“On the Wing” is Stephan Micus’s first album without voice since 1990 and in contrast to “Life” (2004) in which he set to music a Japanese Zen Koan this album is not built around a “libretto”. Although the titles of the individual pieces convey the musician’s close affinity to nature they are associative rather than descriptive. Nevertheless, the album is conceived as an entity. “For me this is like a journey or a story: the start of a movement that is transformed in many ways and eventually comes to an end”, says Micus of his ten-part suite. The first four pieces, for example, prepare for the large ensemble of the fifth, “The Bride”, which takes a central position also due to its ceremonial character.
Among the instruments from China, Tibet, Iraq, Egypt, Japan, Burma, Indonesia, Korea, India, Spain, Switzerland and the USA, three stand out as protagonists: the sattar, a bowed instrument with one metal string and ten resonating strings from the Uigur people in Western China, the mudbedsh, a reed instrument from Iraq and the hné, another reed instrument from Burma (Myanmar), a country Micus had first visited under difficult political circumstances in 1974 and to which he developed a particularly close relationship during three further visits. “The hné is a very powerful instrument with a piercing sound that is mostly played outdoors. Each time I came to Burma I took lessons from hné players, so I was really keen to finally integrate the instrument into a composition.”
In the course of his extensive exploratory trips around the world Micus, born 1953 in the south of Germany, has collected a vast array of instruments. Four of them make their first appearance on a Micus record here: the aforementioned hné and mudbedsh but also the mandobahar, an extremely rare bowed bass instrument from India which Micus found by chance in Calcutta some twenty years ago, and the hang, a percussion instrument inspired by Caribbean steel drums. Right from the beginning Micus has never contented himself with learning only the playing techniques of indigenous instruments but has always tried to experience daily life and to understand the respective cultures in their complexity.
During a long stay in India in the early 1970s he worked with great intensity on the sitar. “In 1976 I then composed the piece ‚As I crossed a Bridge of Dreams’ (ECM/Japo 60017), where I first made use of the sitar in association with guitar and voice. Now, thirty years later, I have finished another piece for the instrument, my first composition for sitar solo. For me the problem about the sitar has always been its very close connection to traditional Indian music and its greatest masters. My foremost intention however is to remove the instruments from their original contexts and to create a new sound world for them. This is very difficult with the sitar as it has such a characteristic and clearly recognisable sound. For years I’ve been experimenting with different strings and tunings until finally I took off all but two strings, thus going back to a sort of elementary sitar. In its Persian origins it actually had only three or four strings and none of the other playing or resonant strings that were added later on as the instrument developed in India.” In many cases Micus plays the instruments in his own unorthodox way or modifies them in order to attain the sounds he imagines.
Micus is particularly interested in unconventional combinations of several instruments in larger groups. “The sattar and the mudbedsh have never been played together yet simply because they come from regions so far apart which didn’t have any musical exchange over the centuries. But as a combination of reeds and strings they blend so well that I can easily imagine this ensemble being developed further.”
Completing “On the Wing” took three years in the studio, from 2003 to 2006. “Recording my pieces takes always a lot of work as I play all the instruments myself and the music consists of so many tracks which I record consecutively. Except when I’m on concert tours I dedicate all my time to the studio work.” Both Micus’s technical realisation of the multi-track recordings and the way he composes have their own process: “Rather than writing my music in score notation I work with recording machines right from the start. I improvise on an instrument until I come upon a phrase which strikes me as interesting. Such a phrase normally works as a seed for musical development and elaboration. Due to the presence of the tape machines I always have a perfect mirror of my music even if I stop working on it for longer periods. It’s very important for me to leave pieces alone for a while and then to listen to them again with a certain distance. I experiment with different combinations of instruments and phrases and allow them to grow organically.”
“On the Wing” is Stephan Micus’s 17th album for ECM
CD package includes 12-page booklet with information on the instruments and a full discography.