in a valley with a ski hill on either side, making it possible to ski back down to the town centre from wherever you are. Your lift pass gives you access to the entire area, and there’s a free bus that takes you from one side to the other if you wish to cross over. There are also transfer buses that will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the ski bus, so no need to walk for ages carrying your skis!
Husky Sledding in Geilo
For a real snowy winter wonderland experience, why not try dog sledding? Geilo Husky offer day tours, taking you out with a team of dogs into the frozen tundra. You’ll barrel at speed across the snow, far away from civilisation, with nothing to disturb you but the sounds of the runners scraping the ground and the panting of the dogs. You can even learn to drive the sled yourself, and afterwards you’ll get to sit round the campfire with a hot drink and a Norwegian snack. Perfect for any nature or dog lover.
Ride The Flåm Railway
Although it’s a bit further to travel, The Flåm Railway is one of the main tourist destinations in the whole of Norway and in 2014 was ranked by Lonely Planet Traveller as the world’s most incredible train journey.
It’s a short but spectacular ride, taking one hour to travel steeply downhill from the high mountain plateau at Myrdal station down the steep valley to sea level 867 metres below at Flam on the Sognefjord.
Myrdal is a station on the Bergen Line, meaning you can easily join the Flåm Railway by taking a train from Geilo to Bergen and getting off at Myrdal.
When you get to Flåm, you can either take the train back again and enjoy the different views as you travel uphill, or join the Norway In A Nutshell tour and take a boat ride along the fjord before returning to spend a few winter days in Bergen or Oslo – which would be a really great end to your trip.
The Flåm Railway is also just as spectacular in spring or summer, when you could take it in as part of a Norway Road Trip.
What To Pack For The Ice Music Festival Norway
There’s probably one main rule about what to pack for Norway in winter: bring warm clothes!
OK, I’ll elaborate. Temperatures in Finse and Geilo in February can be very cold, reaching -20ºC or lower. When I was there, the first day it was -26! But then it warmed up to a balmy -5, so clearly the weather can be very variable. You should definitely expect cold and pack accordingly though.
I recommend a selection of thermal baselayers, both leggings and tops, with a fleece or wool mid layer, and proper decent down jacket over the top. Hat and gloves of course.
I get all my outdoor gear from either Cotswold Outdoor or Ellis Brigham; between them they have a wide variety of good quality winter gear at a range of price points.
But don’t fear the cold. Concerts are limited to just 30 minutes in duration to keep people from freezing, and with so many warm bodies packed into a small space, there’ll be plenty of other people to help keep you warm. Plus afterwards you can decamp to the Finse 1222 hotel for a hot chocolate or something stronger to warm you up!
And remember, all that sitting outside in the cold makes for a music festival experience like no other!
If you’d like to find out more, I wrote an article about my trip for the Lonely Planet Blog.
Find out more about the festival at the official website.
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