Stephan Micus’s fifth album for ECM is a lullaby. I know nothing of its origins, but I would be surprised if he hadn’t just become a father before recording it, so freshly paternal are its meditations. This time, Micus turns the kaleidoscope of his endless talent to reveal steel drums as the sound color of the moment. These provide a resonant, gamelan-like undercurrent throughout and become more biologically attuned as they sing beneath his mallets. Yet it is his actual voice that awakens the heart in “Nomad Song,” scooping earth in such a way that all life falls through its fingers unharmed, leaving only a heap of unconditional love. The newness of creation abounds in “Yuko’s Eyes,” in which Micus sings now through a bowed dilruba, turning infancy inside out to reveal a future of hope and dreams fulfilled.
Stephan Micus' folk soundworld investigations have taken him all over the globe. He is a disciplined student of every musical instrument he encounters, and understands how to get what he needs out of them without comprising either the instrument's original purpose or history, or his own vision, and he lets the instruments (sometimes in strange combinations) speak for themselves from his inner well of inspiration and nearly egoless expression. For those interested in poetry, Micus does in his world of music what poet and translator Jerome Rothenberg (who has compiled countless important anthologies of poetic traditions from all over the modern and ancient world) does for the written and oral tradition in poetry: represents it for what it is and allows the reader/listener to experience it for themselves. The stark beauty of On the Wing is expressed by Micus using Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, from the Iraqi mudbedsh (a single reed instrument made from cane) to the long-necked and bowed Turkish sattar and the Egyptian nay.
Before migrating across the ECM continent, Stephan Micus outfitted some of his most formative expeditions in the territories of the JAPO sub-label. On these albums one hears Micus at his most elemental, turning every gesture into inter-spatial awareness. The album’s duration of 36 minutes only serves to deepen its intimacy as a space in which the listener might catch a cushion of meditation in a world of splinters. Micus’s practice has always been to render the stem before the flower, and in the album’s title track a table harp provides that very illustrative function. Its dulcimer-like heart beats a rhythm at once ancient and fresh, curling as the scriptural page, its edges darkened from constant contact with the hands. Those same hands cradle a method of speech so musical that its melody is discernible only in the freedom of solitude.
East Of The Night, released in 1985, is one of Micus’s most melodic albums. Its two long tracks epitomize, ever so humbly, the dictum of less is more. The title piece, a conversation for 10-string guitar (an instrument of his own design) and shakuhachi, feels like a dialogue between master and disciple. Micus’s guitar combines the reediness of a lute with the subtle ferocity of a koto, making it a natural partner to the shakuhachi’s dawning breath. Each pluck of a string works the upholstery of the sky until a surface of untreated wood is revealed behind it. Details of handiwork once obscured by finery and ornament now become naked art. With the softness of a windblown curtain, the plectrum moves from foreground to background before the shakuhachi takes on a Milky Way texture in a suite of thrumming stardust. The flute fragments, multiplies, and ends the set’s first half on a congregational sigh.
If Micus’s saga were an ongoing raga, then 1983’s Listen to the Rain would be one of its most inward-looking prayers. All four meditations that make up the album, while externally distinct, are internally connected through Micus’s use of guitar. The Spanish variety plays a particularly active role throughout, with the sole exception of “Dancing with the Morning,” for which he pairs the ubiquitous steel-stringed with the suling, a bamboo flute often heard in gamelan ensembles of southeast Asia. Knowledgeable listeners will recognize both the rarity of the backpacker’s trusty companion in the Micus canon and its elemental necessity in this setting. The ascetic sheen of its metal strings paints a world of shine to which a human presence adds less manufactured colors. The suling’s unclipped wings, by extension, are exhaled into the sky above, circling and darting through the surrounding melodies until they take shape under cover of their own imagination.
An ethereal, primordial Experience. Implosions is a state of consciousness that wraps you in the arms of swirling air, transports you to ethnic lands, where spices catch your pallet. Where stories are swapped and legends of old are discovered again. Stephan Micus takes you down the river Ganges as he plays from the sitar, you are in a languished state of being. His ethnic chants suffocate you until you are spirit removed from flesh. The mist begins to fall and as the fog rolls in you are swept into the remotest parts of the world, where things thought to have been lost or abandoned have been uncovered. Caravans from the east are swept into a mirage in the horizon, while strange red stone pillars stab at the sky. Then you come across the foothills of machu picchu, incensed by its abandonment you climb to the summit there an elder of a race long since vanished gives you knowledge of the new world. You stumble back into reality, Unable to return.
At a time when, at least for First World residents, there seems no respite from the relentless, rapid pace of life, artists like Stephan Micus provide welcome clarity; proof that there are alternatives. Difficult though it may seem, when immersed in all the push-and-pull of day-to-day distractions, there is another way; it's just not necessarily an easy one. For nearly four decades, Micus has traveled the world, a student of culture and society…and the music that naturally evolves from the two. Acquiring and learning to use ethnic instruments from around the world—often taught to him in the remotest locales—for the past two decades, Micus has always, ultimately, returned home to the island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain, where he has honed his craft through an organic process of experimentation, recording and gradual shaping of music that truly transcends all cultural boundaries. Each of the eighteen albums he's released since 1977—first, on the JAPO subsidiary, and then on the main ECM label—has introduced at least one new instrument to his expanding array of flutes, reeds, percussion, stringed instruments.
Being a perpetual student, Stephan Micus usually makes world music by default. He breathes patience and skill into the exotic instruments he uncovers, but certainly with respectful bending of the rules along the way. Towards the Wind follows in the same exploratory tradition – educated, but unassuming as to the nature of what an instrument is "supposed to do." Here, the album evokes an easily digestible cross section of Middle Eastern mysticism – swirling sand dunes, rust-colored sunsets, and sacred spaces.