Greatest Hits No 2: The Woman on the Ice by Rikke Houd

  • 24.11.2022

For the latest instalment in our Greatest Hits series, picking out the audio that made us who we are, Andrew Dickson celebrates the strange, seductive soundscapes of the Danish storyteller and producer Rikke Houd.

Greenland. Photograph: Annie Spratt / Unsplash
Greenland. Photograph: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

Somewhere on the eastern coast of Greenland, a woman treks slowly across the snow, heading towards the mouth of the fjord. It is a moonlit night in April 1933, indeed almost full moon; she is a solitary figure amidst the paleness of the reflected ice, the towering mountains around, the dark of the sea beyond. All we hear is the soft trudging of her feet, before the footsteps cease at the edge of the water. Her body is never recovered.

Women who die in mysterious circumstances – particularly beautiful young women with enigmatic back stories – have become a staple of podcasting in the last few years, as much of a lurid True Crime trope as on late-night TV or on the pages of OK! magazine.

But The Woman on the Ice, created in 2014 by the revered Danish feature-maker Rikke Houd , is something far stranger and more subtle: a piece of Scandi noir with very little in the way of suspense, where everyone involved in the case is either dead or struggles to remember. It seems unlikely that any crime has been committed. No traumatised relatives are demanding justice. And nothing really hangs on the outcome of this investigation; “investigation” is probably not even the word for Houd’s haunting meditation on the death of a young Danish nurse in a remote outpost on the rim of the Arctic Circle some 80 years before. The story Houd unearths feels as slippery as if it’s been carved out of ice, or like a Norse myth that has been buried under the permafrost and will soon be swallowed again. Did any of this really happen? Who can say.

I first encountered The Woman on the Ice on the recommendation of a producer friend who said that she’d heard nothing like it, some time in 2015, I think; it had recently won an award at Sheffield Doc/Fest . My attempt to listen via the Third Ear podcast  – which commissioned the piece with support from the Danish Art Fund – was stymied when I realised it was largely in Danish, a tongue I don’t speak (thanks for nothing, Borgen!).

But then  I successfully tracked it down on Radio Atlas , which specialises in making non-English-language radio available in translation (each piece is uploaded as a video with subtitles, which means that you watch as you listen). As it happened, and as I became enveloped in the story, translation issues barely seemed to matter: so atmospheric and striking are the scenes that Houd conjures in sound that language almost seems superfluous. The Woman on the Ice is so meticulously and hauntingly made that it will invade your ears, then creep into your dreams.

Anyway, the tale Houd relates doesn’t require much telling. Karen Roos was a Danish nurse in her mid-20s who took a job in the remote settlement of Angmassalik (now Tasiilaq) in Greenland in the summer of 1932. The place was – and remains – a colony of Denmark; Roos would be the first Danish nurse to be stationed there, serving a tiny population of Inuit fishermen and traders, few of whom spoke her language.

One person who did was the local pastor, who despite the fact that he was married seemed only too keen to escort this attractive young newcomer on boating trips to view the icebergs and on jaunts to distant settlements (Roos was thrilled that they would be sleeping in tents and on polar bear skins). On one occasion, they visit the local shaman; he declares that Roos has lost a “little of her soul” by crossing a river barefoot. As we know from the very first seconds of this 55-minute documentary, a later encounter with water will prove fatal.

Piece by piece, some fragments of the jigsaw are assembled. Roos’s letters and journals survive in the town museum; Houd reads them aloud, scouring for clues, and hears rumours that something else was found next to Roos’s footprints in the snow that night. She travels to a retirement home to find out more. Heartbreakingly few locals of that age survive with their memories intact – life expectancy in Greenland is a full decade lower than in Denmark , partly because of endemic alcohol problems – but gradually one man half-recalls a nurse who walked out across the ice and never came back. “I cannot remember much,” he gurgles, sounding like the Old Man of the Sea.

Then, in a remarkable scene, Houd encounters the present-day pastor, a woman who talks bruisingly and eloquently about the loneliness of life in a tiny settlement at these latitudes, when the light is darkening and your spirits are darker still. “It is a very small community here and everyone knows everyone,” she says. “I can understand how [Karen] felt.”

Someone else Houd meets curtly observes that, if you’re in a boat heading out to deeper water, there’s little point wearing a lifejacket; the chill of the North Atlantic will claim you so quickly that you’ll not be worth saving. “Greenland is almost too much,” Houd whispers. Agreed.

Rikke Houd. Photograph: Rikke Houd/Sansâga
Rikke Houd. Photograph: Rikke Houd/Sansâga

She moulds this material – field recordings, interviews, little more – into a soundscape somehow both spare and so richly textured you can almost touch it. The noises of Greenland are startlingly intense: the gurgling of seawater, the creaking of ice, cawing birdlife, keening wind. Voices drift in and out, beautifully montaged together. The sing-song musicality of the Inuit language of Greenlandic offers its own music, to which Houd adds a score of strings and bell-like synths, as slow-moving as icebergs. She also allows plenty of space for stillness and silence. And, every so often, the sound of footsteps in the snow. As far as I’m aware, Houd composes and creates her own sound design; The Woman on the Ice is as much a piece of music as it is a piece of documentary.

Other pieces by Houd I’ve heard have a similar feel: often they circle around themes concerning the natural world or ritual and folklore, and return repeatedly to the people and landscapes of the far north. In a meditative observational documentary made earlier this year for the BBC by Falling Tree, Eider Island , she joins a rural community on a small island in the Icelandic Westfjords who gather every year to collect soft down from eider ducks , a tradition that goes back centuries. These aren’t people who waste words, you sense, but Houd draws them out, encourages them to talk.

There’s often something quixotic about the tales she tells. Another recent piece made for LA’s KCRW Unfictional podcast, The Rowing Man , follows the curious story of a man from the Faroe Islands, Ove Joensen, who in the mid-80s wanted to be the first person to row across the North Atlantic to Copenhagen, a 1000-mile journey, with only his cat for company. Thankfully for those of us who don’t speak Danish, Houd also produces regular stories for Short Cuts (Falling Tree for Radio 4 ). And she’s part of a collective, Sansâga, who’ve developed a series of “immersive audio walking experiences”  you can take on hikes through various Nordic landscapes, accessible via a GPS-enabled app. The next time I travel up there, some of these are certainly coming along for the ride.

What does Houd do and why does she do it so well? I wonder if the answer lies in an interview she did a few years back with a guy called Pat Herbert, the founder of the Hurdy Gurdy radio museum in Ireland , part of which has been turned into a gorgeous short animated film . Herbert describes hearing a live transatlantic broadcast for the very first time as a child in 1947, astonished that radio waves were zooming through the darkness from New York to the rural west of Ireland, transmitting sound all but instantly. “No wires,” he says. “I was mystified.” It’s a magic trick each time, Houd seems to say. And it’s a miracle it happens at all.

Listen out for: A moment when Houd encounters a villager singing sea shanties eerily to himself. “[In the sea] you disappear,” he coos.

Hit replay: That interview with the female priest – an emotional lighting bolt that arrives from an apparently blue sky.

See also: Third Ear, Short Cuts, anything by Tim Hinman or Chris Watson.

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