German multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus was making his own rather idiosyncratic version of world music years before it became fashionable to do so. Micus specializes in taking ethnic instruments from all over the planet and using them, in ways that transcend their traditional contexts, to play his own moody and somewhat austere compositions. On Darkness and Light Micus makes extensive use of the dilruba, a four-stringed bowed Indian instrument that sounds somewhat like a nasal cello which has 24 sympathetic strings that set up a hypnotic drone effect behind the haunting melodies. Also featured are the classical Spanish guitar, the Balinese suling flute, an Irish tin whistle, the sho (a Japanese bamboo mouth-organ), the kortholt (a German renaissance reed instrument), various gongs, and the remarkable ki un ki, a six-foot-long Siberian cane trumpet (pictured on the cover), whose spirited blasts are created by inhaling rather than exhaling.
Stephan Micus' folk soundworld investigations have taken him all over the globe. He is a disciplined student of every musical instrument he encounters, and understands how to get what he needs out of them without comprising either the instrument's original purpose or history, or his own vision, and he lets the instruments (sometimes in strange combinations) speak for themselves from his inner well of inspiration and nearly egoless expression. For those interested in poetry, Micus does in his world of music what poet and translator Jerome Rothenberg (who has compiled countless important anthologies of poetic traditions from all over the modern and ancient world) does for the written and oral tradition in poetry: represents it for what it is and allows the reader/listener to experience it for themselves. The stark beauty of On the Wing is expressed by Micus using Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, from the Iraqi mudbedsh (a single reed instrument made from cane) to the long-necked and bowed Turkish sattar and the Egyptian nay.
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.
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.
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.
An ethereal, primordial Experience. Implosions is a state of consciousness that wraps you in the arms of swirling air, transports you to ethnic lands, where spices catch your pallet. Where stories are swapped and legends of old are discovered again. Stephan Micus takes you down the river Ganges as he plays from the sitar, you are in a languished state of being. His ethnic chants suffocate you until you are spirit removed from flesh. The mist begins to fall and as the fog rolls in you are swept into the remotest parts of the world, where things thought to have been lost or abandoned have been uncovered. Caravans from the east are swept into a mirage in the horizon, while strange red stone pillars stab at the sky. Then you come across the foothills of machu picchu, incensed by its abandonment you climb to the summit there an elder of a race long since vanished gives you knowledge of the new world. You stumble back into reality, Unable to return.
Stephan Micus is a composer who lives on the island of Mallorca and is a compulsive collector of oddball musical instruments. An acoustic music purist, Micus generates unusual, almost electronic-sounding textures from his collection of instruments through multi-tracking, but does not utilize anything electronic to generate the sounds. On Life, Micus plays such instruments as the bagana, tin whistle, various kinds of gongs, sho, zithers, and Thai singing bowls, and uses recording techniques to build the multifarious parts played into a contiguous whole. The result is a very colorful blend of peculiar tones, gestures, and voicings. Although Micus seems to release a new ECM album almost every other month, Life is the result of three years of careful planning and labor, and Micus claims that the process of overdubbing is far more complex on this album than any other that he has done.
At a time when, at least for First World residents, there seems no respite from the relentless, rapid pace of life, artists like Stephan Micus provide welcome clarity; proof that there are alternatives. Difficult though it may seem, when immersed in all the push-and-pull of day-to-day distractions, there is another way; it's just not necessarily an easy one. For nearly four decades, Micus has traveled the world, a student of culture and society…and the music that naturally evolves from the two. Acquiring and learning to use ethnic instruments from around the world—often taught to him in the remotest locales—for the past two decades, Micus has always, ultimately, returned home to the island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain, where he has honed his craft through an organic process of experimentation, recording and gradual shaping of music that truly transcends all cultural boundaries. Each of the eighteen albums he's released since 1977—first, on the JAPO subsidiary, and then on the main ECM label—has introduced at least one new instrument to his expanding array of flutes, reeds, percussion, stringed instruments.
The Garden of Mirrors is an album by Stephan Micus, released by the ECM label. It was recorded in 1995–1996 and released the following year. It follows the tradition of all of Micus's earlier works in that he plays all of the instruments: he also provides all of the voices for the 20-man chorus in three of the tracks. Micus's inspiration for this album was two traditional low-range West African harps that he studied in Gambia: the bolombatto and the sinding. When playing these two instruments, Micus claims to have identified with early African American music, which they influenced, claiming that the bassline in jazz was influenced by these harps. Other instruments used by Micus include steel drums and four different flutes: the Japanese shakuhachi, the Balinese suling, the Irish tin whistle, and the Egyptian ney.