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Stephan Micus: Solitary Pursuits

By Published: January 13, 2005
Composing and Recording—A Unique Process

Micus' composition methodology is somewhat different than most artists. Rather than sit at an instrument and notate his pieces, it's more about beginning with a concept and then experimenting with various possibilities until something concrete develops. "I compose through many improvisations," Micus explains, "so I usually start out with one instrument, which I either feel like playing or is the instrument that I have decided will be the main actor. So I'll play, let's say, the duduk, and then I improvise until I find some pieces that I find interesting. All the while I have a cassette deck recording to have a reference. When I think that maybe a 15-second passage is interesting, then it starts to be the seed of the composition. I'll then work around developing this phrase more, until maybe a whole melody comes, and then at a certain point I'll decide whether this stays a solo duduk piece or, if I have the feeling that it would be nice to have another instrument, I'll try out many other instruments that I have. I work very little in a mental way, like planning this mentally. The way I work is to try out many different things, actually playing them. I could never compose music with just a pencil and paper, it would be absolutely impossible.

"Usually I have certain ideas as to what could best fit with the main instrument," continues Micus, "but basically the way I work is to try out all the possibilities that I think could work somehow, and consequently there are often great surprises. That's why I don't trust so much in a rational process where you have for example, a duduk and you think that the next best thing might be violin, because I've seen many, many times that things work together that I haven't really imagined, and you get into completely unexpected places and new possibilities by trying things out. I'm a very practical person, not a person who is very involved in theories. I like to do things with my hands; I have to hear the sound of an instrument. I could never compose music for an instrument that I couldn't play myself."

With Life , for the first time since Athos (ECM, '94), Micus worked from a predetermined text. "I had a text for the Athos album," says Micus, "in an existing language, but it was different because there were several texts and I could sequence the individual compositions as I wanted. But with Life the text tells a story from beginning to end. This was both an advantage and a challenge; the sequence was predefined by the nature of the text. It was a help in a way, it was like something to hold onto, but in another sense a challenge, and difficult because you really had to respect text that couldn't be changed.

"Let's talk about the first piece on Life ," Micus continues, "'Narration One and the Master's Question,' which is the most complex piece I've ever done. First of all there was the text. Also I wanted to present the bagana on this album, so the logical thing was to start the album with this instrument. Then I had the text, which can be divided in two parts. There's the narration and the dialogues between the master and the monk. I wanted to sing all the narrations as a choir to give them a special form, and so I had to compose the different narration parts. So there are three shorter choir parts in the first piece. I composed these three choir pieces first and then I created the accompanying instrumental parts. Then there was the question of the master, which could have been a separate piece, but I felt that through the music I was getting more to the solution, where the question evolves from the narration of the choir. I don't know exactly how much time I spent working on just this first piece, but I had a demo version and then just to record it I worked for half a year, every day, without doing anything else. You can only do this alone; you cannot ask any musician in the world, however patient, to be with you half a year to record 14 minutes of music—they'd kill you!

"I think in this regard," concludes Micus, "that people who work with a piano, pencil and paper, they probably have the same amount of frustration, and weeks of work without getting anywhere. Unfortunately I don't have any contact with people in that way, so I don't know what they experience. But I can't imagine that any composer doesn't have times like this—I have these periods where I think I can't do anything, am worth nothing, and wonder if I'll ever compose another piece. So this has been going on for 25 years and it's a very strange way to live."

Micus does, however, often have more than one project on the go. There was a cross-over, for example, between the recording of Towards the Wind and Desert Poems (ECM, '01). "I now have, for example, 15 minutes ready for the next album," Micus explains, "and that was at the moment when Life was released. There are usually some pieces that I have composed, or have in a demo version, which I do during the time when I'm working on another album. Sometimes it's simply that the pieces don't fit or make sense on one album and maybe they will on the next. Other times it helps me to regain focus on my current project by distancing myself."

And while Micus often layers many tracks—"The Horses of Nizami" from Desert Poems , for example, incorporates the Indian bowed sarangi, five Ghanese dondon or talking drums, and no less than 23 voices—he intentionally eschews the use of effects or studio trickery that would make his compositions, if he were to put together a large enough ensemble, impossible to perform. "All of my compositions could be performed live by an ensemble of musicians," says Micus. "I very consciously compose the music in such a way that it always could be performed, if you had the musicians together. I try to avoid any effects or using instruments in a way that wouldn't make sense on stage. Sometimes I hear music where instruments are used for a short time and you wonder why they're used, or you think of it as more of an effect. I try to avoid this kind of thing." class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

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