Stephan Micus has traveled widely during the course of his eclectic 30-year musical odyssey and in the process has learned how to play dozens of traditional instruments originating in cultures as far away as remote parts of Asia, Africa and South America and as near as his native Germany. Yet it wasn’t until the late-1990s that he discovered the duduk, the Armenian double-reed woodwind that is the latest addition to the ever-expanding cornucopia of instruments he has mastered and the one he casts as the main protagonist on “Towards The Wind”, his 16th solo recording.
An oriental predecessor of the oboe and clarinet, the duduk is crafted from the wood of an apricot tree and its warm, resonant tone and slightly nasal timbre can sound uncannily like the human voice. Capable of communicating a spectrum of emotions from ecstasy to melancholy, it has been used over the centuries to interpret both the secular and sacred music indigenous to this rugged region at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. And as he has done so admirably on his previous recordings, Micus once again succeeds in respecting the heritage of an ancient instrument while adapting its form and function to suit the needs of his highly personal yet remarkably universal music.
“A few years ago a friend gave me several CDs by the duduk virtuoso Jivan Gasparian and I was fascinated by the wealth of textures and sounds he was able to create with an instrument that has the limited tonal range of not much more than an octave,” Micus explained in a phone conversation from his home in Mallorca, Spain. “I found myself as captivated as I was when I first heard the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute that has been my close musical companion since my late-teens,” he confided. “As on many earlier occasions with other instruments I felt a strong impulse to learn how to play the duduk and soon afterwards found myself in Yerevan, Armenia. I was there for the entire month of September 1999 and quite fortunate that Jivan was home and willing to teach me. Every day I spent several hours with Jivan, who is an exceptional teacher, and I was not only able to learn a lot from him in a relatively short time, but he also helped me select several excellent instruments.”
Micus has always been fascinated by the reed instrument family and over the past 30 years has studied and experimented with such European renaissance instruments as the kortholt, krummhorn, pommer, schalmei and sordun; Algerian bagpipes; p’iri (Korea); hichiriki (Japan); kuan (China); saxophones; clarinets; tarogato (Hungary); mudbedsh (Iraq); hné (Burma); Uillean pipes (Ireland); shenai (India); benas (Sardinia); mizmar (Yemen); and surna (Pakistan). „With the exception of my composition for the kortholt ‘Till The End Of Time’ (JAPO 60026) [the title track of a CD he recorded in 1978], I never publicly released my explorations with other reeds because a touch of dissatisfaction always remained inside me. Yet I was quite amazed to learn that an instrument in possession of such a Zen-like quality had developed in Armenia,” he continued. “Obviously the duduk and shakuhachi come from very different cultures yet they seem to have similar souls to me. For example, each has a very breathy tone that resonates so richly there’s really no need to write complicated pieces for them. One can express quite a lot on either instrument by simply playing one note.”
Micus plays the duduk to great effect on “Towards The Wind”, an eight-part suite that is almost classical in its structural development and on which he uses the basic elements of air, wood and metal to tell an engrossing musical tale. The recording opens with “Before Sunrise”, an evocative solo showcase for the bass duduk. “Traditionally the duduk is not played alone,“ Micus explained. “Usually three or more are played in unison to create a drone over which another duduk solos. Also, the bass duduk is normally never used to state a melody or perform a solo but rather to provide an extremely simple drone accompaniment which may only consist of one or two notes.”
On “Morning Breeze” Micus expands rhythmic and melodic patterns traditionally played on the kalimba, an East African thumb piano, while “Flying Horses” heralds his return to playing the guitar after a hiatus of several years as he reintroduces the steel-stringed instrument last heard 19 years ago on his CD “Listen To The Rain” (JAPO 60040). “I have benefited from letting instruments rest for periods that can often be quite long which enables me to discover them anew,” he explained. “In my experience distancing oneself from one’s work is an essential element in the creative process as well as in daily life. In composing it often helps me to approach an instrument as if I have never seen it before and don’t have the slightest idea about how to play it. That way completely new ideas can arise.”
The meditative duduk solo “Padre” is dedicated to Micus’s father Eduard, a respected contemporary painter who died in 2000, while “Virgen de la Nieve”, a paean to purity, is a solo for the 14-string guitar Micus designed in 1982 which he last used in 1985 on his recording “East Of The Night” (JAPO 60041). “Eastern Princess” is the CD’s only vocal selection and a piece on which he sings in the now familiar fantasy language he developed many years ago using spontaneously found “words”.
The empathetic relationship he found to exist between the Armenian duduk and the Japanese shakuhachi clearly inspired Micus, and two of the three intricate multi-track pieces on “Towards The Wind” reveal just how close they are to being musical soul mates. “Birds Of Dawn” is the atmospheric first encounter between the two and also features the sattar (a bowed instrument from West China), the dondon (West African “talking drum”) and kalimba. On “Crossing Dark Rivers”, an hypnotic showcase for duduk, shakuhachi and guitar, the three main instruments featured on “Towards The Wind”, he celebrates this creative epiphany again, bringing the recording to its dramatic conclusion.