Freezing Piano Part 1 - The Concept and the Plan

What would it sound like when the vibrating piano strings transferred their energy to the ice then the water below? How could we actually get it in? And then out?

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Carmen Braden

Origins

Playing piano since I was a kid and more recently discovering the under-world of hydrophones below the ice made a clear connection to wanting to freeze a piano into the ice. The questions freezer-burning in my mind - What would happen to the piano itself? What would it sound like when the vibrating piano strings transferred their energy to the ice then the water below? How could we actually get it in? And then out? 

The Pitch

WAMP’s invitation for 360 video proposals was the perfect place to pitch this idea. Even with faith in northern media makers sense of adventure, I was amazed when they said yes. Then I wondered - do any of us know what we’re getting into…?

Ice Advice

Gathered from friends and encounters with engineers, technicians, piano tuners, pianists, ice-enthusiasts, long-time northerners…I asked for ice advice whenever I could find it, and in the heat of summer 2017 began to hatch rough plans with WAMP. 

Location Selection

After the lake ice was strong enough to walk on, we brainstormed and site-inspected locations. Our considerations were as varied as Friday night Gold Range clientele. The spot must have enough ice to be safe to support 800+ pound piano, plus trucks, snowmobiles, people and a very pregnant artist. It must be far enough from shore to have enough water below the ice to successfully capture hydrophone sound and flood the piano, but close enough to the shoreline to get interesting visuals for 360 camera…close enough to town for easy access, and quick transportation…far enough from town to not get plane, car, city, people noise (and we still captured sirens in one take)…facing the right direction in case it’s a sunny day so we’re not all shadowed…the list goes on.

We found a perfect little bay, south facing on the west side of Yellowknife Bay where there was just over two feet of ice, and just under one foot of water below. In another month, it will be frozen completely to the lake bottom there, but for us it was perfect, and alleviated worries of dangers of breaking through the ice over deep water. It would even be sheltered from the wind, unless there was the unlikely occurrence of a steady wind from the south-east…

Gear Planning

This would be the first time for the film crew to use the newly purchased 360-degree camera. We did two indoor trial runs, and made a list of equipment that grew to include chainsaws with 2-foot and 5-foot blades, ice picks, Herc straps, several animal pelts, a blow torch, a tiger torch, hot pad hand warmers, axe, alongside all the video and audio gear.

Piano Donation

A good friend of mine was deciding to move their piano on to its next life, and thought that having it transform in an art piece was a great reincarnation. Thanks Lynn White!

Weather Delays

Like most northern outdoor media projects, the weather and temperature created simultaneous threats and blessings. Our initial plans to freeze and film in early December were scuttled due to unpredictable ice conditions and some gear still in the mail. We knew a move into January would be better for ice depth and tech preparation, but the chances of hitting very cold on-site days increased, and proved accurate.

Pregnancy Looming

At 7.5 months large, I was not in any fit state to help move large objects like ice blocks or pianos. Thankfully, our crew was prepared to take on the grunt work and the little person inside me was comfortable enough to let me happily last for hours outside. I just had to adjust my wardrobe to make sure I had enough cover over my belly - because my chest-high snow pants wouldn’t zip up anymore!

The Music and the Look

My own artistic preparation seemed overwhelmed by the logistics planning. I knew the actual music I would make in the video would need to have good structure in order to film and mix efficiently, but allow space for flexibility due to the unpredictable conditions. I wrote a simple poem and set it to a simple melody and bass-line, with repetition at its core musical skeleton. I designed the visual routes I would take around the camera and rehearsed in my living room. Hidden cues were designed to keep me in sync with myself.

Other preparation included finding interesting, warm winter clothing would fit my pear-shaped form. Friends’ fur loans and makeup advice, along with scouting trips to the Sally Ann thrift store helped give me a dramatic look to match the drama of the lake. I created bright red “ice balls” out of balloons, food colouring and sugar to help frame our set. In my head, everything was as prepared as possible!

Freezing piano in the ice for Northern Sights 360 vr project.
Freezing piano in the ice for Northern Sights 360 vr project.
Freezing piano in the ice for Northern Sights 360 vr project.
Freezing piano in the ice for Northern Sights 360 vr project.