Stephan Micus: Implosions (JAPO 60017)


Stephan Micus

Stephan Micus sitar, acoustic guitar, vocal, Bavarian zither, shakuhachi, shō, Thai flute, rabab
Recorded March 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As of this month (August of 2015), ECM’s intrepid Stephan Micus has released his 21st album for the label, Nomad Songs. In recognition of this achievement, and of the prescience of that title, I thought it only appropriate to acknowledge Implosions, his first album for producer Manfred Eicher, released on the JAPO sub-label in 1977. What might the first-time listener have imagined when spreading roots into its soil? What fantasies or lamentations? What creeds or philosophies? Micus’s sound art, assembled as it is from a uniquely global perspective, is one in which such questions, but never their answers, reign supreme. Like the sitar solo which opens “As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams,” it contains many possible universes but yields only one. One sitar becomes three, and one instrument two as Micus adds an acoustic guitar, all the while spirographing this inner sanctum with the curvature of his singing. The two lap instruments reveal themselves to be indeed rooted in seated chakras, while the voice treads with more luminescent footprints to show for its passage. Crossing threshold after threshold, it shakes the sky out as if it were a laundered sheet, until the stars release their hands from prayer.

Although Micus has most often crafted albums at his home studio and sent them to Eicher for mixing and mastering, earlier ones such as this were recorded at Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where many of ECM’s formative releases were also realized. The studio dynamics imbue these travels with a rather different intimacy, one which brings its own climate and bounces back sunlight like the moon. Three Bavarian zithers, each with its own signature, form a dense and percussive bed for Micus’s singing in “Borkenkind.” His floating transpositions trail sutras of memory, spinning from them a yarn of forgetting. This becomes the sole purpose of the music: to detach oneself from the snares of fame and recognition until only the sound and the ear are left to dance unhindered. And indeed, when Micus sings again in “For M’schr And Djingis Khan,” accompanied by the uncut diamond of the rabab (Afghani lute), he balances on a tipping point into infinity, his mouth filled with empty pages.

Even when he doesn’t sing, his heart resounds through the four shakuhachi of “Amarchaj,” each chamber a bird with its own ritual warble, threading clouds to their shadows on earth below. This leaves only the Thai flute of “For The ‘Beautiful Changing Child’” to cast itself into an ocean without language. Lifted by three shō (Japanese mouth organs), it resists even these words struggling to catch it, riding the waves from one dawn to the next, waiting for my well to run dry.

Stephan Micus: Till The End Of Time (JAPO 60026)

Till The End Of Time

Stephan Micus
Till The End Of Time

Stephan Micus table harp, kortholt, zither, guitar, vocal
Recorded June 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Before migrating across the ECM continent, Stephan Micus outfitted some of his most formative expeditions in the territories of the JAPO sub-label. On these albums one hears Micus at his most elemental, turning every gesture into inter-spatial awareness. The album’s duration of 36 minutes only serves to deepen its intimacy as a space in which the listener might catch a cushion of meditation in a world of splinters.

Micus’s practice has always been to render the stem before the flower, and in the album’s title track a table harp provides that very illustrative function. Its dulcimer-like heart beats a rhythm at once ancient and fresh, curling as the scriptural page, its edges darkened from constant contact with the hands. Those same hands cradle a method of speech so musical that its melody is discernible only in the freedom of solitude. This is perhaps why Micus tends to work alone: so that he might open every angle honestly and uniquely, until the geometry of his life grows big enough to Venn-diagram into the listener’s own. Bowed zither expands the roots and gives way to a kortholt, a crumhorn-like reed from the Renaissance that pulls hidden colors from the sunlight. A classical guitar, which all but disappears from Micus’s later work, defines ethereal flesh through a worldly skeleton. Like the music itself, it is gut and wood and movement, drawing a string through immediate intellect to that of another time.

“For Wis And Ramin” is even more direct in its expressiveness, triangulating guitar and zither with Micus’s imagined singing. Imagined, because no words would do justice to the palette from which he draws, one that harbors not the barest pigment of politics. After the opening classical guitar solo connects its geometric touch-points, only a throated language can bring to the light that which is born in the dark. Micus is thus a troubadour who seeks love not only on earth but also from heaven, so that when the zither walks in the voice’s path, we must also feel the soles of our feet pressing their outlines into planes of stardust, refuges of forgotten pollen.

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, shakuhachi, 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.

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs of Thessaloniki (ECM 2398)

Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion
Recorded February 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineers: Yiorgos Kariotis and Yannis Paxevanis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs of Thessaloniki marks the fourth appearance of Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her second-nature ensemble Primavera en Salonico. Characterized by the artists as “canvases for our imagination to create contemporary narratives on old myths,” the songs gathered here make for an appropriately multicultural portrait of Thessaloniki, a city where Orient and Occident have long blended at a crossroads of actions, peoples, and politics—a city, incidentally, Yannatou’s band calls home. Most importantly for the purposes documented here, it was a place where music could always be heard and can now be heard again.

