Stephan Micus: Towards the Wind (ECM 1804)

Towards the Wind

Stephan Micus
Towards the Wind

Stephan Micus duduk, bass duduk, kalimba, steel-string guitars, 14-string guitar, shakuhachi, dondon, sattar, voice
Recorded 1999-2001 at MCM Studios

In the late 1990s, musical nomad Stephan Micus crossed paths with a little Armenian double-reed flute known as the duduk, a mournful instrument with a long history. Micus compares the duduk with the shakuhachi: the two share a spirit of simplicity. In them the breath is audible, almost exaggerated, and sings across species. Yet while the Japanese bamboo flute comes with preinstalled with a rich solo repertoire, the duduk in its many registers is not usually played alone. “Padre,” for example, bears dedication to Micus’s father, Eduard, who passed away during the album’s recording. This duduk solo folds itself into the bittersweet gratitude by which nature abides, a profound translation of breath into memorial. And “Before Sunrise” gives even the bass duduk something to say beyond the droning for which it is typically employed. At Micus’s lips it touches the earth with hands as if they were feet. It walks with renewed balance into a nearby forest, clears a space of prayer among the detritus of a long season, and lights the sky with its campfire. In those embers lie the stirrings of “Morning Breeze,” a kalimba solo that trembles like an eye fluttering into wakefulness.

“Flying Horses” introduces 12 dondon, so-called “talking drums” from West Africa. With them are three steel-string guitars and shakuhachi. The latter dives into a body of water like the frog of Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku:

The old pond—
A frog leaps in,
And a splash.[*]

The amphibian in question is played by the shakuhachi, which enlightens us to the presence of aliveness itself: mere being, vivid and thrumming. The dondon add a wave of invigoration, a music of distance that lowers us into secret temples. “Birds of Dawn” reveals the crosscurrents of the album’s title by means of a fuller assembly: 2 kalimba, duduk, 6 shakuhachi, 3 dondon, 2 sattar. Yet it doesn’t evoke flight as the cover photograph would imply, but rather a milling about, a wading in the water, talons pressing the earth for sustenance. “Virgen de la Nieve” features the 14-string guitar, an instrument that Micus designed in the early eighties and was last heard on East Of The Night (JAPO’s final release). Its light shines from cloud-breaks after a storm onto a dilapidated castle, while “Eastern Princess” paints for us a memory of the kingdom that once flourished in its walls. This pairing of steel-string guitar and voice reveals the reality behind Micus’s so-called “fantasy language” (he rarely employs lyrics, per se, when singing), an embodied meaning that needs no semantic cage. This is one of his most astonishing creations, if only for the rudiments of its means. He ends with another broad palette, “Crossing Dark Rivers,” which revives the 14-string guitar alongside 3 shakuhachi and 7 duduk, the latter of which make for a cinematic reveal. Before that reveal, the music pulls its feet through thick sediment under cover of night, holding above its head a single bag with a few choice belongings and hoping to pass undetected into personal asylum. The flutes complete the picture as figures emerging from the trees, arms extended in welcome and embracing the solidarity that has made the journey forever worthwhile…for in that refugee slumbers an unborn child whose own crossing has yet to bless this world with its cry.

(For more on the history of this album and its instruments, please check out Mitchell Feldman’s lovely notes on the same, which were an invaluable resource for me in fleshing out this review.)


[*] Trans. Makoto Ueda.

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