Stephan Micus balanzikom, nyckelharpa, chord and bass zithers, shakuhachi, voice, steel-string guitar, genbri
Recorded 2014-16 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production
Release date: June 16, 2017
When talking about differences between cultures, it’s tempting to uphold products such as food, art, and music as foci of distinction. On the latter point, Stephan Micus has dedicated his life to that without which music would not exist: the instruments themselves. From the staggering amount in his repertoire, he draws stories that could never have been written by any other means. Take the duo, for example, which makes its first appearance in his milieu via the opening “Haze.” The balanzikom, an obscure seven-stringed lute from Tajikstan, feels so much like the mountains and open plains of its origins that it could never have come from anywhere else. The very land is its womb, as also of the wordless gestures projecting life into being. The nyckelharpa, a Swedish bowed instrument keyed like a hurdy gurdy, is as crisp as the climate of which it was born, accordingly grounded. Micus listens to these instruments much more than he plays them, and through his performances allows them to learn new languages by the same tongue and teeth. As the only one-on-one conversation between them, “Haze” sets a precedent of civil and spiritual exchange for all to follow. The nyckelharpa, for its part, glows in triplicate in “Dawn” and “Dusk.” Their combined song is more than diurnal; it’s life and death.
Likewise, the shakuhachi is more than a conduit for breath. For while Micus has rewritten its futures many times over, its ancestral home is unalterable. In “Sowing Wind,” he matches this Japanese bamboo flute with the chord zither, a 68-string instrument of his own design. The arc thereof is a primordial one, along which feelings of mutual regard flow as if they were a mythology to which we’ve blinded ourselves. This relationship deepens in “Reaping Storm,” switching chord zither for its bass counterpart. Now the mood is fragile and of a different season, fragrant of a world humbled by nature.
The balanzikom delineates further circles for Micus’s singing in “Flor del Sur.” Radiating along cardinal axes as if to hold continents in its embrace, the solo voice welcomes five percussive nyckelharpa, chord zither, and shakuhachi in “Nuria,” and among that assembly enacts a tale of disparate peoples brought together by tragedy. For “Virgen de la Mar,” Micus choruses his voice fifteen times over, and to it adds three genbri, a three-stringed bass instrument from Morocco. Treading the same soil packed by the feet of “Dancing Clouds” (plucked nyckelharpa, 6 percussive nyckelharpa, 3 bowed nyckelharpa, steel string guitar, genbri, bass zither) and laid to rest by “For Shirin and Khosru” (2 bass zithers, 2 nyckelharpa, 3 steel string guitars, genbri), it treats melodic resolution as the caress of a loving parent who dispels fears of darkness. Thus we are protected, hoped for, and fortified to face new days, bringing our own children to the well of mortality, that they might also see the reflections of all who came before them.