Stephan Micus: Nomad Songs (ECM 2409)

2409 X

Stephan Micus
Nomad Songs

Stephan Micus ndingo, genbri, steel-string guitar, suling, voice, nay, rewab, rabab, twelve-string guitar, fourteen-string guitar, tin whistle, shakuhachi
Recorded 2012-2014 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production
U.S. release date: August 7, 2015

Pundits often speak of “going green” as if all it involved were more considerate allocation of resources and regulation of harmful industry. Yet with this comes the responsibility of creating more resources in turn and balancing injury with abundance. Greenness entails awareness of Earth in all its forms, physical and metaphysical alike. The music of Stephan Micus engages both persuasions, enriching the inner lives of those fortunate enough to hear it while encouraging a harmonious and, above all, creative relationship with the environment. A consummate traveler and student of traditional instruments from nearly every continent, Micus has drawn inspiration from a staggering variety of locations, but that makes him no mere collector checking off items on some cultural itinerary. Instead, he modifies these instruments to suit his needs and manifests his connections to them through truly original compositions, all while replenishing what the world has gifted him, and then some.

Micus has had a long association with ECM Records, known for its rigorous production standards (typically recording, mixing, and finalizing an album in three days) but which has come to give the German multi-instrumentalist free reign to record in his home studio and send in the master(ful) tapes for postproduction. Despite being his 21st album for the label, Nomad Songs is no less thoughtful than the 20 previous. If anything, it’s a return to the most essential forces of his physics: push and pull. This is not to imply conflict but balance in the music, whereby seemingly contradictory actions flow into one another in the manner of the tide, expanding and recessing to the beat of an invisible drum. Which is perhaps why Micus plays, for the first time on record, the genbri, a bass lute used by Gnawa of Morocco as an instrument of healing and, in his hands, a percussive force throughout these sequences. Also new is the ndingo, a kalimba-like instrument favored by the San, an indigenous people of Botswana stripped of their nomadism by African nation states. The album’s title thus has dual meaning, tracing Micus’s own itineracy and honoring those deprived of it.

“Everywhere, Nowhere” opens the 11-part odyssey with a duet between the two newcomers. The resonant buzz of the ndingo, enhanced by means of a wooden sounding box, is as organic as a human-made instrument can be. Like the throat of one who has sung for eons, it reveals lifetimes of knowledge with every utterance. The genbri, in the enlarged form heard here, could almost be mistaken for an upright bass and as such takes Micus in lucid directions, unveiling a little of the mystery of his expressions. Only one other piece, “The Spring,” features this same combination of roots and leaves. Like a row of people walking hand in hand through the night, it sneaks away into the hope of a future without hierarchy.

Such respect has always been at the core of the Micus soundscape: his music may be openly visual but is temporal at heart, compressing and decompressing long stretches of time as if they were matter to be molded. A kindred message prevails in the album’s two solitary pieces. “The Blessing” is a vocal solo that meshes Micus’s spontaneous language with wayfaring melody, yet it is the 12-string guitar of “The Stars” that acts the part of storyteller. Brief, delicate, and ending in sparkling harmonics, it is a meteor shower reduced, as the sky would have it, to a play of light against the yawn of night.

Whether pairing steel-string guitar and the Balinese recorder known as a suling (“Leila”), or two Irish tin whistles, played simultaneously (“Sea Of Grass”), the duo pieces are less conversational than they are integrational. These, too, glance back to Micus’s earliest work. In characteristic fashion, the more instruments he adds, the more uniform his sound becomes. The gamelan qualities of the three ndingo in “Under The Chinar Trees” mesh exceptionally well with shakuhachi and voice, making for one of the most beautiful experiences he has ever committed to record, while appearances by the Egyptian nay (“The Feast” and “The Promise”) and a 14-string guitar of Micus’s own design add fire and water in equal measure. The rewab (long-necked lute of the Uyghur people of Western China) and rabab (Afghan lute) expand the plectrum-heavy palette, culminating with guitars in “The Dance,” in which the rabab’s shamisen qualities pave an alluring detour.

Not only is this some of Micus’s finest work; it is also the most enchantingly recorded and mastered. Listening to it, one can hardly be surprised that his last name is an anagram of “music,” because everything he touches turns into nothing less. His gestures open arteries by linking them to a universal blood flow, in which the aneurisms of supernovas and the embryos of planets weave a path that he treads, for all a sage, crushing nothing beneath his feet except denial of eternity.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine, from which you may also link to a sample track.)

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