Stephan Micus: Koan (ECM 2305 804 SP)


Stephan Micus

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.

Stephan Micus: Snow (ECM 2063)


Stephan Micus

Stephan Micus douss’n gouni, duduk, maung, gongs, tibetan cymbals, bavarian zither, sinding, steel-string guitar, hammered dulcimers, charango solo, nay, bass duduk, voices
Recorded 2004-2008 at MCM Studios
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For his 18th ECM meditation, German multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus goes deeper into his travels, into his technique, and into himself. Among his usual bevy of means, the Armenian double-reed duduk—last heard on Towards the Wind—is now a central energy field, its song a balance to the cold. “I’ve always regarded snow as the essence of magic,” notes Micus in this album’s press release, and his impressionistic view of one of nature’s most enigmatic phenomena shines through with a glow all its own. The title track likewise harbors many warm bodies, despite the wintry theme. Two doussn’gouni (a West African harp that Micus debuted on Desert Poems), along with various gongs and cymbals, give the duduk a gentle berth for travel. Guided by breath, not oar, its intense presence rides toward frosty shores, singing of the ice as gateway and kissing the land with its solemnity. Also retained from Desert Poems is the sinding, another West African harp that blends with steel-string guitar, hammered dulcimers, and an ever-growing chorus of voices in “Sara.”

The duduk continues its tender mission across a “Midnight Sea” (accompanied here only by Bavarian zither) and into the arms of “Madre.” The latter speaks further in the language of strings and mallets, and both mix the reeds spatially, so that notes scale from left to right as they ascend. The album’s final track, “Brother Eagle,” features the bass duduk. Along with two sinding and fifteen voices, its near-ghostly sound feels spun from the very earth of which it chants. This marriage of glitter and darkening cloud, of moonlit sailing and glorious dream journeying, advances its subterranean walkabout lead by shadows toward the promise of sunrise.

Making its debut at Micus’s fingertips is the charango, an Andean double-stringed ukulele popularized by Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla. “Nordic Light” is a solo for the instrument, which in this context sounds more like some miniature koto that evokes its aurora with understated flame. Another solo begins “For Ceren and Halil” before being joined by seven more charangos, duduk, nay, sinding, and five hammered dulcimers in an eddying current of leaves and time until they reach the waterfall that makes one of them all. The album’s sole remainder is “Almond Eyes” (11 voices, steel-string guitar, maung), which offers some of Micus’s most impassioned singing yet.

It bears noting that the cover of Snow was painted by father Eduard Micus (1925-2000), a gestural painter who shaped his medium as his son shapes sound. It’s a naked glimpse into the musician’s upbringing, and proof that life is indeed a river that, once frozen, simply awaits the thaw of another realm.

Stephan Micus: on the wing (ECM 1987)

on the wing

Stephan Micus
on the wing

Stephan Micus sattar, mudbedsh, classical guitar, nay, shō, hné, suling, Tibetan cymbals, gongs, hang, 14-string guitar, steel string guitar, shakuhachi, mandobahar, sitar
Recorded 2003-2006 at MCM Studios

For his 17th ECM album, multi-instrumentalist and world traveler Stephan Micus maps further paths along soft geographical borders. Whereas on his last trek, 2004’s Life, Micus sprouted vines around a Japanese Buddhist kōan, here the voice of the man behind the means comes through his playing rather than his singing. The narrative arc is yet firm beneath his step, even if its location remains undisclosed at the final breath. Indeed, breath is by no means less operative herein, flowing as it does through a wealth of reed instruments, including the Iraqi mudbesh, the Egyptian nay, the shō (Japanese mouth organ), the Balinese suling, and the Burmese hné. From them issue the voices of this 10-part suite of sentiment, from which a peaceful core unspools.

Much of the music occurs in intimate settings. Part 1, from which the album gets its name, threads the mudbesh through two droning sattar, a bowed instrument favored by the Uyghurs of western China. As is his way, Micus obscures the origins of these instruments by floating them on idiosyncratic currents. The wind of the mudbesh captures spirit and pulls it through tree leaves, each a feather trembling on a skeleton without direction or need, floating and falling in an unwritten cycle. “Winterlight” bolds the underlying silt with three sattar, trembling like a dream that clings to the body in a scrim of frost. There is something medieval, even Nordic, about the sound that leaves wolven footprints in snow. A sleek form trudges along the riverbanks, eyes glistening with a gold that can never be obtained without destroying the soul. And so, it hides behind a cloak of dawn, the tender glow of which outshines even the rarest mineral treasure.

