Best Musical Use of Dry Ice

Critics' Picks

Michael Colligan

Michael Colligan earned his reputation in Chicago as a clarinetist, both in ad hoc improvising combos and in regular working groups. In the late 80s and early 90s he contributed to the art-damaged postcabaret mayhem of Quintron’s old band Math, and in the late 90s he joined the free-jazziest lineup of Weasel Walter’s revolving-door brutal-prog outfit the Flying Luttenbachers. But lately he hasn’t been gigging out much, most often turning up in Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra—and when he does play, he plays dry ice. Colligan was inspired to repurpose it as a musical instrument by memories of a high school job at Baskin-Robbins, where he routinely disposed of dry ice in a metal sink that would groan as it cooled. He rubs and scrapes a slab of the stuff with metal objects—keys, coins, teakettles, other kitchen implements—that he’s heated on an electric hot plate. Unless you’ve seen him do it, you’d never imagine the range of high-frequency sounds he can produce just from the collision of hot metal and dry ice: screeches, howls, squeaks, rattles, sobs. At room temperature dry ice sublimates, turning from a solid directly to a gas, and the heated metal objects hugely accelerate the process. A layer of gas forms rapidly between the object and the dry ice and then rushes out, creating rapid vibrations as it goes, a little like air escaping the tightly stretched neck of a party balloon—and because Colligan has been doing this for so long, he’s able to control the noises it makes by choosing different objects and varying the pressure, speed, and direction with which he moves them. He’ll bust out the dry ice next on Wednesday, June 30, when the Friction Brothers—Colligan, cellist Lonberg-Holm, and percussionist Michael Zerang—headline the Hideout.