Multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus has been working outside the musical mainstream for over 30 years. With more than 15 albums for the German ECM label and, in the early days, its sister label JAPO, Micus has created a body of work that is the result of years of extensive traveling around the world to both acquire and learn musical instruments ranging from the Armenian double-reed duduk to the Ethiopian 10-string bagana. Micus finds music in the most curious and unexpected of materials, including clay flower pots and large sculpted stones.
A lifelong student of culture and society, Micus finds new ways of combining a rich diversity of ethnic instruments that would simply not be possible under other circumstances, creating a cross-cultural music that is like no other. Indian dilruba blends with Arabian nay; Tibetan chimes mix with Bavarian zithers; and Ghanese dondon unites with Japanese shakuhachi to explore, quite possibly the most affirmed idea of world music. And while most musicians thrive on the interaction of playing with others, Micus' heavily layered pieces are the result of years of painstaking and solitary pursuit. The result is an arc of recordings that, perhaps more so than most, truly reflects a life's calling that embodies more than merely music, realizing the spiritual search that clearly informs his work as well.
Micus' latest album, Life (ECM, 2004), is in some ways the most ambitious album of his career, based on a Japanese Koan or riddle regarding the meaning of life. From the complex and sprawling "Narration One and the Master's Question," which incorporates the Ethiopian 10-string bagana, Tibetan chimes, Burmese kyeezee (chimes) and maung (gongs), Japanese sho (mouth organ), voices, tin whistle and Bavarian zither, to the stark single voice of "The Master's Answer," Life takes the listener on a journey of discovery and revelation where the answers are often as enigmatic as the questions.
Micus didn't have any particular musical exposure as a youth. "My father was a painter," says Micus. "Growing up I didn't really have any intense contact with music, instead I was exposed more to visual things. Many people say that the covers of my albums are quite special, and I think that's because I choose all the photos myself, so that's perhaps a reflection on my father's visual education.
"And then the music," continues Micus, "I really got into that all by myself. It really started on my 12th birthday when I received a guitar, which I wanted very much, so I started to learn guitar. Later on, listening to Jethro Tull I got interested in the concert flute. I was playing in rock groups by that time and at school. Fairly quickly I got away from that and started making music with English texts and acoustic guitar and, in fact, made my first album while I was still in school. When I was about to finish school in 1970-1971, I heard my first albums of Indian classical music and that was, for me, an incredible moment, and it really gave a very strong influence to my career and my whole life. So when I finished school I travelled to India overland, it was 1972, to learn Indian music, the sitar, and from then on there was a pattern which continues to this day, which is that I listen to records or concerts, hear some instruments which really attract me, and I go the countries of origin and study themmany instruments including the Japanese shakuhachi and the Armenian duduk."
Meeting Manfred Eicher and Early Recording Process
Following his trip to India in 1972, Micus spent about six months in New York City, and established some connections there that would ultimately lead to his meeting up with ECM label owner and primary producer, Manfred Eicher. "When I was living in Manhattan," Micus explains, "there was a very important public radio station, WBAI. Groups like Oregon used to hang out there; it was like a meeting place for musicians who recorded for ECM in the very early days. At that point I had made my very first recordings in Spain and the director, Judy Sherman (now producer of the Kronos Quartet), liked the tapes and made an hour-long program out of my music. She told me that when I got back to Munich, where I was living in the countryside nearby, I'd have to meet a person called Manfred Eicher, because she thought he'd like my music. From Manhattan I travelled to Japan, and it took me two more years to reach Munich again, but when I finally got home I called him and we met. We started to work together and have now for over 30 years."
Unlike most ECM artists where Eicher is most often intimately involved in everything from pre-production through post-production, Micus is left completely to his own devices, recording everything at his own MCM Studio since To the Evening Child (ECM, 1992). "This is absolutely fantastic," says Micus. "You can get a really great quality studio for $15,000. To get the equipment to produce the same quality of sound when I started cost you a million dollars, so this is really an amazing development and really fantastic for people like me. Manfred was with me in the studio for the first two records, Implosions (JAPO, 1977) and Till the End of Time (JAPO, 1978, reissued ECM, 1993) but since then he hasn't been involved with my recordings at all."
