Stephan Micus: Solitary Pursuits
It would be almost impossible to count the number of instruments that Micus has acquired and used over the past 30 years. "It's a pattern that has continued all my life," Micus says, "where I fall in love with different instruments, and am so attracted that there is no other way than to go to the country and find a teacher. I am interested in not only studying the music, but also all about the culture. I think that to really learn an instrument, especially from a foreign place and culture you have to not only take music lessons, but you have to learn about philosophy, architecture, poetry, cooking. You have to establish some contact to the nature there. So that has been my whole life.
"Of course each instrument has its own unique story," continues Micus, "so let me tell you about the bagana. I was playing in a festival in Milano, and there was this player from Ethiopia playing the bagana. I really got fascinated by this instrument, and later I got introduced to the man and so we made some contact and as soon as I had some free time I travelled to Ethiopia, where he's still living in Addis Ababa, the capital. I spent six weeks there, time with him and time just travelling in the country. Many times I don't meet the teachers beforehand, but will just go to the country and look around, maybe visit some music schools or conservatories or universities. Sometimes I check things out through recording studios. There are many ways; if you really want to find something like this, you'll eventually find it."
But along with putting together instruments from different cultures, Micus sometimes has to modify an instrument or create new tunings. In the case of the bagana, the tuning of only five of the ten strings is known; the rest have been lost to antiquity. So for the music on Life , Micus devised a new way of tuning the instrument so that he could use all ten strings. "I could have simply continued the same way as the Ethiopians are doing it," Micus says, "but here we come to the point which is probably responsible for a lot of the things I've done. I have this urge, this very great interest, to experiment with instruments and to change them, modify them; to imagine new instruments. So, of course, it would have been impossible to have five extra strings on the bagana without using them. It was great fun to get all 10 strings playing again. Obviously at one time the Ethiopians used all ten, and I think it's quite remarkable, because it seems to be quite an ancient instrument, for hundreds of years they built it with ten strings but used only five. It's absolutely fantastic, crazy. Imagine having a guitar with 12 strings and not knowing how to tune 6 of them, yet still continuing to build the guitars for 12 strings; it's absolutely extraordinary."
As Micus acquires new instruments and the skill to use them, he has a very specific approach to incorporating them into new projects. "I have tried on most albums, especially with the later ones, to have one or two main actors or instruments," explains Micus, "and then I build the story around these main actors. So we could say, for example, that in The Music of Stones (ECM, '89), the stone instruments are the principal theme, and with Towards the Wind (ECM, '02) it's the duduk, and on East of the Night (ECM, '85) I had designed a new type of guitar. Then there were two albums where the primary theme was flower pots. So there are many kinds of main actors.
" The Music of Stones was a very special project," continues Micus, "because I had been interested in the use of stones as musical instruments since very early on, because I had visited Korea in '73 or '74, and there in a museum I saw an instrument that I knew about, which was a very ancient Chinese instrument the Koreans later adopted. So the use of stones as musical instruments goes back about 2,500 years or more. That was very inspiring, and I actually copied this instrument later, it's like a slate which has a very specific shape. I copied it with marble and certain other stones, so I was already into this.
"Then I heard of this German sculptor," Micus continues, "who dedicates his work to making sculptures that can also be played as musical instruments. I went to see him and we got to know each other. After a year or two he called me and said, 'Look, I have this really interesting exhibition in the Cathedral of Ulm,' which is a city in Southern Germany, with a very big church that holds 7,000 people and the biggest church tower in the world; it's the biggest Protestant church in the whole world. It has an amazing acoustic. If you clap your hands there will be sound for 8 seconds. So it's very extremethe fantastic thing is that when the priests speak you can't understand a single word.
"Anyway, he had an exhibition there," concludes Micus, "he wanted to make a concert and wanted me to write a special composition for this event. Of course I was very interested, and so we worked several nights in the church, over a period of 3-4 months, we made a program and in the beginning we never thought about making a record. But then towards the end we saw that really interesting material had been created, so after the concert we took another day and recorded it. That was very special; as you can imagine in this acoustic you have to create music especially for this space. If you just go there and play ordinary music it becomes one big soup."