Vol. 42 Issue 1 Reviews
Iced Bodies: Ice Music for Chicago at The Arts Club of Chicago

A performance of Iced Bodies: Ice Music for Chicago by Spencer Topel, August 12, 2017, performed by Seth Parker Woods. A video excerpt of this performance is available at: https://vimeo.com/244389523

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Ice Music photoIn celebration of the 45th anniversary of the premiere performance of Jim McWilliams’ piece entitled Ice Music, cellist Seth Parker Woods and composer Spencer Topel created a new work: Iced Bodies: Ice Music for Chicago, that was performed over a four hour stretch on August 12, 2017. The performance took place in an anterior, ground level room at The Arts Club of Chicago. Audience members passed into and out of the space. Some stayed for just a few minutes, while others remained for the entire duration of the piece.

In McWilliams’ Ice Music, cellist, performance artist, and impresario Charlotte Moorman ‘played’ a block of cello-shaped ice while naked, with a plexiglass bow, saw, and file, until the ice completely melted. People that know about this piece usually remember Moorman’s name rather than that of the composer because her theatrical presence was so strong and memorable.

In addition to John Cage’s works and those by experimental and Fluxus composers, Moorman performed many works by Nam June Paik, including his TV cello and TV Bra. Many of these works were non-standard pieces for cello, one even required her to be suspended by helium balloons over the Sydney Opera House. Moorman was also jailed and convicted of indecent exposure in New York City, for her topless performance of Opera Sextronic, which was interrupted so that she could be arrested. Besides traumatizing her, this occurrence severely hampered her career, as she was, thereafter, explicitly and implicitly blacklisted from performing any piece, whether topless or not. It is also worth mentioning that she performed this piece previously throughout Europe without incident. Based on her extensive experience you might think that she would have been in good standing with the Fluxus movement. But Fluxus impresario George Maciunas blacklisted Moorman, as well as other women performers. At best, this may have been because her work didn’t fit his narrow definition of what the term Fluxus meant to him. At worst, it may have been representative of typical, white male-dominated politics.

Moorman was no stranger to Chicago, so Woods’ and Topel’s decision to present their work at The Arts Club of Chicago made sense. Moorman had been featured in an October 1969 performance at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in which mixed media works by Paik, Cage, and Yoko Ono were performed. More recently, in 2016, the Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Illinois, presented a five-month exhibition on Moorman’s work. Although she lived most of her adult life in New York City, her connection to Chicago and its environs was apparently significant, demonstrated by the fact that the Charlotte Moorman Archives are located at the Charles Deering McCormick Library on the campus of Northwestern University.

Upon entering the performance space at The Arts Club of Chicago, one immediately notices Woods clad in a sleek, black Cressi designer wetsuit, metallic wrist cuffs, and large black gloves. He holds an obsidian cello made of ice, perched atop a platform that placed him about three feet above the ground. During the performance he sat, stood, crouched, and kneeled as he engaged with the block of ice. The platform itself had an irregular, triangular-shaped slit cut into it, which functioned as a kind of drainage system that emptied into a triangular-shaped basin just in front of the platform.

The ice cello had three buried, piezoelectric pick-ups located top left, bottom right, and on a fiberglass panel in the center of the sculpture. These pick-ups amplified the sounds produced as Woods tapped and slapped the ice, activated it with two glass rods used as bows, and chipped away at it using a variety of carving tools, including ice picks and screwdrivers. As the ice melted and dissolved, additional sounds were heard, namely the sounds of dripping water and chunks of ice falling into the basin, and onto the floor.

Theatrically neutral, Woods methodically stabbed, carved, fondled, excavated, and traced forms on the block of ice. These movements were the result of choreographed gestures developed by the performer and compiled into a rough score. At various points Woods stabbed the cello with the ice pick and left it sticking straight up like a meat thermometer. During other moments he cradled the cello as if holding an infant. His theatrical movements covered a wide expressive range and were well executed.

Woods and Topel attempted to “readdress McWilliams’ concept with an immersive experience.” By contemporaneous accounts, McWilliams’ original piece was surely experienced as immersive. However, Woods’ and Topel’s new work can be viewed as a more complete, immersive experience, due to the presence of sonic diversity within a high-tech, installation environment, which was powered by Topel’s laptop. This piece traverses the boundaries of mere theatricality, even as it presents itself as a spectacle.

