Panagia is Stephan Micus’ 20th album for ECM, and it coincides with his 60th birthday in January 2013.
The Greek word Panagia is one of the names of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. In a Greek Orthodox church, it is often the Panagia that is in the apse above the altar as a fresco or mosaic. She is also frequently depicted in Byzantine icons. “For all the Greeks I know, even the most radical, it is unthinkable not to respect the Panagia,” says Micus.
Stephan Micus’ album takes six Byzantine Greek prayers and sets them in his own inimitable way with instruments he has collected in years of travels round the world. “The prayers are to the Virgin Mary,” says Micus, “but I also see this as a more universal work. It is not only Christian and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but to the female energy that is everywhere in the world. The Chinese have this concept of yin and yang, and keeping the balance between them, which is very important to me. In our time, the male energy has become too overbearing, but in ancient times the gods were predominantly female. In the last 2000 years, the three monotheistic religions have over-emphasised the male aspect. I see this album as a small contribution to changing that status quo.”
Stephan Micus was born in Germany in 1953, but has lived in Mallorca for many years. His first ECM album, Implosions, was released in 1977 and since then he has created 19 more using instruments of every kind collected on travels all over the world – winds, strings and percussion, including bells, gongs, stones and flower pots. He composes, records and mixes the albums in his studio in Mallorca. Micus is a one-man universe of sound and his music is very powerful and quite unique. “For me a CD is a journey,” he explains, “I am like a guide and I take the listeners on a trip, passing through different landscapes and emotions and then I bring them back”.
Panagia picks up from Micus’ 1994 album Athos, named after the monastic peninsula in northern Greece which Micus has visited eight times. “The Athos album is dedicated to a place, but Panagia is dedicated to a divine sense of female energy”, says Micus. In its sound world, the opening track of Panagia clearly refers back to the opening track of Athos featuring the Bavarian zither accompanying Micus’ solo voice. Both albums alternate sung poems with instrumental tracks and have a clearly symmetrical, even ritualistic, structure. “On the Athos album I featured mostly wind instruments because walking there I was in the most untouched Mediterranean landscape in existence on a path made 1000 years ago. It’s a pastoral landscape and the Greek god Pan played the flute, so the wind sounds seemed appropriate. On Panagia I wanted to make a contrast and (apart from some Egyptian nay flutes low in the mix on track 7) focussed on strings,” he explains. “The string instruments come from Bavaria, India, Pakistan, Chinese Xinjiang plus my own invention, a 14-string guitar.”
There are two instruments Micus is using for the first time – Zanskari horsebells and Chitrali sitar. “All my compositions have a personal history,” says Micus. “I don’t just go and buy instruments that are mass-produced. I collected these bells trekking over the Himalayas and one of them I exchanged at 5000 metres in a snowstorm on a pass in Zanskar. My sherpa decided he was not going to cross this pass and we had to unpack the horse and I asked him to sell the bell that I had been listening to for one week on the trek. These instruments and these stories give me energy. A mass-produced bell doesn’t have this energy. For the Chitrali sitar, I was driving for two days in a jeep in the mountains of Pakistan and this old man in the valley finally decided to sell it. When I take it in my hand and play, I remember all this and it puts some poetry into the music I compose”.
The music on Panagia certainly has the fervour and restraint of Byzantine art, but what it doesn’t share is its formulaic quality. If you visit the churches of Mount Athos, or other Orthodox monasteries, you see magnificent paintings like radiant visions, but you do see the same scenes repeated over and over. But with Micus every piece is unique. He selects his instruments carefully with a Buddhist-like love of the sonority itself – a gong stroke, a plucked string or rich-sounding reed.
Panagia begins simply with Micus accompanying himself on Bavarian zither as he sings the Greek prayer ‘I Praise You, Unfading Rose’. “It’s a handicap not to speak the language,” says Micus, “but it has some positive aspects because I hear the language as pure sound and I enjoy the texts like music”. All the same, the word ‘Maria’ still glows as if with a golden halo in candlelight at the centre of this setting. Micus returns to the same sound world for the final track ‘I Praise You, Cloud of Light’.
The instrumental pieces take their titles from phrases in the sung poems. The second track uses chimes and bells with the dark, otherworldly sound of bowed Indian dilruba, a combination which returns symmetrically in the penultimate piece. The other bowed instrument is the slightly nasal Xinjiang sattar, a violin to the dilruba’s cello sound. Three of them play together in a delightfully raspy trio for ‘You are like Fragrant Incense’. After the opening, Micus multi-tracks his voice to create a chorus of up to 22 voices. ‘I Praise You, Sacred Mother’ sounds distinctly Georgian, a country that also shares the Orthodox faith and Micus has visited four times to study their polyphonic choral music.
But Micus emphasises that his aim is never to replicate other people’s music, but to create something new and universal. “There are combinations here that nobody has done before,” says Micus with some pride. “The Chitrali sitar, Indian dilruba and Uyghur sattar are scattered across a relatively small area, but have never been played together. For me there’s a great excitement about that”.