When the first strains of “Apolitikion Agiou Dimitriou” caress your ear— strings, bellows, and lungs yielding Yannatou’s lullaby out of time— you may just feel at home as well. As a Greek hymn of St. Demetrius, patron saint of Thessaloniki, it paints a door deepest blue and welcomes us as we are. Ironically enough, and with exception of this hymn (and its instrumental variation which concludes the album), the Greek material on this album is tepid by comparison to its extra-cultural counterparts, even as it draws vital connective tissue between the same.


Thessaloniki’s historical influx of Sephardic Jews (Thessaloniki was, in fact, once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”) is reflected in a formidable assortment. These songs especially reflect the arranging skills of Kostas Vomvolos, who also plays accordion and qanun throughout the recording. Yannatou’s chameleonic abilities have rarely sounded so organic as they do here. Whether in the childlike whispers of “A la scola del Allianza” or the qanun-accompanied “Una muchacha en Selanica,” she finds rawness of emotion in the simplest phrase and, by contrast, treads ever so lightly on danger—as in “La cantiga del fuego,” which tells of a great fire that swept the city in 1917.

More intense theatrics wait in the wings of “Dimo is Solum hodeshe,” a Bulgarian example that finds accordion, violin, and nay in artful concert. Two Turkish tunes, one as hymn and the other as folksong, give further context to Yannatou’s intrepid singing. In “Iptidadan yol sorarsan,” voice and nay practically become one, Yannatou sounding more like the flute, and vice versa, while halting rhythms and surreal beauties in the violin make “Çalin Davullari” a standout sojourn. There’s even an Irish folksong, “Salonika,” which dances, tongue-in-cheek, in the midst of war.

Yet few moments can approach the mastery of “Inchu Bingyole mdar?” and “Qele-qele,” both collected by the great Armenian composer Komitas. In both, the oud makes grander statements of purpose as it sweeps away the sand at Yannatou’s feet, allowing her to process into the distance, where, like the ancient Serbian tree of “Jelena Solun Devojko,” she stands until she dispels specters of violent pasts by virtue of her keening ways.

(To hear samples of Songs of Thessaloniki, click here.)

Jean-Louis Matinier & Marco Ambrosini: Inventio (ECM 2348)



Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini, Italian virtuoso of the nyckelharpa (a Swedish traditional instrument that is something of a cross between hurdy-gurdy and vielle), have existed as a duo since 2008, it took a period of refinement and an invitation to record for ECM Records in 2013 before their music at last saw the digital light of day. Anyone who has followed the career of Anouar Brahem in the 21st century will have encountered Matinier alongside the Tunisian oudist on 2002’s Le pas du chat noir and 2006’s Le Voyage de Sahar. Ambrosini is recognized as a leading proponent of the nyckelharpa and has carried that instrument in fresh directions across a varied terrain of recordings. Matinier has elsewhere characterized his musical relationship with Ambrosini as “a total dialogue,” and the description could hardly be more appropriate. They complete each other’s sentences.

Inventio Duo

The first strains of “Wiosna,” among the lion’s share of tracks penned by Matinier, immediately recall another duo: Argentine bandoneonista Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechner. Both partnerships are savvy in terms of rhythm and atmosphere, morphing from tears into triumph at a moment’s notice. And yet, if Saluzzi and Lechner could be said to treat the listener like a canvas, Matinier and Ambrosini treat the listener like a movie screen on which to project moving images. This analogic difference comes about through both a distinct timbral palette and an unprecedented program. It is virtuosic and gorgeous all the same, but in its own way indivisible.

Matinier’s writing comprises a folk music all its own. Whether in the cartographic flybys of “Hommage” and “Kochanie Moje” or in the briefer passages of “Taïga” and “Balinese,” an underlying pulse finds consummation in the musicians’ synergy, which is so seamless that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins. Even in Matinier’s two solo tracks, the nyckelharpa’s droning spirit lingers. Of those solos, “Szybko” is particularly moving and brings to mind the flute playing of Guo Yue. Like the “Siciliènne” (by accordionist-composer André Astier) that closes the album, his are fleeting portraits of places out of time. Also out of time are Ambrosini’s own compositions, through which the nyckelharpa’s sympathetic strings resonate like a life force. His “Basse Dance” best exploits the duo’s interlocking sound and might just as well have been lifted from a Renaissance manuscript. In this context the nyckelharpa sounds like a viola da gamba and signals the titular dance with a locomotive pulse. His “Tasteggiata” and “Tasteggiata 2” are likewise steam-driven, chugging through a full spectrum of color.

The album’s circle rounds out with segments plucked from a tangle of Baroque repertoire by Giovanni Pergolesi, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, and Johann Sebastian Bach. A “Presto” from the latter’s g-minor sonata for solo violin is reborn at Ambrosini’s fingertips, which imbue this familiar piece with an ancient air, while the “Inventio 4” from Bach’s Two- and Three-part Inventions yields not only the album’s title but also its most luminescent notecraft. Folk touches from Ambrosini again pull this music into a deeper origin myth. Such integrations make the Baroque selections something much more than obligatory nods to an established canon. Their placement stirs the waters with a certain depth of interpretation that links them to a chain across borders.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine and listen to samples here.)

