MOORHEAD — While the nation deals with rolling blackouts due to extreme cold, the frigid temperatures were perfect for aspiring musicians to perform an ice percussion concert at Minnesota State University Moorhead on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Ticking away on thick slabs of pure ice with plastic-tipped drumsticks, professor of percussion Kenyon Williams and his students drew a crowd of about 50 people. Snowflakes dancing in the air, the timing couldn’t have been better, Williams said. Temperatures held steady throughout the day at about 5 degrees.

“It was great, something new to experience,” Williams said after the 15-minute concert ended.

“It’s a very unique sound. When I first did it, I didn’t realize what it would sound like. The hardest thing was making the ice hard enough so it wouldn’t shatter once I touched it. It makes a really high ticking sound, a very high pitched, dry sound,” Williams said.

Kenyon Williams, director of the Minnesota State University Moorhead percussion ensemble, plays ice blocks for a performance with the ensemble Wednesday, Feb. 17, on the campus mall.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Kenyon Williams, director of the Minnesota State University Moorhead percussion ensemble, plays ice blocks for a performance with the ensemble Wednesday, Feb. 17, on the campus mall. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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Before the concert began, Eli Cole, a freshman studying music education at MSUM, was unsure if the ice would hold and he was ready for pitch changes if the slabs cracked. “We’re experimenting with sounds and all of this is improv,” Cole said.

Creating the pure, transparent ice isn’t easy.

“You have to have really solid ice,” Williams said. He first tried freezing tap water, but the ice broke after the first hit. He then began looking into high-end bartender ice-making methods and experimented until he found the perfect method.

To make ice without impurities, Williams has to make sure the water freezes from the bottom up. After cutting about half the sides off a cheap cooler, he insulated the top and used a submersible fish tank pump to keep the water circulating during the three days it takes to freeze a block of ice during a Fargo-Moorhead winter, he said.

Next, he used a small chainsaw to cut the block into the appropriate slabs.

The idea for an ice percussion concert came after Williams watched a video of musicians playing ice in Siberia about five years ago, he said.

“When I first began I thought I would make it specifically tuned, but I soon realized that was not possible because the ice is too fragile. A lot of it is the luck of the draw,” Williams said.

The concert was part of the Why Not Winter Wednesdays events that Tony Bormann, director of the MSUM Regional Science Center, holds weekly. During the winter months of the coronavirus pandemic, he began holding the events outside, offering blacksmithing demonstrations and snowshoe trekking classes.

Kenyon Williams, a professor of percussion at Minnesota State University Moorhead, taps pure ice slabs during an ice percussion concert Wednesday, Feb. 17. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Kenyon Williams, a professor of percussion at Minnesota State University Moorhead, taps pure ice slabs during an ice percussion concert Wednesday, Feb. 17. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Tony Bormann, director of the Regional Science Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead, pours hot water for hot chocolate on Wednesday, Feb. 17. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Tony Bormann, director of the Regional Science Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead, pours hot water for hot chocolate on Wednesday, Feb. 17. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“It’s just to get people out to socialize and be active outside, even though it’s winter,” Bormann said.

Hot chocolate and a bonfire to warm hands is the biggest attraction, he said, but he hopes to continue the program even after the pandemic ends.

“Maybe there is a demand then that we need to serve. There certainly seems to be an interest,” Dormann said.