“Gazelle” follows with a pairing of nay and classical guitar. The latter, for all its lilting hold on pitch, becomes koto-like in Micus’s hands. It seems to embody the comfort of a life lived on the ground, while the nay circles overhead in search of possible dangers in the open plains. Resigned to those dangers, its heart beats on, anticipating the moment when it will no longer sound its drum. In that alertness there is harmony, a certain calmness of mind that casts itself to the elements of which it is but a shred. This is not, despite my attempts at wording, a purely descriptive track. Its title, like all on the album, is a stepping-stone toward less overt associations.

Forces build through the reed-thickened “Blossoms in the Wind” (for 2 sattar, shō, 3 hné, and 2 suling) to the fulcrum of “The Bride.” One of two larger “ensemble” pieces (this for Tibetan cymbals, Korean gong, Burmese gong, 3 hang, 14-string guitar, steel string guitar, mudbesh, shakuhachi), its reed work draws folding lines across the sky in preparation for its origami transformation. The breathy shakuhachi slides its way into frame center, even as it magnifies the edges in kind. Thus united, the flutes ride waves of without fear, their sole cargo a dowry of ether.

“Ancient Trees” lessens the forces with 6 shakuhachi, 2 sattar, and 4 mandobahar (a rare Indian stringed bass) even as it seeds possibilities. Here the shakuhachi is the agency of the drone, climbing trees like stairways into cloud. “In the Dancing Snow” again fronts the shrill mudbesh, now over 3 sattar, in a dance of ice and flame.

In the shadow of such greatness, the intimacy of “The Gate” is astonishing. This sitar solo is decades in the making, for it would take as long before Micus felt comfortable enough to commit something like this to record, and shows the fruits of his efforts to tame its overwhelming web by paring it down to two strings. Every bend holds a key to entry and ushers the listener into a world of ghosts with lingering attachments, each with a story endlessly repeated in the hopes that someday, someone will hear it and grant peace. It is further proof that Micus’s most powerful pieces are unaccompanied. That said, we are left with the album’s second major expanse, “Turquoise Fields” (2 steel string guitars, 3 hné, 2 suling, 3 sattar, 3 nay), which is an astonishingly immersive experience. As strums of guitar shift like wind through barley, a chain of solos from sattar and high reeds marks the transfusion point between the sacred and the profane. Last is “Morning Sky,” a congregation of five hné in a dance of farewell, but also of greeting. Which is to say that it welcomes us even as it sends us on our way.

Stephan Micus: Life (ECM 1897)


Stephan Micus

Stephan Micus bagana, Balinese and Burmese gongs, Bavarian zither, bowed bagana, dilruba, dondon, kyeezee, maung, nay, shō, Thai singing bowls, Tibetan chimes, Tibetan cymbals, tin whistle, voice
Recorded 2001-2004 at MCM Studios

Life takes its inspiration from a Zen Buddhist kōan. The function of a kōan, or riddle, is to test one’s resolve in the face of doubt, the latter born from overdependence on worldly logic (think “What is the sound of one hand clapping?). The goal is not to “solve” but to become the riddle. In this particular kōan, a monk and his master discuss the meaning of life, and through his usual array of diverse instruments and singing (here entirely in Japanese), Micus does just that. He becomes what he performs. Distinct to the riddle of life is its elliptical reasoning: it begins and ends with the same answer. Micus chooses to express this distillation by moving from complex to barest arrangement.

Micus listeners will know many of the instruments through which he speaks: Bavarian zithers, shō (Japanese mouth organ), Thai singing bowls, nay, Tibetan chimes and cymbals, and the sarangi-like dilruba. For Life he adds to his palette the maung (Burmese gongs) and the bagana, an Ethiopian lyre that produces a uniquely entrancing buzz by way of leather strips threaded between its strings.

Narration One And The Master’s Question
A monk, looking for the essence of life, left his monastery at a young age to travel through China. After many years, on his return to the monastery, his old master asked him, “What is this life?”