Review of Inventio for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini’s Inventio. For what it’s worth, this is so far (and by far) my favorite ECM release of the 21st century. No exaggeration. Click the cover to read my review and hear samples of this phenomenal album.


Anouar Brahem: Souvenance (ECM 2423/24)


Anouar Brahem

Anouar Brahem oud
François Couturier piano
Klaus Gesing bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Björn Meyer bass
Orchestra della Svizzera italiana
Pietro Mianiti conductor
Recorded May 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Michael Rast (RSI)
Mixed in Lugano August 2014 by Manfred Eicher, Anouar Brahem, Stefano Amerio, and Michael Rast (RSI)
Executive producer RSI: Alissa Pedotti-Nembrini
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following a six-year silence, master oudist Anouar Brahem returns to ECM Records with his most personal, yet somehow selfless, project yet. During the revolution that gripped his native Tunisia at the turn of 2011, Brahem experienced a creative drought and spent the following years gathering enough water to nourish the seeds that would become Souvenance. The title means “remembrance,” but the music looks resolutely forward, drinking in uncertainty as if it were the only sustenance visible from atop the rubble of uprising. Though Brahem claims no direct correlation to these events, their echoes remain, needing to be heard.


Souvenance brings together a new assemblage for Brahem, who situates his rosette within a quartet completed by François Couturier on piano, Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, and Björn Meyer (formerly of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin) on electric bass. One further layer finds realization in the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, under the empathic direction of Pietro Mianiti. Given the size of this gathering on paper, one might expect what the record’s press release describes: “The strings have a glowing transparency and fragility in these pieces, often providing shimmering texture against which the contributions of the quartet members—and, above all, Anouar Brahem’s unique oud-playing—stand out in bold relief.” But this is precisely what you won’t get. The strings are anything but fragile. They bind the very strength of resolve that brought Tunisians through civil unrest with spirits intact. As for Brahem’s oud, it is one of many elements feeding a uniform sound and therefore more content to recede than stand out. This is what gives the album its glowing transparency. Its virtuosity is to be found not in relief but in restraint, atmospheric integrity, and melodic truth. Here is none of the youthful exuberance of 1991’s Barzakh (his ECM debut) but something more like the reflective countenance that shades Brahem’s 2006 trio effort Le Voyage de Sahar. This project shows him at the height of maturity.

Despite boasting an 11-part suite spanning 90 minutes over two discs, Souvenance makes no pretentions of capturing an era or politic. The listener is invited neither to grieve nor to celebrate, but to contemplate what causes any strand of the human loom to snap. This would seem to be the message behind retrospective titles such as “Improbable day,” “Deliverance,” and “Like a dream.”

Couturier runs threads through them, but does so not to anchor but to reveal an underlying elasticity. With a gradualness than can only be described as pathos, the strings expel their breath to yield the organic oud. Within this collective snaps the large rubber band of Meyer’s bass, which goads the ensemble into acts of surprising lucidity and shines like the sun to Brahem’s moon. Between these signposts stretch the unanswered questions of an “Ashen sky” and “January.” Both would seem to reference the album’s cover photograph (taken on the streets of Tunis by Nacer Talel on January 18, 2011) and its pluming curtain of smoke.

Melodies are the lifeblood of Souvenance, and nowhere more so than in the title track, of which the modal pianism barely hints at sea changes in the air. As the program’s thematic heart, it percolates even more deeply than the rich surroundings of “Tunis at dawn” or “Youssef’s song.” In the latter, Brahem paints aftermath from a distance—a city in flames which barely appears to move and betrays nothing of the violations committed in its walls. Here and there, as the music flows toward closure, a bass line or reed motif will intertwine with some other branch of the tree. Homogeneity prevails, reaching cohesion in “Nouvelle vague,” a pulsing tune reprised from 1995’s Khomsa and arranged here for strings by Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits.

Do we fight for a world drunk at the wheel or do we jump from the vehicle before it drives off a bridge? This seems to be the conundrum faced by victims of injurious political agendas around the globe. With so much disgrace to (mis)understand, it’s all we can do not to separate ourselves from it. Bound as we are to fundament by stem and stalk yet reaching for firmament by leaf and petal, the test before us is whether or not to accept these things as a part of the human fabric, to remain standing even when all that we know is uprooted. Brahem, I dare say, shows us one possible path toward balance: the plectrum as fulcrum. In less uncertain terms, music is the answer to difference because its questions are greater than all of us put together. Sometimes “world music” exists in its own bubble, funneling cross-cultural influences to enliven self-awareness. Not so with Souvenance, which looks within to understand what transpires without. It’s not a statement, a manifesto, or a critique. It is pacifism at its utmost.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Stephan Micus: Panagia (ECM 2308)

2308 X

Stephan Micus

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 1

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.

Micus 2

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.)