Stephan Micus: Winter’s End (ECM 2698)

Stephan Micus
Winter’s End

Stephan Micus chikulo, nohkan, 12-string guitar, tongue drums, voice, kalimba, sinding, charango, nay, sattar, Tibetan cymbals, suling
Recorded 2018-2020 at MCM Studios
Cover art: Eduard Micus (1925-2000)
An ECM Production
Release date: June 11, 2021

although there is the road
the child walks
in the snow

–Murakami Kijo (1865-1938)

Tempting as it is to characterize the music of Stephan Micus as the soundtrack of a solitary traveler, given the staggering amount of instruments he uses to articulate those songs, one can hardly say he is alone. With so much companionship through his interaction with, study of, and reactions to humanity’s need for music, his albums are consistently open-ended, each inhaling in anticipation of the next’s exhalation. Every project, too, has its focal instrument, and in this case, it is the chikulo, a bass xylophone from Mozambique with a distinct buzzing quality (though for many tracks, Micus removes the plastic membrane responsible for that quality). It is heard most distinctly in the “Autumn Hymn,” which convenes three of those instruments with the nohkan, a Japanese bamboo flute used in Noh theatre. Though often used for its dissonant effects (which add to the drama of Noh’s out-of-time sensibilities), here it is as clear as a mountain stream, quietly wandering its way through barren trees in search of nothing but its fulfillment of a natural order. In “The Longing Of The Migrant Birds” (3 tongue drums, 2 chikulo, 14 voices), the buzzing is left aside for percussive melodies to clear a path for tongue drums (wooden boxes with “tongues” of various sizes cut into the top surface) and a chorus of magnified voices, cradling sacred things to leave a profane world behind. This same combination is called upon in the less nomadic “Sun Dance.” In “Baobab Dance,” a single chikulo holds counsel with 4 kalimba and one sinding, a West African harp fitted with five cotton strings. In the absence of fleshly voices, fashioned ones are bid to share their narratives of experience. “Black Mother” also uses one chikulo as its anchor, while sinding arpeggios and 11 voices carve their glyphs into the tablet of their becoming. The ultimate dive into this instrument’s heart, however, is “Oh Chikulo,” in which a quartet of these wooden wonders opens a drum-like heart.

Sprinkled throughout these scenes are interludes that bend the light more intimately. The harmonics of “Walking In Snow” (12-string guitar solo) dance off Micus’s fingertips like clumps of snow shaken from heavy boughs. Micus detunes and alters his instrument so that it jangles with glorious details, turning what might normally be seen as a travelogue into something far more profound: an elegy. Paying homage not to lives that have come and gone but to those who never get the chance to materialize, it offers those unrequited journeys a place for souls to converse, play, and love. Its companion piece, “Walking In Sand,” is the hymnal counterpart.

In “Southern Stars,” four charangos (small guitars of the Andes) convene with five suling (recorder-like flutes associated with Balinese gamelan orchestras), one sinding, and two nay (Egyptian hollow reed flutes). Shades of these cultures mingle without conflict, birthing new associations of light to dispel the dark arts of reductionism. This is where the most light can be found—not in terms of brightness but of distance and symbolic charge. Here are the album’s most ancient sounds brought forth as if they never died.

“A New Light” is a standout in the sequence, not only for its instrumentation (using three sattar, long-necked bowed instrument played by the Uighurs of Western China) but also for its subliminal potency. Another is “Companions” for two charangos, whose resonant strings indeed feel like hands joined in friendship to weather the implications of faraway storms. “Winter Hymn” adds to the opening combination, the nohkan and buzzing chikulo now tempered by Tibetan cymbals, whose voices articulate what we, perhaps, have all been feeling this past year: fatigued and in need of a loving embrace.

Migration is the language of life, but all too often borders get in the way of our understanding of it. Here we can rest in the full knowledge that beauty is not a choice but a given.

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