When Ludovico Einaudi was training in Milan’s Conservatorio Verdi, he dreamed of stately concert halls and state-of-the-art recording studios.
Yet one of his most stunning and accomplished performances took place on a platform floating in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, in front of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier off the coast of Svalbard, Norway.
As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, the performance was sponsored by Greenpeace as part of a campaign aimed at gaining support for protection of the Arctic. In the video above, the Italian composer — famous for his gorgeous compositions and his towering scores in “Doctor Zhivago,” “I’m Still Here” and “J. Edgar” — plays “Elegy for the Arctic,” which he had written for this very performance.
It’s an absolutely haunting and beautiful scene.
On Thursday, Einaudi called The Post from his home in Milan to discuss the experience. He spoke with a thick Italian accent and carefully considered his words.
“There is a cold that I cannot describe really, because you feel a mass of cold,” Einadui said. “It’s like being inside a refrigerator.”
As it would be for most, it was Einaudi’s first time in the Arctic. He cares about the environment but realized he “had never done anything to help the movement other than having signed some petitions connected with Greenpeace.” So when the organization reached out to him asking if he wanted to perform music on the ice, he “was quite excited.”
“The Arctic Ocean is the least protected sea in the world, its high seas currently have no legal safeguards,” Greenpeace wrote in releasing the video of Einaudi’s performance. “As the ice cover decreases with rising temperatures, this unique area is losing its frozen shield, leaving it exposed to reckless exploitation, destructive fishing trawlers and risky oil drilling.”
“The Arctic Ocean is completely unprotected, so technically people can do with it whatever they like,” Einadui said. “This petition is to protect 10 percent of the area.”
But he was also thrilled simply to take on a unique challenge.
“Not only because I like them,” he said. “But also the idea of doing something very different from what I do … I’ve never done anything so extreme.”
He was there for forty hours, and the sun shone down on them the entire time.
“There was no darkness,” he said. “The first day we started to shoot around midnight, and it was like being there in the early afternoon – there was no difference in the light. We stopped filming at like 3:30 in the morning.”
The light was so pervasive, sleeping became an issue — “I was going down for a little nap, the presence of the natural theater around me was like something that was asking me to stay awake and to be within,” he said. “It was like a physical presence to be there.”
But what amazed him most was the landscape itself.
In the video, the piano — and Einaudi — visibly bob in the ocean. Around him in the water are islands of ice that have fallen from the glacier and floated with the current. White mountains tower majestically around him. As he plays, enormous chunks of ice fall from the glacier, making crashing noises in an otherwise silent place.
“The pieces of the glacier were falling down almost every hour,” Einaudi said. “Some of them smaller, some of them massive. Some of them were like huge houses, buildings coming down.”
While this didn’t frighten him, per se, he was aware of the dangers inherent in the performance. The current wasn’t too strong, but it certainly wasn’t weak. He said the platform was fragile, and, after falling from the glacier, the ice moved quickly.
“In the end, it sounded very risky, but I felt quite safe … I was quite ready to jump on a piece of ice with the piano,” Einadui said. “The idea of doing something special was my intention.”
In the video, it’s clear he feels safe. Einaudi wears an expression that seems like true awe and reverence for where he is.
In his words: “I was very calm playing there because of what surrounded me, the feel that I was in a place where time has a different path. Everything is very slow. It’s moving, but there’s no pressure that you get used to in our lives. That made me feel a sort of inner calm.”