The bagana extends the album’s thickest spokes, and through its subterranean chirring sets the wheel slowly spinning. Mouth organs cross canvas like floating-world clouds, allowing just enough of the scene to take shape before our eyes, that our ears might take in the Micus voice, magnified ten times over. Despite the wheel metaphor, in this cycle there is no center, only a diffuse matrix of breath and contact. An Irish tin whistle unspools its birdlike call by means of a language that is as ephemeral as its understanding of eternity. The voices grow, turning into feet whose steps—indicated by Bavarian zithers—seek a horizon of intimate hope.

The Temple

Like its namesake, this instrumental interlude for (for 5 Thai singing bowls, 2 dilruba, and 2 nay) expresses serenity through perception of barest movement, the force of which is at once cause and effect of a lone figure’s presence. The nays and arco draws turn like lily pads on water, held by unseen tethers as the atmosphere holds a cloud.

Narration Two
The monk said…

Twelve chanting voices, again embracing the buzzing bagana, bear their peace in unison, thus giving space to:

The Monk’s Answer
“When there are no clouds over the mountain the moonlight penetrates the ripples of the lake.”

Here the drone of six dilruba interacts with the voice, authorial but not proselytizing, transcendent but self-aware. The monk’s words bid the listener to look within in order to be without.

Narration Three
The master became angry and said…

The master’s neurological impulses, each a pylon of the mind standing guard over itself, are vocally expanded. Their collective power sweeps a giant yet gentle hand across land and ocean water.

The Master’s Anger
“You are getting old, your hair is gray, you have just a few teeth left and still you have no understanding of life.”

The catharsis of this moment, a cut in the skin of contentment, marks the voice’s tail with jangling footsteps. Through crash of cymbal and beat of drum, internal conflicts are made external and crushed by soles of passing strangers.

Narration Four
The monk lowered his eyes, tears streaming over his face. Finally he asked his master…

The voices, now numbering 17, reach their grandest magnification. These are the album’s droning lungs, etched into being by the bagana, now bowed, in cavernous antiphony. All of which leads us back to:

The Monk’s Question
“What is this life?”

Accompanying himself on Balinese and Burmese gongs, Micus sings more tenderly and with greater resonance, wavering as if a reflection on moonlit pond.

The Sky

Evoked through the solo shō and drawn in wisps vapor, the sky unfolds but also tucks into its deepest indigo.

The Master’s Answer
“When there are no clouds over the mountain the moonlight penetrates the ripples of the lake.”

Hence, the solo voice which ends things by beginning them. Taking comfort in the emptiness of response, the words melt into pure sound, taking with them all the care that would hold us back.

Life Koan

Stephan Micus: Towards the Wind (ECM 1804)

Towards the Wind

Stephan Micus
Towards the Wind

Stephan Micus duduk, bass duduk, kalimba, steel-string guitars, 14-string guitar, shakuhachi, dondon, sattar, voice
Recorded 1999-2001 at MCM Studios

In the late 1990s, musical nomad Stephan Micus crossed paths with a little Armenian double-reed flute known as the duduk, a mournful instrument with a long history. Micus compares the duduk with the shakuhachi: the two share a spirit of simplicity. In them the breath is audible, almost exaggerated, and sings across species. Yet while the Japanese bamboo flute comes with preinstalled with a rich solo repertoire, the duduk in its many registers is not usually played alone. “Padre,” for example, bears dedication to Micus’s father, Eduard, who passed away during the album’s recording. This duduk solo folds itself into the bittersweet gratitude by which nature abides, a profound translation of breath into memorial. And “Before Sunrise” gives even the bass duduk something to say beyond the droning for which it is typically employed. At Micus’s lips it touches the earth with hands as if they were feet. It walks with renewed balance into a nearby forest, clears a space of prayer among the detritus of a long season, and lights the sky with its campfire. In those embers lie the stirrings of “Morning Breeze,” a kalimba solo that trembles like an eye fluttering into wakefulness.