Topel took an intriguing and flexible approach to the technology he employed, emphasizing the materiality of the sonic object. At the back of the room were large glass panel speakers hung from metal frames, hardwired into the mixer. The idea for attaching surface transducers to thick gauge glass panels came to Topel after he encountered the work of Liz Philips. Glass was a suitable counterpart to ice. According to Topel, it preserved “the harsh, clear and otherworldly impulses you get from ice while adding timbral elements.” The speakers produced what Topel calls, “extreme vocoder-like sound,” which came as somewhat of a surprise after much testing and experimentation. Conceptually, the speakers, occupying the polar opposite of the signal chain from the microphones, provided a modicum of symmetry to the piece. The microphones were embedded in obsidian ice, whereas the speakers were affixed to clear glass. At room temperature, the ice was in an unstable state, while the stable, glass speakers where unaffected by temperature.

It appeared that Topel employed his laptop to diffuse and process the live sound in various ways through synthesis, filtering, delays, pitch shifting, and envelope following. Topel used Ableton Live with the Max for Live extension, which is typically how he works with live electronics’ pieces. The Max for Live extension allows him to add Max patches for concatenative synthesis, sample reversing, convolution, and comb filtering. According to the composer “from the beginning, we wanted to keep the electronic processing to a minimum so the natural sounds of the ice object were clearly expressed.” So, the computer generated sounds were essentially used for contrast and the enhancement of the live sound.

Over the course of the performance, Topel’s sound palette remained relatively consistent. Feedback featured prominently, especially pronounced whenever Woods would pass his metallic wrist or finger bands over the contact microphone. Often, it sounded as if the feedback was about to enter into an out-of-control loop, but Topel quickly managed to rein things in. Many of the sounds were loud, heavily saturated with reverb, and quite harsh. Somehow, this treatment seemed necessary and poignant within the context of a four-hour long performance installation. The listener was kept actively engaged by the almost uncomfortable sounds.

Throughout the performance, Topel made the space come alive through his ability to create dynamic, yet subtle, spatialization and depth effects. These effects seemed largely spontaneous, determined by Topel’s realtime response to the sounds being made by Woods and his apparatus. About 95 minutes into the piece Woods said something to Topel, apparently instructing him to initiate or change something. The communication between composer and performer directly influenced the intentional direction of the piece.

Occasionally Woods spoke to his cello in a whispered tone. This was picked-up, captured, and processed by Topel’s laptop, and used as a backdrop for the other amplified sounds. Topel also used prerecorded vocal samples of Woods reciting poetry and spontaneously mixed them into the piece. Since the words were mostly unrecognizable they mostly served textural function.

As Woods chipped and hacked away at the ice cello, large chunks broke off and made loud percussive sounds, as they fell onto the platform or basin. These sounds were periodically joined with street sounds whenever a new audience member arrived or left. Woods’ performance might be described as action-oriented, in the sense that he seemed to prefer action as opposed to stillness. By the time half of the piece had elapsed the cello had been mostly dismembered. Hence, only shards were left with which to work for the remaining two hours. This also influenced the paucity of dripping sounds that presumably, could have been more prominent coming from a larger piece of ice. On the other hand, Woods’ gestures were mostly captivating. One moment he appeared to employ surgical precision to the block of ice, while in another instance he appeared to be playing a dangerous game of chicken with his fingers and an ice pick.

For the audience, there was also something dangerous and fixating about this piece, part sound, part spectacle. The danger came into play as the audience members tried to avoid the dyed black, flying ice shards that sometimes flew almost 20 feet from the cello platform. There were also extremely loud, amplified sounds, which sometimes seemed to come close to the threshold of pain. Nevertheless, we sat spellbound, witnessing the ritual of deconstruction of a frozen relic from the past. As the piece progressed, black, inky stains began to proliferate on and around the white platform.

It is instructive to consider some of the differences and similarities between Moorman’s and Woods’ performances with their respective ice cellos. While Moorman performed Ice Music naked (except for a garland of flowers wrapped around her neck), Woods performed in a high-tech, insulated, wetsuit. Moorman would have felt the frozen ice on her body for an extended period of time, while Woods was insulated from the cold by his wetsuit. Moorman’s overindulgence and outright narcissistic stage presence was contrasted by Woods’ introspective, careful approach to playing and dismantling the ice cello.
In 2001, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of the Kronos Quartet, revived Ice Music in performances in Minneapolis and San Francisco. Woods and Topel’s performance was the first major realization of the ice cello concept since Jeanrenaud’s. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in ice instrument and ice orchestra performances. In Sweden and Norway skilled instrument makers employ highly sophisticated carving and circuitry techniques to essentially fashion traditional instruments out of ice for performance at annual ice music festivals. But, like its forebear, Iced Bodies: Ice Music for Chicago challenges traditional notions about what an instrument can be, and what an intentional sound is, retaining only the shape of the cello and the idea of the performer within the context of a completely immersive four-hour long electroacoustic spectacle.