Multi-instrumentalist and composer Stephan Micus is an intrepid and adventurous seeker and explorer whose musical aesthetic is stimulated by a creative wanderlust that leads him to the far corners of the earth in an ongoing quest to discover traditional instruments and ancient performance practices from a host of the world's cultures. He not only studies and learns these, but also adapts them in a manner to suit his personal style. Over the years he has developed a unique and clearly identifiable sound that is both contemporary and timeless and which has attracted a global following among a discerning world music audience.
Micus expands his already broad musical horizons on Desert Poems, his 15th solo project, which he recorded between 1997 and 2000 in his studio on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. In addition to introducing new aspects of his artistry on the album he also adds several instruments to his ever-growing repertoire.
Among the "firsts" on Desert Poems are Micus's recorded debuts playing three African instruments ' the doussn' gouni, (a West African harp), the kalimba (a Tanzanian thumb piano) and the dondon (a talking drum from Ghana); his singing in English (a haunting solo a cappella performance called "Contessa Entellina" and on "For Yuko", dedicated to his daughter) and an instrumental arrangement of "Shen Khar Venakhi", a 13th century polyphonic choral piece from Georgia, which is the only work Micus did not compose to appear in his discography to date.
Micus also re-introduces, after a hiatus of several years, the sarangi, a bowed instrument from India that he played on his recordings Koan (ECM 804 SP) and Wings Over Water (JAPO 60038). He changed the form of the sarangi, which is traditionally constructed with three main gut strings and 35 sympathetic strings, by building a new bridge to accommodate 10 gut strings, and modified how the instrument is normally played by plucking it in a percussive way.
Other noteworthy aspects of Desert Poems include "First Snow" for solo shakuhachi (the Japanese bamboo flute) and several selections where he continues his use of the multi-track recording technique introduced on earlier albums to overdub his voice, clay flowerpots, the dilruba (another bowed instrument from India), the nay (an ancient Egyptian hollow reed flute), the sattar (a bowed instrument of the Uigurs, a Turkman tribe from Western China) and steel drums in a manner that empowers his solo recordings with their distinctive orchestral character.
The essence of this diverse collection of musical portraits ' which vary in mood from the meditative to the melancholy to the ecstatic ' is eloquently articulated in its title, although Micus observes that upon first hearing, the range of performances on Desert Poems might make it appear that the recording is not as thematically homogeneous as some of his earlier albums. For example, on his previous release, The Garden of Mirrors (ECM 1632), the focus was on African harps and vocal choirs, while steel drums played the central role on To The Evening Child (ECM 1486).
"If there is a thread that runs through this recording it's its austerity and simplicity, qualities I associate with and cherish about the desert," Micus explains. "I've traveled across the Sinai, Gobi, Sahara, Takla Makan and Arabian deserts - either on foot or on the backs of camels ' and I've always been struck by the silence and purity of these environments." Micus sensitively communicates the desolate beauty so characteristic of these regions on "Contessa Entellina," a hypnotic vocal tour de force he has recently been featuring in concert that was inspired by a visit he made to central Sicily several years ago.
"I passed through a village called Contessa Entellina while riding through the Sicilian countryside on a motor scooter after I performed a concert in Palermo in 1997," Micus explains. "I was intrigued by the name and stopped in a bar to ask about its origin. It seems Contessa Entellina was a countess who gave refuge to Albanian immigrants several hundred years ago and the town was named in her honor. It was August and as I drove off on my Vespa in the 40 degree heat, I started singing in a strange new way and made up this poem as I went along. The starkness of the parched fields, which were so dry that the earth had cracks in it several meters deep, gave the area a truly striking beauty."
Micus's unaccompanied vocal performance on "Contessa Entellina" marks the first time he has sung this way on record. "I first heard someone singing solo a cappella when I was 14 and studying flamenco guitar in Granada, Spain," he recalls. "It was a profound experience for me and it took more than 30 years before I felt confident enough to perform this way in public. The human voice is the most delicate and complex instrument in the world and singing solo puts the artist in an extremely vulnerable situation. In addition, it is especially challenging singing in English since, unlike Greek, Spanish or Italian, this is a hard-sounding language with many words ending in consonants."
Micus combined many different vocal styles on "Contessa Entellina" including that of the Japanese Noh theatre which he describes as "probably the strangest music that exists on the planet." He returns to more familiar vocal territory on the tracks "The Horses of Nizami" and "Mikhail's Dream" by singing in the fantasy language he developed which he has featured on several earlier recordings.
Another engrossing selection on Desert Poems is an instrumental arrangement of "Shen Khar Venakhi," a masterpiece of the centuries-old polyphonic singing tradition developed in the Caucasian country of Georgia. "I feel this is one of the most amazing pieces ever written in that the work is 750 years old yet its harmonies sound so modern," he says of the first non-original composition he has recorded. "I've visited Georgia twice to study the duduki, a kind of oboe, and more importantly to study the incredibly important choral tradition that developed there. 'Shen Khar Venakhi' was originally written for a three-part male choir and traditionally it's never interpreted instrumentally but my arrangement here is for six dilruba and six sattar."
In addition to the doussn' gouni solo "Night" and other African influenced songs on Desert Poems, and the Eastern influenced "Contessa Entellina" and "For Yuko," Micus adds a decidedly Western flavor to the album with "Adela," a piece that sounds like late-20th century chamber music yet is performed by overdubbing 22 dilruba. "Unlike the sitar, whose sound is difficult to disassociate from its cultural context, the dilruba is an Indian instrument that is easily adaptable and on 'Adela' I play it in a decidedly Western fashion," Micus explains. Almost all the instruments Micus uses are modified to some extent since he not only revels in experimenting with ways to physically alter them, but also enjoys discovering new or uncovering hidden sonic possibilities. "I sometimes add holes or rearrange holes on wind instruments, add strings to stringed instruments, and so forth. I also often use alternative tunings or, as I do with the sarangi, change the style in which they are played altogether," he says. "I have also designed instruments which several talented artisans in Germany, Spain, Japan and other countries build especially for me."
"Stylistically this recording definitely wanders all over the globe and someone familiar with various world music traditions would certainly be able to recognize elements from many different cultures," Micus says in reflecting on the influences he drew upon while creating Desert Poems. "But hopefully one also hears something new, since my goal as an artist is not only to respect the ancient heritages but hopefully to also bring something new and modern to the illustrious musical legacies I've been fortunate enough to encounter over the years."
Mitchell Feldman (c) August 2000