“Flying Horses” introduces 12 dondon, so-called “talking drums” from West Africa. With them are three steel-string guitars and shakuhachi. The latter dives into a body of water like the frog of Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku:

The old pond—
A frog leaps in,
And a splash.[*]

The amphibian in question is played by the shakuhachi, which enlightens us to the presence of aliveness itself: mere being, vivid and thrumming. The dondon add a wave of invigoration, a music of distance that lowers us into secret temples. “Birds of Dawn” reveals the crosscurrents of the album’s title by means of a fuller assembly: 2 kalimba, duduk, 6 shakuhachi, 3 dondon, 2 sattar. Yet it doesn’t evoke flight as the cover photograph would imply, but rather a milling about, a wading in the water, talons pressing the earth for sustenance. “Virgen de la Nieve” features the 14-string guitar, an instrument that Micus designed in the early eighties and was last heard on East Of The Night (JAPO’s final release). Its light shines from cloud-breaks after a storm onto a dilapidated castle, while “Eastern Princess” paints for us a memory of the kingdom that once flourished in its walls. This pairing of steel-string guitar and voice reveals the reality behind Micus’s so-called “fantasy language” (he rarely employs lyrics, per se, when singing), an embodied meaning that needs no semantic cage. This is one of his most astonishing creations, if only for the rudiments of its means. He ends with another broad palette, “Crossing Dark Rivers,” which revives the 14-string guitar alongside 3 shakuhachi and 7 duduk, the latter of which make for a cinematic reveal. Before that reveal, the music pulls its feet through thick sediment under cover of night, holding above its head a single bag with a few choice belongings and hoping to pass undetected into personal asylum. The flutes complete the picture as figures emerging from the trees, arms extended in welcome and embracing the solidarity that has made the journey forever worthwhile…for in that refugee slumbers an unborn child whose own crossing has yet to bless this world with its cry.

(For more on the history of this album and its instruments, please check out Mitchell Feldman’s lovely notes on the same, which were an invaluable resource for me in fleshing out this review.)

[*] Trans. Makoto Ueda.

Stephan Micus: Wings Over Water (JAPO 60038)

Wings Over Water

Stephan Micus
Wings Over Water

Stephan Micus acoustic guitar, nay, sarangi, voice, flowerpots, spanish guitar, Bavarian zither, suling
Recorded January 1981 at Ibiza Sound Studio and October 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineers: Manfred Ballheimer and Martin Wieland

Wings Over Water is the third of five JAPO outings—the most by any artist on ECM’s sister label—by Stephan Micus. Featuring a rare turn by the intrepid multi-instrumentalist on that most quotidian tool of accompaniment, the guitar, it spins a web of enchantment across six numbered parts.

Part 1 uses the guitar to anchor that very web, its strings flexing before a soul-piercing tongue. The ney (an end-blown flute of the Middle East featured prominently in Micus’s work across the decades) is the breath behind it, a servant of the molecules swimming through its porous tunnel. These encirclings open a space into which the listener might step. Thus surrounded in the comfort of these repetitions, s/he may find that the ney’s improvisational flights have similarly taken solace within. Every rhythmic lapse is a micro-phase of organic awareness, attuned to said listener, to the perfect imperfection of things, which like the bird framed in the album cover photograph is austere yet warped in reflection. Gazing and gazed upon, it is self-sufficient, fragile as wind.

Part 2 gives insight into Micus’s unique approach to the sarangi, which in taking on such percussive function provides undulating waves for Micus’s voice and stretches arcs of flight over a ceramic pulse of flowerpots.

Part 3 rises from the mountains through the rusticity of a Spanish guitar and holds in its hands a dimly lit star, hewn in mineral and soil. The guitar becomes an agent of solace, its sound a meditation on meditation—two mirrors held soul’s distance apart and compounded by the interest of infinity. Flowerpots lend their pacing to the skeleton, marrying Sephardic and Southeast Asian influences by way of natural ligaments. The piece ends as it begins: in hermetic garments, tattered yet resilient to the elements, in fact becoming an element unto itself.

Part 4 is a spiritually unbound ney solo, an avian dream that remembers when sustenance was easier to come by, when one could freely roam the air currents to find all that was needed.

Part 5 is an open letter written in the language of flowerpots to the very cosmos. Its paths are as vast and unknowable as Nazca lines, a runway for the ether, embodied in ney and mapped by less visible instruments. Beats rise above the waterline, the breath an unbroken promise of sailing.

Part 6 unfolds, like Part 3, with hints of Andalusian soil. Joining Spanish guitar with Bavarian zither, it unleashes sweeping gardens of profusion, which then quiet to support the lilt of a suling (Indonesian bamboo ring flute) and with it sink into the ocean of forgetting.

An expressly visual journey that skips across rice paddies, this music moves as water strider on pond, and leaves in its wake the promise of a good harvest. It is a vestibule from the rain, a haven where bodies stretch in anticipation of sun.

