Bold As Light
Stephan Micus raj nplaim, bass zither, chord zither, bavarian zither, nohkan, sho, voice, kalimba, shakuhachi, sinding
Recorded 2007-10 at MCM Studios
All these ideas, striving towards one goal, thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.
Here it is, the dead of winter, and I am listening to Bold As Light, the nineteenth ECM release from renaissance man Stephan Micus. After a few days of heavy snow, the temperatures have risen and let slip a warmer precipitation. Ice melts in the downpour, and I find solace in this music, which works in similar intra-seasonal contrasts. Two transverse bamboo instruments form the audible crux of the sanctuaries therein: the Laotian raj naplaim and the Japanese nohkan. When multiplied, the former coalesces into a proto-harmonium of twirling skies, while the latter skates its wingtips along the clouds.
Like much of Micus’s later work, titles to individual pieces have again crept from the creative woodwork. Yet the music is so rich that one might just as well forego these sentimental tags and experience what they have to offer firsthand. And so, while the opening “Rain” might be a harbinger for the “Spring Dance” that follows, it is only through Micus’s profound playing that our spirits come into focus. “Flying Swans,” for instance, has not a feather in sight. Rather, Micus sings a different style of flight, the forest looming as high around us as the lake is deep, shielding a copse where voices gather to pay their respects to the wind. “Wide River” is barely distinguishable from what has come before, flutes winding themselves around a droning core like fibers to a tether that attaches every listener to a star. The clearest shadows come in the form of “Autumn Dance,” a beautiful and lilting shakuhachi solo falling like a leaf from the “Golden Ginkgo Tree” that follows. Dedicated to master teacher and maker Kono Gyokusui (1930-2008), that latter is easily one of the most enchanting improvisations Micus has ever recorded, and all the more so for being accompanied by the percussive rattle of a sinding (African harp).
Wood and flesh come together in “The Shrine.” Animated by a solemn congregation, it is a prayer unto itself. “Winter Dance” highlights the negative spaces in every snowflake, gaping like a mouth in a plant of infinite soliloquies, of which this is but one leaf. “The Child” would seem to be the recipient of every preceding color shift. Another awe-inspiring track, this one comes across as especially personal. We end in a bed of “Seven Roses,” blooming as if in the forgotten summer, and rocking on a seesaw of meditation and soaring dreams.
You can read more about the fascinating background to and instrumentation of Bold As Light here, but ultimately such explanations are, like the words you’ve just been reading, empty in the face of a music so full of life.