01 November 2006

Stephan Micus – On the wing
the sound of the world

With only nineteen albums released over the course of 30 years, Stephan Micus could not be called ‘overly-prolific’ – but what his catalogue might lack in quantity is more than offset by the sheer quality and beauty of his work. The time between releases makes each one an event to celebrate for his fans. Seventeen of his recordings have been released on the prestigious ECM label – their reputation for the highest quality in both technical and artistic content is one established many years ago, and one on which music lovers the world over have come to rely.

Stephan was born in Germany in 1953 – according to his biography on the ECM Records website, he made his first trip to the Orient at the age of 16. It’s immediately apparent from hearing any of his albums that exposure to other cultures struck a chord within his spirit that has resonated there ever since, and has reached out through his work to touch the hearts and minds of his listeners. He has repeatedly combined instruments on recorded selections that would normally never be heard together – sounds of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceana meet and mingle. The result never comes across as forced or false – the varied sounds, in his hands and through his breath, blend together and complement each other in ways rarely imagined. The instruments are plucked, bowed, strummed, hammered, struck, blown, as their nature requires – and he sings. For my own tastes, his vocals are one of the most compelling features of his work – he has said that the words he sings are ‘in no language’, but he somehow manages to convey the deepest spirit, the heart, of various other cultures in his vocalizing. On one track his singing might suggest Arabic – on another Hindi, or Roma, or Tibetan. It’s the sound – and the voice – of the world that I hear.

His newest release is On the wing. So far it’s only available from ECM’s original German source – hopefully it’ll soon be released in the US through their distributor here. It’s his first album without vocals in several years – and the first one on which he plays the sitar since Implosions, his initial ECM release in 1977. As is almost always the case, with this recording he adds more instruments to his array. The ‘new additions’ for this outing are the mudbedsh (a reed instrument from Iraq), the hné (a double-reed instrument from Burma – he notes that due to its piercing sound and high volume, it’s normally played outdoors), the hang (a relatively new instrument, inspired by Caribbean steel drums), and the mandobahar (a very rare bowed bass instrument from India). Other instruments utilized on this recording are the sattar (a long-necked bowed instrument from western China), classical and 14-string guitars, the nay (a hollow reed flute played throughout the near Middle East), the sho (a mouth organ with vertical reed pipes from southeast Asia), the shakuhachi (a traditional bamboo flute from Japan), the suling (a hollow reed flute used in Balinese Gamelan orchestras), and the above-mentioned sitar from India, along with a number of percussive instruments.

This collection of instruments might indicate a dizzying conglomeration of sounds in the hands of anyone else – not to worry. Micus combines the instruments delicately and thoughtfully, never ‘overloading’ any composition needlessly. He expertly overdubs in the studio, building up each track masterfully – sometimes using the same instrument on multiple tracks, sometimes combining just two or three different instruments, sometimes performing on only one. The method he chooses depends on the spirit and mood he wishes to convey with each piece. After 30 years, it’s become a labor of love – and you can both hear it and feel it in every note.

Classifying Stephan’s music has been a daunting task for music store managers since he released his first album. ECM is mainly known for its contributions to the jazz and classical genres, but even a casual listening to any of his work would indicate the folly of placing his albums in either of those niches. Now and then I find him filed under ‘new age’ – which I suppose is well-intentioned, but that categorization carries a discomforting connotation with it, too often being a pigeonhole for the multicultural version of ‘elevator music’. Stephan’s work is much too thoughtful to be associated with that sort of thing. If it were up to me, forced to classify him, I’d place him in the ‘world music’ section, but without specifying a country or ethnic influence – a class of his own.

The ten tracks contained in On the wing seem to flow together naturally and effortlessly – a sure sign of the care that went into their composition, arranging and recording. The musical mood moves from relaxing (not to be confused with unimaginative or boring) to celebratory (and trust me, when the hné comes in, you’ll know it!) – with his musical tools, Micus invokes the power and beauty of water and wind, the life forces in nature that cause earth and stone to breathe and move, and the echoes that sound within the spirit of every creature that bind us all together. ECM’s website says that the ten pieces were conceived as a suite of sorts, with the titles of the individual pieces being ‘associative rather than descriptive'. Micus elaborates: ‘For me this is like a journey or a story: the start of a movement that is transformed in many ways and eventually comes to an end.’

I have everything he’s ever recorded (his first album, Archaic concerts, has never been released on CD – so I’m doing my best to keep my vinyl copy safe!) – I treasure them all. In speaking of all the music I have heard in my life, his work sits comfortably at the center of everything – it’s truly the sound of the world, and it calls out to each of us to transform it into the best that it can be, honoring and respecting all cultures for the tradition, beauty and spirit they contain.

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