Stephan Micus: Desert Poems (ECM 1757)

Desert Poems

Stephan Micus
Desert Poems

Stephan Micus sarangi, dondon, dilruba, doussn’gouni, kalimba, sinding, steel drums, shakuhachi, ney, sattar, flowerpots, voice
Recorded 1997-2000 MCM Studios

On Desert Poems, Stephan Micus’s 15th solo excursion, the intrepid musical sojourner introduces a few new actors to his already extensive roster of instruments: the doussn’gouni (West African harp), kalimba (Tanzanian thumb piano), and dondon (Ghanaian talking drum). These he nestles among more familiar veterans: his modified 10-string sarangi, dilruba (another bowed instrument from India), ney, and sattar (an upright Uighur fiddle). As always, Micus is attentive to the Janus nature of the instruments he touches. On the one hand each has a history, while on the other it enables new paths of expression. He embraces both as equals.

Characteristic histrionics speak of a thousand other worlds in “The Horses of Nizami” (for sarangi, 5 dondon, and 23 voices) and in “Mikhail’s Dream” (2 kalimba, voice, sinding, 2 steel drums, percussion). In these multi-tracked biospheres, a self divided becomes a self magnified and therefore needs its own language to breathe properly. Indeed, at Micus’s touch the sarangi body becomes a wooden lung through which a chanting chorus activates its array of sympathetic strings. Buzzing kalimba then glow with firefly steps, a ladder of light into the rising dune heat. Amid this flowering conference of souls, a single voice rises into, even as it drops down from, the ether and places its song on a fulcrum of memory and future paths.

The blood of this album’s earthly incarnation is purified by “Adela” (for 22 dilruba), for it speaks of a mirroring heaven in which all that has come to pass awakens to the possibility of a self-aware now. These sounds take human shape: a warrior walking upside down, feet treading sky, his horse long dead behind him, turned to cloud and dropping rain somewhere on more fertile land. With a grating pulse, he marks his footfalls by way of a dotted moon. By nightfall, only his afterimages remain, thrumming in the counterpart of “Shen Khar Venakhi” (6 dilruba, 6 sattar), a 13th-century choral piece from Georgia which Micus arranges in wordless tonsure.

“Thirteen Eagles” (doussn’gouni, 20 ney) and “For Yuko” (2 flowerpots, 8 voices, shakuhachi) share another soul. One is a blissful trek over land and under emotion that focuses purely on movement and shape, ney pleated many times over like feathers and free as heroines of the open sky. The other bears dedication to the performer’s daughter in a galaxy of nascent voices, hurtling through space along a trajectory of sentience and love.

If these are the internal organs, three solo tracks comprise the external features. The eyes flicker into being by way of “First Snow.” Although not a title one might expect amid all this warmth, the continuity is not lost. Its lone shakuhachi is an arid instrument. Cored and lacquered, it rasps like wind through wheat and digs through the soil with deeply grained fingertips. Its song dreams of water, and like the snow remains dry until the warmth of sun or living touch renders it fleeting. Lips speak in “Contessa Entelina,” a voice solo in English that is named for, and inspired by, a village Micus encountered while riding through the Sicilian countryside, and tells the story of a countess who provided solace to Albanian immigrants some centuries ago. This intimate portrait folds perfect divinity into the imperfect cage of human language and means. Ears listen in “Night,” a far-reaching doussn’gouni reflection that bears gifts from the heavens to the caverns.

Seemingly enamored with the same consuming silence of the desert that captured the heart of writer Paul Bowles, Micus translates the hidden energies of landscape into a form that escapes all measure of mortal grasp. World music? Perhaps. But not entirely of this one.

A selfless masterpiece.

Alternate Desert
Alternate cover

Stephan Micus: The Garden Of Mirrors (ECM 1632)

Stephan Micus
The Garden Of Mirrors

Stephan Micus voice, steeldrums, sinding, shakuhachi, suling, nay, tin whistles, percussion
Recorded 1995-96 at MCM Studios

