Stephan Micus: Desert Poems (ECM 1757)

Desert Poems

Stephan Micus
Desert Poems

Stephan Micus sarangi, dondon, dilruba, doussn’gouni, kalimba, sinding, steel drums, shakuhachi, ney, sattar, flowerpots, voice
Recorded 1997-2000 MCM Studios

On Desert Poems, Stephan Micus’s 15th solo excursion, the intrepid musical sojourner introduces a few new actors to his already extensive roster of instruments: the doussn’gouni (West African harp), kalimba (Tanzanian thumb piano), and dondon (Ghanaian talking drum). These he nestles among more familiar veterans: his modified 10-string sarangi, dilruba (another bowed instrument from India), ney, and sattar (an upright Uighur fiddle). As always, Micus is attentive to the Janus nature of the instruments he touches. On the one hand each has a history, while on the other it enables new paths of expression. He embraces both as equals.

Characteristic histrionics speak of a thousand other worlds in “The Horses of Nizami” (for sarangi, 5 dondon, and 23 voices) and in “Mikhail’s Dream” (2 kalimba, voice, sinding, 2 steel drums, percussion). In these multi-tracked biospheres, a self divided becomes a self magnified and therefore needs its own language to breathe properly. Indeed, at Micus’s touch the sarangi body becomes a wooden lung through which a chanting chorus activates its array of sympathetic strings. Buzzing kalimba then glow with firefly steps, a ladder of light into the rising dune heat. Amid this flowering conference of souls, a single voice rises into, even as it drops down from, the ether and places its song on a fulcrum of memory and future paths.

The blood of this album’s earthly incarnation is purified by “Adela” (for 22 dilruba), for it speaks of a mirroring heaven in which all that has come to pass awakens to the possibility of a self-aware now. These sounds take human shape: a warrior walking upside down, feet treading sky, his horse long dead behind him, turned to cloud and dropping rain somewhere on more fertile land. With a grating pulse, he marks his footfalls by way of a dotted moon. By nightfall, only his afterimages remain, thrumming in the counterpart of “Shen Khar Venakhi” (6 dilruba, 6 sattar), a 13th-century choral piece from Georgia which Micus arranges in wordless tonsure.

“Thirteen Eagles” (doussn’gouni, 20 ney) and “For Yuko” (2 flowerpots, 8 voices, shakuhachi) share another soul. One is a blissful trek over land and under emotion that focuses purely on movement and shape, ney pleated many times over like feathers and free as heroines of the open sky. The other bears dedication to the performer’s daughter in a galaxy of nascent voices, hurtling through space along a trajectory of sentience and love.

If these are the internal organs, three solo tracks comprise the external features. The eyes flicker into being by way of “First Snow.” Although not a title one might expect amid all this warmth, the continuity is not lost. Its lone shakuhachi is an arid instrument. Cored and lacquered, it rasps like wind through wheat and digs through the soil with deeply grained fingertips. Its song dreams of water, and like the snow remains dry until the warmth of sun or living touch renders it fleeting. Lips speak in “Contessa Entelina,” a voice solo in English that is named for, and inspired by, a village Micus encountered while riding through the Sicilian countryside, and tells the story of a countess who provided solace to Albanian immigrants some centuries ago. This intimate portrait folds perfect divinity into the imperfect cage of human language and means. Ears listen in “Night,” a far-reaching doussn’gouni reflection that bears gifts from the heavens to the caverns.

Seemingly enamored with the same consuming silence of the desert that captured the heart of writer Paul Bowles, Micus translates the hidden energies of landscape into a form that escapes all measure of mortal grasp. World music? Perhaps. But not entirely of this one.

A selfless masterpiece.

Alternate Desert
Alternate cover

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