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Dry Ice as Music

About 60 years ago, a French radio broadcaster pioneered a new approach to music making. At its core, Musique Concrete relies on non-inherently musical noises to create music. Chicago artist and musician Michael Colligan is a fan of the approach and for 13 years he's been creating music with an unlikely object—dry ice. Tony Sarabia reports.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by dry ice. I loved pouring hot water on the surface to create instant fog. I'd also get a kick out of my fingers sticking to the ice, of course the burning sensation wasn't the greatest but it was a worthwhile trade off.


Michael Colligan first discovered the joys of dry ice as a teenager working at a Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.


COLLIGAN: At that time I was an artist and I was going toward the visual, so I would always get the smoke going in the back room and have it creeping out into the main space. But it also made these incredibly strange groaning noises from the friction of the cold hitting the steel and it would cause the metal to vibrate.


That's Michael and his instrument.

Pierre Schaeffer is considered the father of Musique Concrte, using real world sounds to create music. Back in the late 1940s Schaffer would record sounds on a magnetic tape recorder then manipulate the tape, with the end result sounding something like this.

ambi: musique concrete


Today, instead of tape recorders, most if not all musicians following in Schaeffer's footsteps use computers. But not Colligan.


COLLIGAN: It's not that I'm anti-computer, it just seems like it's just too easy to make the sounds. It was too quick. I guess I didn't want to have to come to a show with all this gear and have to rely on where the plug is and have to make sure I'm going through the speakers correctly. And I like to idea that I can do those kind of electronic sounds with having to rely on all that.


Okay, so about that gear. Well of course there's the ice. Colligan prefers a ten-pound block, roughly one foot by one foot.


COLLIGAN: This is great because the surface is, it's just basically a block and I'm able to move stuff on top of the surface.


And what about the stuff that brings the dry ice to life? Well when I went to Colligan's Wicker Park apartment he had a folding table set up like the makings of a science experiment, with the block of dry ice in the center.


COLLIGAN: Basically it's just a Betty Crocker two burner coil stove, and then I have my towel which I put my dry ice on  which the towel helps to dampen the metal when I'm moving stuff around. And then various pieces of metals from a trombone mouthpiece to a pan to tea kettles, I've got some knives and spoons.

Trail and error play a big part in choosing what to use on the dry ice. My favorite is the two trombone mouthpiece.


COLLIGAN: So here's a little bit of the tea kettles. They can make all kinds of various sounds. There's the, this will be loud so.

I know, you're probably thinking, "That sounds like nails across a chalk board." The sounds Colligan coaxes from his dry ice can be piercing, but there are moments in a show were he brings out the gentler side of the instrument.


COLLIGAN: I like making really tiny sounds, small sounds and I like when those are heard, but it's terror for the engineer because there's extremely loud sounds that will completely destroy the mix in the monitors so I kind of want to not have that happen.


Michael Colligan and his dry ice have been part of Chicago's experimental music scene for about 13 years. He's had at least one musician come up after a show and ask permission to use dry ice in their performances. He'd be the first to tell you the more the merrier.


COLLIGAN: That's be great to see dry ice with the symphony.

It would add an interesting element to some of the more modern classical compositions. Imagine Colligan in a tuxedo, standing behind a table, his dry ice in the center and his array of metal objects at the ready, waiting for the Maestro's cue.


That for now, will have to be left to your imagination.

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