Just as one look at the many instruments Stephan Micus plays is sure to impress, so too does one experience of what he produces with them dispel arbitrary interest in those means. Music flows from his fingertips in such an organic way that the source catches light in all of us. Nothing feels out of place. It’s worth noting, however, that The Garden Of Mirrors makes especial use of that most intuitive instrument of all: the human voice. Like water in sunset, Micus’s wordless songs collect light-years of travel along the glittering surface of their multiplication. Twenty such voices manifest themselves first in “Earth.” Accompanied by the bolombatto, an African gut-stringed harp, this world traveler speaks to the very marrow of life. A binary star leaves his lips, the being to our nonbeing. These twins become triplets, and so forth, until the galaxy is alive in a choir whose rhythms are the stuff that binds. “Violeta” and “Night Circles” exchange the bolombatto for its hemp-stringed cousin, the sinding, melting into a future where hope may breathe like an autumnal wind through leaves. Dry and crackling fields shape syllables with the ferocity of a linguist. Vocal flocks outline the sky in chalk, coloring it in like the white of a giant eye. Veins become songs. These become the world. “Passing Cloud” bands steel drums, two sinding, and shakuhachi for a sound at once vapor-like and heavy as soil. Those who are content see in it animals, trees, and faces, while others see sighs, depressions, and hardships. For “Flowers In Chaos” we get a coterie of 22 suling (Indonesian bamboo ring flutes), dispelling that very cloud with tales of earthly things. “In The High Valleys” is the album’s most insightful contemplation. In its intimate pairing of sinding and voice, it moves, to reference an album title of the Alial Straa, in a lumbering intransitive dream, and would seem to invoke the origin myth of the jazz bass. “Gates Of Fire” marks its passage with ashen footprints, bringing atonement in circular motions, each a brand on the side of a mountain. “Mad Bird” is a living solo for Irish tin whistle that traverses its own boundaries in search of landing, for life on the wing desires stillness. This singles out the final “Words Of Truth,” where the breath of life courses through six shakuhachi in self-reflective bliss. It is the sailor and his reflection, the storm and its rainbow, caressing the shores of a fading continent, of which we are the only inhabitants left standing.

Alternate cover

Stephan Micus: Athos (ECM 1551)

Stephan Micus
Athos: A Journey To The Holy Mountain

Stephan Micus Bavarian zither, sattar, shakuhachi, suling, ney, flowerpots, voice
Recorded November 1993–February 1994 at MCM Studios

If true meditation is not a centering but a shedding of the self into a plane where the ego no longer speaks under the illusion of a proper name, then Stephan Micus has walked some of the most meditative paths on disc. Inspired by a visit to the holy Greek mountain of Athos, his album of the same name bears traces of just such a traveler, one whose artistry sees medium and message as one. Those looking for anything close to the Byzantine chant that surely nourished his ears during this pilgrimage may feel disappointed. Then again, the Micus experience has never been about total re-creation, but rather about the ways in which the lens of his soul refracts all it comes in contact with during its itinerancy.

Athos takes a diurnal structure, with days marked by flutes of varying origins and nights woven in 22-part choruses, all sung by a multi-tracked Micus. The latter serve as touchstones in the fullness of his narrative, which takes its histrionic steps in voices mineral, unaffected, spun from the wood, clay, and strings of another time and place. In these drones is where the true indeterminacy of life takes shape, shifting from circle to ellipse and back again like a full moon stared at for too long. “The First Day,” a shakuhachi solo, rests on a sibilant edge and awakens like an animal from winter slumber, even as it cranes its neck, heron-like, back toward memory, now hazed by the passage of the seasons. “The Second Day” hangs a suling (Indonesian bamboo flute) above a garden of flowerpots. And in “The Third Day” Micus offers a ney solo, wavering like a reflection across molten rock and shaped by the lips of a divine glassblower who fashions from it a teardrop in the cosmos, forever crystalline and unshattered. Such music turns the sun inside out and shows us that its heart is nothing but shadow, for otherwise it would never know the generative power of fire.

This cosmic passage is bookended by a prologue and epilogue. “On The Way” pairs cascades of Bavarian zither with the tinny laments of sattar (long-necked bowed instrument of the Uyghur people). In its depths we weep at the fallacy of what we have created, but know that within the distorted memories of those tears lies something far more meaningful: constant change. This and more we hear in these moments, in the total dedication that engenders them. “On The Way Back” pulls those evening voices from the clothing of their afterlife, vibrating like a reed in the core of something devoid of song.

Athos is the diary of a sacred space whose pages are born in the siren that calls everyone into the stillness of eternity. It tugs your heart until it merges with Micus’s own, so attuned is his playing to the spirit of all that moves us to listen. He reaches through the veil of distance holding a broken watch, asking us to breathe time back into its silent circle.

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