Stephan Micus

In a way Stephan Micus is the ultimate purist; all his instrumentation and sounds are acoustic and unprocessed. In another sense, however, he's completely non-purist, having collected a massive array or instruments from all over the world and learnt to play them in his own unique and deeply personal way.

artist:
Stephan Micus

country of origin:
Germany

style(s):
World music, ambient, ethno-ambient, folk

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Koan (1981, ECM Records)
  • Wings Over Water (1982, ECM Records)
  • Listen To The Rain (1983, ECM Records)
  • Twilight Fields (1987, ECM Records)
  • The Music Of Stones (1989, ECM Records)
  • On The Wing (2006, ECM Records)
  • Panagia (2013, ECM Records)

Reviewed by Mike G

Imagine what all the ethno-ambient, world beat and exotic dub music around these days might sound like without any electronic instruments or significant studio processing. In the new digital century, that's a pretty mind-blowing thought.

Yet over 30-plus years of releasing albums on the indefinable ECM Records, German-born Stephan Micus' working methods have remained essentially unchanged. In that regard Micus is the ultimate purist; all his instrumentation and sounds are acoustic and unprocessed. In another sense, however, he's completely non-purist, having collected a massive array or instruments from all over the world and learnt to play them in his own unique and deeply personal way. Then there’s the ones he designs himself, plus everyday objects like flower pots which he adapts and uses in a musical context.

So while his music his an exotic appeal to Western ears, he's not mimicking the tradition of any culture. In fact he avoids certain instruments, like the sitar and uilleann pipes, because their sound is so closely associated with their native countries. In a 2013 interview with ezine The Arts Desk he said: "There are some instruments where you hear one note and it takes you to a specific world. But my intention is to create a new world with these instruments."

I'm not going to call Micus' albums spiritual; that's too easy. Suffice to say that his music comes from a deep place and its transcendental power is very real. His music is both earthy and sublime, meditative and celebratory. To be honest, he hasn’t really made a bad record but if you haven’t heard him yet here are some excellent albums to start with.

Wings Over Water (1982) and Twilight Fields (1987) find Micus playing collections of different sized clay flowerpots, struck in various ways and enhanced on occasion with some mesmerising Middle Eastern-style vocals. These enchanting albums are also among his most accessible. On Koan (1981) Micus summons a wonderfully still, Zen-like atmosphere with Japanese shakuhachi flute, zither and other exotic instruments. Listen To The Rain boasts some bright and deeply beautiful and constructions for acoustic guitar.

Altogether different is The Music Of Stones (1989) which was performed in the large acoustic space of the Ulm Cathedral in West Germany. The chief instruments here are resonating stone blocks specially carved by sculptor Elmar Daucher which, like the clay pots on earlier albums, are “played” in various ways to produce an astonishing array of tones and colours. It could easily sound like a mess over the course of a whole album, but with the aid of some shakuhachi flute and vocals it holds together beautifully.

The most significant of his more recent albums are On The Wing (2006) and Panagia (2013). On The Wing finds Micus' talent undiminished as he returns to pure instrumental music after many years of vocally-orientated works. The bittersweet strains of a bagpipe-like reed instrument feature prominently without dominating the album and there's a twang to some of the melodies that's simultaneous Moroccan and Irish, if you can imagine such a thing. The flutes are exquisitely warm and the nasal strains of his reed instruments are a piercing and clear as a desert night sky. Panagia is sad and lovely and profound. It's one of his most devotional albums, a kind of poem broken up into a series of pairs. So a vocal piece ("I Praise You Lady Of Passion") is followed by a pure instrumental piece that answers it ("You Are The Life Giving Rain"). Micus' big, richly textured voice has never sounded better, whether performed solo or multi-tracked in the form of extraordinary, uplifting chants.

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