on the wing
Stephan Micus sattar, mudbedsh, classical guitar, nay, shō, hné, suling, Tibetan cymbals, gongs, hang, 14-string guitar, steel string guitar, shakuhachi, mandobahar, sitar
Recorded 2003-2006 at MCM Studios
For his 17th ECM album, multi-instrumentalist and world traveler Stephan Micus maps further paths along soft geographical borders. Whereas on his last trek, 2004’s Life, Micus sprouted vines around a Japanese Buddhist kōan, here the voice of the man behind the means comes through his playing rather than his singing. The narrative arc is yet firm beneath his step, even if its location remains undisclosed at the final breath. Indeed, breath is by no means less operative herein, flowing as it does through a wealth of reed instruments, including the Iraqi mudbesh, the Egyptian nay, the shō (Japanese mouth organ), the Balinese suling, and the Burmese hné. From them issue the voices of this 10-part suite of sentiment, from which a peaceful core unspools.
Much of the music occurs in intimate settings. Part 1, from which the album gets its name, threads the mudbesh through two droning sattar, a bowed instrument favored by the Uyghurs of western China. As is his way, Micus obscures the origins of these instruments by floating them on idiosyncratic currents. The wind of the mudbesh captures spirit and pulls it through tree leaves, each a feather trembling on a skeleton without direction or need, floating and falling in an unwritten cycle. “Winterlight” bolds the underlying silt with three sattar, trembling like a dream that clings to the body in a scrim of frost. There is something medieval, even Nordic, about the sound that leaves wolven footprints in snow. A sleek form trudges along the riverbanks, eyes glistening with a gold that can never be obtained without destroying the soul. And so, it hides behind a cloak of dawn, the tender glow of which outshines even the rarest mineral treasure.
“Gazelle” follows with a pairing of nay and classical guitar. The latter, for all its lilting hold on pitch, becomes koto-like in Micus’s hands. It seems to embody the comfort of a life lived on the ground, while the nay circles overhead in search of possible dangers in the open plains. Resigned to those dangers, its heart beats on, anticipating the moment when it will no longer sound its drum. In that alertness there is harmony, a certain calmness of mind that casts itself to the elements of which it is but a shred. This is not, despite my attempts at wording, a purely descriptive track. Its title, like all on the album, is a stepping-stone toward less overt associations.
Forces build through the reed-thickened “Blossoms in the Wind” (for 2 sattar, shō, 3 hné, and 2 suling) to the fulcrum of “The Bride.” One of two larger “ensemble” pieces (this for Tibetan cymbals, Korean gong, Burmese gong, 3 hang, 14-string guitar, steel string guitar, mudbesh, shakuhachi), its reed work draws folding lines across the sky in preparation for its origami transformation. The breathy shakuhachi slides its way into frame center, even as it magnifies the edges in kind. Thus united, the flutes ride waves of without fear, their sole cargo a dowry of ether.
“Ancient Trees” lessens the forces with 6 shakuhachi, 2 sattar, and 4 mandobahar (a rare Indian stringed bass) even as it seeds possibilities. Here the shakuhachi is the agency of the drone, climbing trees like stairways into cloud. “In the Dancing Snow” again fronts the shrill mudbesh, now over 3 sattar, in a dance of ice and flame.
In the shadow of such greatness, the intimacy of “The Gate” is astonishing. This sitar solo is decades in the making, for it would take as long before Micus felt comfortable enough to commit something like this to record, and shows the fruits of his efforts to tame its overwhelming web by paring it down to two strings. Every bend holds a key to entry and ushers the listener into a world of ghosts with lingering attachments, each with a story endlessly repeated in the hopes that someday, someone will hear it and grant peace. It is further proof that Micus’s most powerful pieces are unaccompanied. That said, we are left with the album’s second major expanse, “Turquoise Fields” (2 steel string guitars, 3 hné, 2 suling, 3 sattar, 3 nay), which is an astonishingly immersive experience. As strums of guitar shift like wind through barley, a chain of solos from sattar and high reeds marks the transfusion point between the sacred and the profane. Last is “Morning Sky,” a congregation of five hné in a dance of farewell, but also of greeting. Which is to say that it welcomes us even as it sends us on our way.