But in the early days, Micus was given the same restriction as most other ECM artiststhree days to record and mix. "It was really very difficult," Micus explains. "What I did with the later albums, before I had my own studio, was to put a month between each day. The first ones I did in three consecutive days. I can't really tell you how I did it. It would have been absolutely impossible to do an album like Life. Now that I have my own studio I can invest not only as much time as I want in composing and making demo tapes, but also the actual final recording."
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."
Actors and The Music of Stones
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, 1989), the stone instruments are the principal theme, and with Towards the Wind (ECM, 2002) it's the duduk, and on East of the Night (ECM, 1985) 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 1973 or 1974, 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."
Composing and RecordingA 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, 1994), 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 musicthey'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 thisI 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, 2001). "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 voiceshe 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."
Micus performs in concert rarely, usually doing no more than 10 or 15 concerts each year. Rather than putting together an ensemble, however, to reproduce his recordings, Micus views the performance as an entirely separate experience. "I perform solo," Micus explains, "and obviously there are many of my compositions that I cannot perform on my own. So the concerts are somewhat different than the albums. Nobody would get a shock when they see my concerts because they are of the same feeling, the same world that the music transmits. What is different is that I either play one instrument solo or I play an instrument and sing with it. Each concert I also do two pieces where I have a very simple accompaniment on tape which I recorded myself, and usually I play flutes on top of this. I have some arrangements for more complex pieces where I make an arrangement to do it in concert in a slightly different way than on the album. Some pieces I play in concert that are not on any album. But usually it's not such a problem as many people might think who have never seen a concert."
While some artists who perform so rarely might consider releasing a live album, this is something Micus says will never happen. "For me the beauty of a concert is that it happens once and then it's gone forever," says Micus. "As a musician who works in the studio, it would not make sense to make a live album from a concert because I feel these are two quite different things. I like to play concerts, it's very important for me to have it as a change from the studio work where you're on your own for weeks and months, and you don't get any real feedback. It's very important to have this communication with the audience, and spend this time together with the audience in concert and feel that there's something happening, a connection, a direct communication and feedback."
Visualization and the Next Project
Regardless of the project, Micus treats it as a whole; a complete entity; a story arc that has a beginning, middle and end. "I definitely try to visualize each album as one creation," Micus explains. "Perhaps some of my earlier albums didn't have so much of a concept as a whole; rather they were collections of different pieces which I had at the moment. But later on, and certainly now, I had this idea of looking at an album as a whole; that it should be like a journey, with a beginning, taking the listener somewhere and also bringing him to a certain place in the end. So I definitely try to achieve this and I want to avoid the concept of just putting together some compositions that don't have anything to do with each other."
While Micus is already working on the next project, it's too early to divulge much about it. "I have three pieces," Micus says, "but it's too early to speak about them. I can only say that I have certain ideas of what the instruments will be, but there are many things to investigate; I'm really at the very beginning and it might develop in many different ways. But travel will definitely be involved. I am going to Burma for the fourth time. I do two large trips every year. Many times there's a specific instrument that I want to study or acquire; sometimes there is music that I'd like to hear, but that's becoming more and more difficult as many of these cultures are disappearing."
While there are many artists who pursue the genre called "World Music," few are as ambitious as Micus in bringing together the sounds of different cultures and different times. And while others look for ways to meld the ethnic music of various locales with a more western approach, Micus stands alone in creating a sound that exists beyond genre, creating instead his own distinctive avenue that combines intriguing textures, richly-layered tapestries and a deep spirituality that transcends temporal concerns and religious specificity.
Ambient / New Age Beyond Jazz Big Band Blues Brazilian Classical Electronica Free Improv / Avant-Garde Fringes of Jazz Funk / Groove Fusion / Progressive Rock Jam Band Modern Jazz R&B / Soul Reggae / Ska Straight-ahead (Bop, Hard bop, Cool)