Listening For The Elusive Sound Of Ice Chimes

Feb 22, 2013

Dartmouth students take a quick look a Ice Chimes on their way to class
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

This year, the Dartmouth College campus has become temporary home for a mixed-media menagerie called Ice Chimes.  And the 20-foot tall pagoda-like structure outside the Life Sciences building gets a lot of curious stares from students.

Ice Chimes is supposed to be interactive.  But it isn’t exactly intuitive.

The structure looks kind of like a cross between a wind chime and a giant Japanese wooden lamp.  It’s basically the winter equivalent of a huge garden trellis designed to provide a place for ice to grow. 

Boston-based architects Keith Moskow and Robert Linn designed the piece, for the city’s Rose Kennedy Greenway last year.  Moskow says the Greenway Conservancy presented them with the perfect puzzle: They wanted a structure designed to make cold urbanites stop and enjoy the park in the middle of winter.

“The Greenway’s all about growth," Moskow says.  "And we said the only thing that we know of that really can grow in the winter are icicles. Ok…so how can we take something that is a liability, which is ice and icicles, and turn it into an asset, and make it a real focus?”

What they ultimately settled on was a two-story wooden structure, held up by fir beams eight feet around, and capped with a 16-by-16 foot roof.  The roof has big holes cut into it. And dangling from the holes are wires and galvanized steel rods.  The idea is that throughout the winter, snow will gather on the roof.  Heating coils will melt the snow, and the water will run down the wires and the rods, quickly freezing into ice.  Then, when the wind blows, the pipes will move, clicking the ice together.  If the chimes hit each other hard enough, the ice is supposed to shatter and land in a big metal-clad bucket at the base, sounding almost like a drum.  

And if you do hear it, Moskow says, it’s supposed to remind you of something.

“'Birches.'  The Robert Frost Poem," he explains, before launching into a recitation.

"One of the lines is, and I think I’m getting this right, is 'Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning/After a rain. They click upon themselves/As breeze rises, and turn many-colored/As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.'"

It’s an ice garden wind chime evoking the poetry of a literary legend from New Hampshire. 

And it’s the sort of thing you have to hear for yourself. 

As I stood close by it, talking with students, I listened carefully. But instead of hearing the sound of ice drop into a metal well, all I heard was the sound of wires and steel pipes clanking together in the wind. 

If I heard anything at all.

When I ask architect Robert Linn about this, he confirms I'm not alone.

The roof is designed so that heating coils heat up the snow, and sends the water flowing along the chime-like rods.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

"We never have [heard it].  The only time that we were able to see the ice growing was in a cold storage unit in Cambridge, Massachusetts," Linn says.  "We built a small version of it, and we came back the next day, and it had made these long, beautiful icicles.  And we just broke them off in our mock-up, and felt like we knew that it would work, if we had the right conditions outside.”

Linn’s partner, Keith Moskow, says the conditions since Ice Chime’s debut have been unexpected, to say the least.

“Last winter, if you were in the Boston area, New England, you know it was a very, very warm winter.  So it didn’t work as planned," Moskow says.

So they broke Ice Chimes down into its 300 pieces and started shopping it around.  Then, when Dartmouth claimed it for this winter, and the pieces made their way to New Hampshire in a big flatbed truck, Moskow says he thought, “Great!  It’s going in the right direction!  As in: North!”

So far, the 127 miles haven’t made much difference.  It’s mostly been balmy weather with just a couple of severe snow sucker-punches.  That kind of inconsistency doesn’t work for a piece that’s supposed to grow and change with an old-school New England winter.  The kind Robert Frost wrote about. 

In the end, Moskow figures, they were burned.  By climate change

“You know, we were talking.  I was talking with my partner before you called, Robert," he says with a hearty chuckle.  "And he mentioned, he goes, ‘We will just keep moving it North as the climate gets warmer and warmer.  So next year, maybe we’ll be in Quebec, and after that, it’ll be in…who knows?”

New England’s supposed to get another round of heavy snow on Sunday.  So if you find yourself near Hanover next week, you might yet hear a limited engagement, featuring the clanking and clicking of Ice Chimes.