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"To me, snow is one of the most beautiful of all natural phenomena", says Stephan Micus, who has been living in Spain for many years. "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." Micus's music has always drawn on impressions of nature and the countryside. The inspiration for his new album came largely from a long study tour through extremely isolated regions of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the mountains of the Caucasus.
As always, Micus had one object in mind: to learn new instrumental or vocal techniques from traditional masters. In 2006 he paid a long visit to Yerevan to study the duduk, an Armenian double-reed instrument of apricot wood. Snow presents it as the main musical protagonist, featuring it in unprecedented combinations with African, Asian, South and North American and European instruments, including an especially expressive duet, 'Midnight Sea', with the Bavarian zither. The human voice plays a leading role, sometimes magnified into a mighty choir. Over the last 12 years Micus has travelled four times to Georgia to study its traditional art of choral singing. It's also his first album to feature a South American instrument, with two solos on the charango, a plucked instrument from Peru resembling a ukulele.
Egypt, Armenia, Burma, China, Germany, Gambia, Mali, Peru, Tibet and USA: the list of countries where the instruments on Snow originated makes it clear that the unique, imaginary 'world music' that Micus has been playing for the last 35 years (he was born in 1953) is possible in this form only at the present moment: "Fifty years ago I couldn't travel as much as I do today and in another 50 years many of the instruments may no longer exist as many musical traditions are threatened with extinction."
Stephan Micus - (douss'n gouni, duduk, maung, gongs, tibetan cymbals, Bavarian zither, sinding, steel string guitar, hammered dulcimers, charango solo, nay, bass duduk)
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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.Read more ›
It has been remarked by Micus but is worth repeating that his distinctive music could not be made at any other time. 50 years ago he could not have travelled to the corners of the world and 50 years hence many of the instruments showcased will not be around. Although all his output is characterised by a sense of landscape and solitude, from the covers of the releases to the associative (as opposed to descriptive) titles, "snow" heeds an especially prescient ecological concern. The disappearance of snow from the earth echoes the disappearance of instruments which Micus plays from various cultural traditions. Micus's music manages to be timeless, mysterious, direct, inspirational yet contains a stark warning. My only gripe is that the liner notes on the instruments repeat verbatim those on previous releases which slightly undermines the contention that "this is the first time the bass duduk has been deployed as a melodic instrument." That is a small criticism and one which is unlikely to worry the inquisitive or devotee. Although consumerism is a dirty word and concept, the world needs "Snow" like the world needs snow.
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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.
SNOW, released in 2008, was his twentieth album and typifies this style of a musical magpie creating soundscapes much vaster than just one man. Thus, for example, "Midnight Sea" weds a Bavarian zither to a duduk (a reed instrument from Armenia), while the following "Sara" presents sinding (a West African harp), steel-string guitar, 3 hammered dulcimers, and 22 voices. Besides the sinding, he also takes up again the doussn' gouni, another West African harp. Furthermore, Micus has focused rather heavily here on the duduk, an instrument that was previously featured on his Towards the Wind album. Micus has spent four decades doing his own thing on ECM Records, but to hear Micus on a reed instrument with a cool, seductive tone makes him feel right at home with the other artists on Manfred Eicher's famous European jazz label. Each Stephan Micus album presents some new discoveries, however, and here they are maung (tuned gongs from Burma), charango (miniature guitar from the Andes).
Micus doesn't vary his style much from one release to another, and indeed the couple of albums before SNOW seemed like he was getting stuck in a rut. Nonetheless, I was really impressed by SNOW due to the fresh treatment of vocals. Micus has often sang on his records in a made-up language, and part of the charm was hearing him impersonate a full choir, but it was hard to call him a great singer. On the vocal tracks here ("Sara", "Almond Eyes", "Brother Eagle") his vocal techniques are richer than before, with intriguing sussurations, murmuring, ululations, and more supple treatment of rhythm. This time, it doesn't always feel that Micus is impersonating a choir, instead it is if each of the voices is just one part of an individual's complex and multifaceted inner world -- the multitracks allow him to express more of himself.
If you have never heard Micus's work before, I find The Garden of Mirrors album to be his most impressive achievement and a good introduction. However, in spite of each album's similarity to its predecessor, I generally find it worthwhile to pick up a new Micus record, and SNOW is certainly one of his better ones.