on a rainy night a traveler: Stephan Micus’s ongoing raga

The music of Stephan Micus is a soundtrack to life. It holds the sky in its crown, the earth in its belly, a molecule of ocean on its tongue. And while each of his albums may be the first step of a longer journey, the two early releases reviewed here just might be the best places to start for those who have never encountered him in their travels.

Listen to the Rain

Listen to the Rain (JAPO 60040)

Stephan Micus dilrubas, Spanish guitar, steel string guitar, suling, shaskuhachi, tamboura
“For Abai and Togshan” recorded July 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
“Dancing with the Morning,” “Listen to the Rain,” “White Paint on Silver Wood” recorded June 1980 at Sound Studio N. Kiln
Engineer: Günther Kasper

If Micus’s saga were an ongoing raga, then 1983’s Listen to the Rain would be one of its most inward-looking prayers. All four meditations that make up the album, while externally distinct, are internally connected through Micus’s use of guitar. The Spanish variety plays a particularly active role throughout, with the sole exception of “Dancing with the Morning,” for which he pairs the ubiquitous steel-stringed with the suling, a bamboo flute often heard in gamelan ensembles of southeast Asia. Knowledgeable listeners will recognize both the rarity of the backpacker’s trusty companion in the Micus canon and its elemental necessity in this setting. The ascetic sheen of its metal strings paints a world of shine to which a human presence adds less manufactured colors. The suling’s unclipped wings, by extension, are exhaled into the sky above, circling and darting through the surrounding melodies until they take shape under cover of their own imagination.

The title track is a duet for Spanish guitar and tamboura. True to his extensively creative spirit, Micus plays the latter like a zither, over which the former’s gut strings produce an ascendant pathway into “White Paint on Silver Wood,” which trades the tamboura for shakuhachi. The Japanese bamboo flute begins with a solo that teeters on the edge of breathlessness and follows through on its wandering spirit. Flamenco-esque touches evoke movement not only of dancer’s feet but also of artist’s brush.

Yet it is “For Abai and Togshan,” which takes up Side A of the original vinyl, in which the farthest reach of this interior song takes physical form. Three dilrubas (bowed lap instruments from northern India) open in drone, wavering like bodies once lost in time but only now finding each other, piece by sunlit piece. Three soon give way to five, joined by four Spanish guitars, whose harmonic infusions fade in rose tones of complexion. The atmosphere is as much introspective as it is joyous, and finds in the solitary center a peace immune to corruption of shadow. The dilruba’s sympathetic overtones begin as if leaving, dropping cartographic messages as breadcrumbs into sundown.

East Of The Night

East Of The Night (JAPO 60041)

Stephan Micus 10- and 14-string guitars, shakuhachi
Digital recording, January 1985 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland

East Of The Night, released in 1985, is one of Micus’s most melodic albums. Its two long tracks epitomize, ever so humbly, the dictum of less is more. The title piece, a conversation for 10-string guitar (an instrument of his own design) and shakuhachi, feels like a dialogue between master and disciple. Micus’s guitar combines the reediness of a lute with the subtle ferocity of a koto, making it a natural partner to the shakuhachi’s dawning breath. Each pluck of a string works the upholstery of the sky until a surface of untreated wood is revealed behind it. Details of handiwork once obscured by finery and ornament now become naked art. With the softness of a windblown curtain, the plectrum moves from foreground to background before the shakuhachi takes on a Milky Way texture in a suite of thrumming stardust. The flute fragments, multiplies, and ends the set’s first half on a congregational sigh.

“For Nobuko” is dedicated to Micus’s wife, recipient of this powerfully intimate solo for another custom instrument: the 14-string guitar. Its flowerbed extends far beyond the window box and trails vines from one domicile to another, stretching across vast plains of tundra toward immaculate love. It encompasses the dedication of one human being, whose balance is achievable only by offering himself up to another’s fundament, into which the listener’s own messages might also be divined.

Like two vapor trails, Listen to the Rain and East Of The Night mark their respective paths of motion by holding relatively still against the blue. One is the parallel of the other, never intersecting except by the illusion of perspective. Together, they are further significant for easing the JAPO sub-label’s 14-year flight in for a landing, thus ending one fantastic voyage by barely beginning another.

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