Customer Review

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars music that is ancient and new at the same time..., 2 Aug. 2008
This review is from: Snow (Audio CD)
Every time a new release from Stephan Micus reaches my grateful ears, I find myself reaching for superlatives with which to describe the magic he performs - but in the end, of course, words fall far short. I've been listening to his work since the release of his first album, ARCHAIC CONCERTS, in 1976, hooked happily from the beginning. Unlike too many performers who gather instruments from around the world and weave the various sounds into their own personal audio fabric, Stephan's compositions / constructions seem to possess a spirit that goes far deeper than `simple sound'. He combines instruments from far-flung locales which would likely never be heard together were it not for his imagination. The musical paintings he conjures from his palette never ring false or sound forced - it's as if the listener were sitting in on a gentle, natural conversation between cultures. The best aspects of each are intermingled, yet preserved - even when one instrument holds sway over another, it's a brief dominance and not an overbearing one. The respect with which Stephan holds the music of the traditions he has touched in his musical travels passes from his heart through the instruments in the form of something that is ancient and new at the same time, eternally being reborn.

SNOW is Stephan's 20th album since 1976 - all but two of them have been released on Manfred Eicher's ECM Records or on its affiliated label, JAPO. Each one has its own personality, array of employed instruments, and themes - but they're all distinctly Stephan Micus creations. Instruments on this new release include the duduk (a double-reed instrument from Armenia, this particular one being specially made for him to play in a lower register than the standard model); the doussn' gouni (a harp from West Africa with gut and nylon strings); the maung (a set of 40 tuned gongs from Burma); Bavarian zither (utilising his own tuning and strings); steel-string guitar; sinding (another West African harp, this one with cotton strings); hammered dulcimer; the nay (an Egyptian hollow reed flute, used extensively in Middle Eastern and North African music); and the charango (a small guitar-like instrument from the Andes with 5 pairs of strings), which is a new addition to Stephan's sound.

The pieces on SNOW are constructed and performed with great thought - rather than attempting to reproduce the music of the various cultures from which he draws his tools, Stephan groups them together in ways that create a new musical language, but without turning his back on the sources that have inspired him. He says, of the album's title, 'To me, snow is one of the most beautiful of all natural phenomena. It's closely associated with lasting impressions of my original home in Bavaria, especially the long moonlit walks I used to take when I lived in the Alpine foothills. I've always regarded snow as the essence of magic, even more so today, now that there's so little of it and the glaciers are disappearing.' Impressions of the beauty and majesty of nature abound in his work, as well as the love and respect he so obviously feels for the people and cultures he has encountered. He goes on to speak about the instruments themselves, and how he feels drawn to employ them: `I feel strong ties to the sound of these age-old instruments. To me they lie somewhere on the border between an object and a living being, between a thing and a person. Sometimes I actually think of them as sentient beings. You have to listen to what they want to say. When you do, you connect almost automatically with their traditional idiom. To me, it's important not to adopt any pre-existing melodies, or even fragments of them, but to develop a language of my own.'

Some selections feature several instruments, utilising the overdubbing techniques available in the modern studio with great taste and sensitivity - at times a single `voice' is enough, the perfect setting for the ideas and images he wants to convey. Now and then, he adds his own voice to the mix, with wonderful results. On this recording, it's done in groupings of 22, 11 and 15, on three selections - sometimes the effect is that of a choir, other times in a call-and-response setting.

It's impossible for me to list `favourites' among these pieces - every single track on this disc is a treasure - the titles are listed as `parts' of the entire album, a usual practice for Stephan, and it's very easy to hear them as a whole...it's as seamless as a breath, and equally natural. His music can be strongly rhythmical, like a pulse, without ever being `pounding'...it can be as ethereal and diaphanous as a cloud over a mountain...it can be as deep and mysterious as the sea...it can evoke an image so crystalline that it could be a photograph...it can conjure a memory that is so enveloped in mist that it seems to be from another life. His music is eternity...it is very much the present at the same time - and aren't those extremes, and everything in between, contained in each and every one of us? His music is as universal as music can be - if it's something you've never experienced, I can't recommend it highly enough. I've often said that if I had to choose the music of just one artist in my entire collection to keep for the rest of my life, it would be the work of Stephan Micus, without hesitation.
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Location: Austin, Texas USA

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