Stephan Micus: Solitary Pursuits

John Kelman By

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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.

Chapter Index
Meeting Manfred Eicher and Early Recording Process
Actors and The Music of Stones
Composing and Recording—A Unique Process
Visualization and the Next Project


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 them—many 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 artists—three 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 extreme—the 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."
About Stephan Micus
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