Over a thirty-year career, multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus has created his own world, one based on a life of constant study of diverse culture, religion, musical instruments and form. Each of the sixteen albums he has recorded to date has incorporated newly acquired instruments from places as far abroad as Armenia, Bali and Tibet. Micus records his albums alone, painstakingly building layer upon layer of instrument and voice, ultimately creating a music that is as spiritual as his sources. But with his latest release, Life , he has produced a recording that transcends past endeavours, going straight for the essence on a 53-minute, ten-part suite that is based on Micus' favourite Koan, a Zen Buddhist riddle meant to identify the limits of the intellect and stimulate a more perceptive approach.
This specific Koan has to do with the meaning of life, and one might expect Micus to create a work that reflects a potentially complex answer to that particular conundrum. But while there are pieces that reflect the difficult contradictions and paradoxes that make up existence, there are also pieces of stark simplicity, that imply the answer may be something more elemental, resting just beyond our consciousness.
The suite begins with "Narration One and the Master's Question," which may be one of the most complicated pieces Micus has ever developed. Using nine instrumental and eleven vocal tracks, Micus' ability to conceive finished form and then gradually build it from nothing is plainly remarkable. The piece starts with one of Micus' recent acquisitions, the bagana, a ten-string instrument that is facing extinction because there are few remaining who can still play it. Micus located a master musician who taught him the use of five of the ten strings, because time has erased how the other strings are tuned. Micus ultimately retunes the instrument and, playing all ten strings, utilizes its deep buzzing quality to create a simple yet rich backdrop for the vocals, sung in their original Japanese form. The piece ebbs and flows, as Micus' sumptuous vocal chant drives the initial question. As he layers gongs, tin whistle and other instruments, he makes the piece an aural parallel to the deeper challenges of life and yet, as dramatic as it sometimes is, there's a pervasive tranquility which reflects the Master asking a question in a way that challenges without being confrontational.
The suite develops through a variety of movements, from the whisper-like near-silence of "The Temple" to the plaintive chant of "The Monk's Answer" and the more aggressive stance of "The Master's Anger," the most rhythmically-charged piece of the set.
But at the end we have "The Master's Answer," a single human voice. The implication that the answer is simpler than one might expect, an elemental awareness based on the sum of one's life experiences that is nonetheless enigmatic, brings Life to a fitting close; this album of gentle beauty, subtle drama and occasional confrontation is less about merely listening and more about broader perception.
Track Listing: Narration One and the Master's Question; The Temple; Narration Two; The Monk's Answer; Narration Three; The Master's Anger; Narration Four; The Monk's Question; The Sky; The Master's Answer
Personnel: Stephan Micus (bagana, Balinese and Burmese gongs, Bavarian zither, bowed bagana, dilruba, dondon, kyeezee, maung, nay, sh