Stephan Micus: White Night (ECM 2639)

White Night

Stephan Micus
White Night

Stephan Micus guitars, duduk and bass duduk, cymbals, kalimba, sinding, dondon, voice, cane whistles, nay
Recorded 2016-2018 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production
Release date: April 26, 2019

Though the purity of the moonlight has silenced both nightingale and cricket,
the cuckoo alone sings all the white night.
–Anonymous, Japanese

White Night is Stephan Micus’s 23rd solo album for ECM and might just be his most inwardly focused. Figuring centrally in this sojourn is the kalimba, which through various incarnations hosts us at six of the ten waystations marking our path.

The bronze kalimba—a modern version of this ancient instrument—makes magical appearances in “The Forest” and “The Bridge.” Both tracks feature purely phonic vocalizations. The latter song multiplies the kalimba by four and adds the sinding, a West African harp with cotton strings that resonate through a gourd. As one of his most evocative pieces to date, it seeks meaning in selfless regard. Other vital stars in this constellation include “The Poet” (kalimba, sinding, voice), in which the voice primes soil for harvest; “The River” (2 kalimba, duduk), which elicits gamelan-like textures and suspends the duduk in gentle persuasions of moonlight; and “Fireflies” (kalimba, sinding, 13 Indian cane whistles, 7 voices), which renders the earth an altar for vocal offerings. And then there is the kalimba solo “All The Way,” touched by the souls of a faraway people. Each is a journey within a journey, a story within a story, a prayer within a prayer.

Framing the album are “The Eastern Gate” (5 fourteen-string guitars, bass duduk, Tibetan cymbals, steel-string guitar) and “The Western Gate” (5 fourteen-string guitars, bass duduk, sinding, Tibetan cymbals). Their fourteen-string guitars have a slack, liquid quality, which by virtue of their human construction (they are designed by Micus) reveal more-than-human energies. Harmonics speak of realms beyond the senses, while the bass duduk tenders its grace. From one gate to the other, we embrace the world in the span of 50 minutes, starting the cycle anew. Along the way, we stop to view “The Moon,” wherein a role that might normally have been filled by lone shakuhachi finds a multivalent replacement in the double-reed duduk. Like the nay that appears alongside the Ghanaian dondon (or talking drum) in “Black Hill,” it is a thought made incarnate by contact of skin and breath. Fitting, then, that Micus’s last name should be an anagram of “Music,” as his very being is synonymous with that most connective force.

Stephan Micus: Inland Sea (ECM 2569)

2569 X

Stephan Micus
Inland Sea

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.

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.)

Stephan Micus: Implosions (JAPO 60017)

Implosions

Stephan Micus
Implosions

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, 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.

Stephan Micus: Panagia (ECM 2308)

2308 X

Stephan Micus
Panagia

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.)

Stephan Micus: Koan (ECM 2305 804 SP)

Koan

Stephan Micus
Koan

Stephan Micus shakuhachi, zither, gender, sarangi, rabab, bodhran, angklung, kyeezee, Burmese bells, guitar, voice
Recorded 1977 in Cologne
An ECM Production

Wayfaring multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus began his ECM journey with this five-part album of characteristic rituals, now digitally restored for posterity. The Zen Buddhist kōan, often misunderstood as a riddle without answer, is more rightly experienced as a path to openness, and it is this path that Micus has walked since he first committed his sounds to disc. In denying an effect for every cause, the kōan opens both the questioner and the questioned to the possibility of possibility—which is to say, beyond the duality of things. Like the music contained on this eponymous recording, it is not meant to be solved but discovered for what it is. Micus’s music is thus an ongoing kōan, for despite the fascination of his array and technical adjustments thereto, an awareness of infinity prevails.

If we discover anything from the shakuhachi solo that is Part I, it’s that Micus’s unaccompanied sojourns are as multitudinous as his multi-tracked assemblages are singular. For while that hollowed stalk of bamboo, itself a voice without breath, finds accompaniment in the form of zither, gender (Balinese xylophone), and guitar in Parts II and V, in those group settings it feels more like the reflection than the reflected. Each instrument embodies one element in an organic picture, leaving the unsung song to trace its slow-motion arc across the sky, a comet on its way toward slumber. In the final wave, the zither offers itself percussively: the string as skin. Micus’s breath, simple and serene, meanwhile blots the torch of every star until the darkness becomes an expression of light.

Parts IIIa and IIIb feature the rabab—an Afghan lute, which sounds like a resonant shamisen and has both rhythmic and melodic functions—and the deeper sarangi. A translucent shakuhachi marks the first half, but gives way to a Mongolian-influenced sound, scraped like barnacles from the earth’s crust. This leaves only Part IV, in which Micus sings over a congregation of Burmese bells.

In this sound-world, instruments never compete. Nothing “solos,” per se, but coheres by means of an undying spirit, to which only the master musician may attend through a lifetime of rare creation. As one of Micus’s most meditative sustains, Koan enables a microscopically visceral experience that is forever new because it is the very picture of regeneration.