Before there was world music, there was Stephan Micus, playing instruments from Afghanistan, India, and Indonesia. But ever since his first album (released in 1976) the German composer has not been making world music but other – worldly music. He plays ethnic instruments in nontraditional ways, multitracking them in layered arrangements and creating meditative excursions. Stephan Micus isn’t pan-cultural but transcends culture with music that’s innocent but not naive. Billboard, USA
Stephan Micus could be considered the very definition of a multi-instrumentalist. His dedication to studying and learning some of the most diverse instruments on the planet is phenomenal, matched only by his ability to compose and perform music that celebrates music of the world without gimmick or showmanship.
Early Life & Musical Beginnings
Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1953, Micus didn’t come from a musical family but developed his passion after receiving a guitar on his 12th birthday. After listening to English folk-rock group Jethro Tull, Micus became interested in the flute and then, in the early 1970s an epiphany occurred when he encountered Indian classical music for the first time.
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.” Stephan Micus speaking to John Kelman in 2005
A Life of Learning
Micus has continued to travel, to learn instruments and about the cultures that bore them throughout his career. His relationship with the German ECM label started in 1977 when he released his second album, Implosions. Founder of ECM, Manfred Eicher was known for his tight overseeing of the artists and production values of the label but for Micus he appeared to make an exception and left him largely to his own devices after his first two albums. This artistic freedom has led a lifetime of learning and musical adventure.
Music has taken Micus across the globe. In Africa he has learnt instruments including the bagana in Ethiopia, dondon in Ghana and gimbri in Morocco. In Asia he studied sitar in India, the shakuhachi in Japan and the hné in Myanmar amongst so many others. His albums are pure celebrations of the musical instrument in all it’s forms and his virtuosity ensures his music is firmly on the side of cultural respect and not that of cheap parody.
I improvise until I find some piece that I find interesting. 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 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. Stephan Micus, 2004
Our 3 Recommended Recordings
To date Stephan Micus has recorded 24 albums, 22 of which have been released on the great German ECM label. Every album is a fascinating exploration of instruments and of culture but we have chosen our 3 introductory albums that show the breadth and diversity of a great multi-instrumentalist.
Released in 1981 but recorded in 1977, Koan was Micus’ first album under ECM. The publicity explains,
The Zen Buddhist kōan, often misunderstood as a riddle without answer, is more rightly experienced as a path to openness, and it is this path that Micus has walked since he first committed his sounds to disc.
The album has one foot firmly planted in the East, reminiscent of mantra and devotional song, but at the same time is all Micus. He plays the Japanese shakuhachi, Burmese bells and the Indian sarangi, but additionally the rabab, more associated with Muslim central Asia and even the Irish bodhrán. Characteristic of all his work, Micus performs each instrument separately and edits the layers of sound into an extraordinary one-man ensemble.
Panagia is one of the many names given to Mary, mother of Christ in the Greek Orthodox Church. Micus’s album consists of variations on 6 Byzantine prayers, but you’d be mistaken if you thought this was music of a distant past. Micus says himself of Pangia,
The album alternates sung poems with instrumental tracks and thus has a clearly symmetrical, even ritualistic, structure
Micus focused on stringed instruments on this album and it includes, a Bavarian zither, a chitrali sitar from Pakistan, an Indian dilruba and his own specially designed 14-string guitar.
Nomad Songs (2015)
Just in case you thought Micus was just an instrumentalist, The Blessing (track 6) on Nomad Songs will prove you profoundly wrong. His singing voice is just wondrous, transcending definition, culture and time. Listen out for the superb genbri playing on Laughing at Thunder (track 8) which has an astonishingly hypnotic quality. The other instruments Micus plays on Nomad Songs includes a Southeast Asian flute called a suling, a Botswanan ‘thumb piano’ called a ndingo, the Middle Eastern ney and a rewab, a stringed instrument played by the Uyghur people of Chinese Xinjiang. As ever with Micus, the sound is so difficult to place geographically in spite of the traditional regional instrument. Nomad Songs is not an travel guide, it’s an adventure into the musical mind of one explorer.
Read more about the music of Stephan Micus
Stephan Micus: Solitary Pursuits John Kelman, All About Jazz, 2005
Official Website – Stephan Micus
Stephan Micus – ECM Records
Stephan Micus – Ambient Music Guide
Stephan Micus: Review – John Fordham in the Guardian, 2013