'What is The Point of a Cello Out of Ice?' Dartmouth Duo Hopes You'll Hear For Yourself.

Apr 26, 2018

An unusual musical spectacle will take place tonight in the Upper Valley. It’s a take on an iconic performance art piece from the 1970s.

In that first version, a woman - naked except for a garland of flowers around her neck - played a “cello” made completely of ice. Now, the piece is being re- imagined to reflect modern themes, and that’s required some modern engineering as well.

Editor’s note: we highly recommend listening to this story.

Here’s how it works: picture a large block of ice, dyed black, loosely molded in the shape of a cello. Frozen inside are several pickups, little microphones that pick up vibrations.

The performance is the work of two artists. One, wearing a black wetsuit, uses metal picks and bars to rub and scrape the ice, sometimes softly and sometimes violently, sending ice shards flying.

The second, Dartmouth Music Professor Spencer Topel, mans a laptop nearby that’s wired to the microphones in the ice. It’s Topel’s job to transform the signals coming into his computer to music, played back via glass speakers stationed around the room.

Topel and Seth Parker Woods, a cellist and performance artist, first imagined this collaboration a couple years ago.

Kevin Baron, director of the machine shop at Dartmouth's engineering school, helped Topel and Woods build a silicone mold in which to freeze the cello.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

It’s one thing to dream up an instrument like this, though, and another to make one in real life. 

Topel’s experience with experimental work and sound installation makes him no stranger to engineering challenges, but this one has been a particular headache at times.

“There were certainly moments when I was terrified,” he said.  

When he and Woods tried to freeze the full-sized cello for the first time, for example, they filled a silicone mold they’d built with water. But when they tried to close it, it started leaking like crazy.

For help with the project, Topel made the trip across campus, from the music department to Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

“He came in to ask about making a cello out of ice, and honestly, I had no idea what sort of a person I was working with,” laughed Kevin Baron, director of Thayer’s machine shop. “What is the point of a cello out of ice, and how is that possibly possible to do?”

But he soon realized Topel and Woods had a fair amount of design expertise, and together, they dove in on the challenge.

Dartmouth Music Professor Spencer Topel in his studio in Hanover.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Woods had been interested for some time in the original 1970s ice music pieces, which were performed by a white woman named Charlotte Moorman.

But Woods, a black man living now nearly 50 years later, wanted to go in his own direction.

“In visualizing this work and conceptualizing it, I didn’t want there to be this historical reenactment of a work that, for one, changed for each performance she did it of it,” he said. “I wanted to do something that had more meaning for myself, in this particular time in my life, and in the USA.”

He thought about mental illness, and specifically schizophrenia. He’s had several family members struggle with the disease, and he’s been struck by the stigma surrounding it.

In addition, he’s observed how people struggling with mental illness, particularly people of color, are more likely to be hurt or killed at the hands of law enforcement. 

The sounds that emerge from the ice cello, and the cello’s form itself, a frozen and ultimately fragile black body, are meant to give voice to these ideas.

For Topel, holding the performance here in the Upper Valley carries some significance as well.

He was drawn to it, in part, because of the racial component, he said. Though he himself is white, he has a biracial family. “We’re always at odds with the fact that it is a very white area," he said, "And sometimes that can be really difficult and alienating.”

The piece, titled “Iced Bodies: Ice Music for Dartmouth,” will run for several hours Thursday night in Hanover. Audience members can come and go throughout, or stay for a while and watch as the cello chips and melts away.

Watch a video of 'Iced Bodies' via Vimeo: