Stephan Micus Bavarian zither, dilruba, chitrali sitar, sattar, 14-string guitar, nay, voice
Recorded 2009-2012 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production
Panagia may be heard as the divine counterpart to Stephan Micus’s earthly album Athos of two decades before, and revisits the Greek peninsula that inspired its predecessor. As with all Micus projects, the focus here is crystalline and spiritual in a way that shuns any specific label or dogma. That being said, one can surely feel the personal histories that go into the many instruments with which he births his universal sounds, their ties to places rendered frozen by time. Micus’s magic—his rite, if you will—is to blend those variant histories into a singularity that few world travelers have ever translated so nakedly into the language of music.
Micus demonstrates this personal ethos in a brief album statement: “Throughout the world people have put their trust in a female goddess. In Greece she is called Panagia,” thus invoking an all-encompassing goddess even as he locates her within a particular faith. According to Evy Johanne Håland in her book Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece, Greek orthodoxy calls her Ē Prōtē (The First) and places her at the pinnacle of sainthood. Hence the seventh-century Byzantine prayers to Panagia of which Micus sings his verses, and in which Panagia is called, among other things, “Virgin Mary,” “blissful swallow,” “radiant cloud,” and, in Christ-like fashion, “the joy of the distressed, the guide of the blind and the refuge of orphans.” Where normally Micus falls into the histrionics of his own phonetic language, here a certain thematic vividness of worship lends his singing fresh anchorage.
Through its 11-part traversal, the album shuffles vocal tracks into instrumentals. The former are songs of praise, as indicated by their liturgical titles, while the latter are analogic poems in and of themselves. “I Praise You, Unfading Rose” and “I Praise You, Cloud of Light” open and close the circle with Micus accompanying himself on the Bavarian zither. The zither’s sparkle, in combination with the words, draws flesh from vibrational frequencies. It is as if the world were cradled in a giant hammock and swung from soul to soul like a pendulum of fate, leaving the solitary voice to twist like knots of meditation where tether meets tree. “I Praise You, Shelter of the World” is also bifurcated, only now we encounter 10 voices accompanied by Chinese gongs in a tangle of vapor and vine. In “I Praise You, Sweet-Smelling Cypress,” Micus adds to that number of voices his custom-built 14-string guitar, 8 dilruba (a bowed Indian instrument similar to the sarangi and prominently featured in Desert Poems), 3 sattar (Uyghur violin), and 5 Egyptian nay flutes for a thoroughly spectral palette. Two further tracks—“I Praise You, Lady of Passion” and “I Praise You, Sacred Mother”—feature 22 voices and 20 voices, respectively. Both are deeply hymnal.
The rebec-like sonority of 3 sattar in “You are like Fragrant Incense” (3 sattar) adds new timbres to Micus’s sound-world. With only their wordlessness to reckon with, the listener can feel their shape in a performance that travels like a pheromone: just below the radar of perception yet overflowing with connectivity. Whether doubled and joined by 2 Chitrali sitar in “You are Full of Grace” or with one sitar and 6 dilruba in “You are the Life-Giving Rain,” their topographical consistency attends to every leaf and branch and reveals the love necessary for self-enclosure. In a different stroke, both “You are the Treasure of Life” and “You are a Shining Spring” engage the same instrumentation of Tibetan chimes, Burmese temple bells, Zanskari horsebells, and 2 dilruba. The contrast between bell dust and dilruba soil mirrors that between sleeping and waking.
If pressed for a comparison, I would say that Panagia resembles Japanese classical gagaku in its arrangement and color, even if it is devoid of gagaku’s exclusivity. Rather, it makes of this big blue ball a royal court where we live not as servants but as purveyors of destiny. Its play of light on reflective surfaces makes it one of the best-recorded albums in the Micus catalogue. It is the meta-statement of a meta-statement, an expression of Gaia through cycles of human thought.
(To hear samples of Panagia, click here.)