Stephen Micus ‘White Night’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Stephen Micus is an extraordinary musical traveller, exploring the world, collecting instruments and then creating his own musical worlds for them. His beguiling music is often as surprising at it is meditative and his relationship with the natural elements of the world in which we live is just as important as the rare and evocative instruments and instrumentation he uses. Micus’ relationship with ECM Records goes back decades, and this is, in fact, his 23rd album for the label.

The ten tracks on “White Night” particularly rely on the sound of various sub-Saharan kalimba (thumb pianos) and the oboe-like Armenian duduk. Micus takes the listener on a journey into an imaginary world, with different scenes unfolding, depending on the moods created by the instruments being used. In addition to the wonderful sound of his 14 string guitar, he uses instruments from Tibet, India, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and Ethiopia, most of them in combinations never heard before.

And so it is that the composer’s strong and physical relationship with nature, landscapes and the people who inhabit them, is the inspiration for his music. “Nowadays people in cities have lost contact with the moon,” says Micus. “I have lived all of my life in the countryside and have had the privilege to experience many nights around the full moon. That’s why I dedicate this album to the moon which has always been a source of magic in many cultures. Music too is a source of magic which is where the two connect.”

There’s obviously a profound connection for Micus between instruments, music, people and the planet we inhabit, with inspiration coming from many cultures throughout the whole world. His expressive use of the instruments doesn’t necessarily rely on him being an expert performer of every instrument, as that would, of course, be impossible given the fact that the tradition and complete learning of an instrument can take a lifetime. What Micus does, very successfully, is to integrate the feel and sound of an instrument into his own unique style of writing and performing. And he achieves this in such an expressive way, taking influence from folk traditions the world over, and combining the elemental nature of things with his own being. The results are often startling.

“White Night” opens with “The Eastern Gate” and closes with “The Western Gate”, two incredibly compelling tracks, featuring five 14-string guitars, bass duduk and Tibetan cymbals. The eight tracks in-between range from the mesmerising “The River”, performed on kalimba and the hauntingly beautiful duduk, to the incandescent “Black Hill”, which features 8 Indian cane whistles, nay, sinding and dondon. “These are old and unique instruments” says Micus. “Most of them I found in remote villages and so each one has its own story connected with the people I met.”

In Micus’ music, you can hear the stories and see the people who told them. You can picture the landscapes and the traditions from whence they come. A visual picture is imagined from the audible sound and expression we are listening to. And that’s one of the wonders of the music he creates. He is like a vessel through which ancient tradition travels, allowing us to experience a small, yet enlightening piece of what he encounters on his journeys.

Mike Gates