Stephan Micus is a multi-instrumentalist and composer from Germany who traveled the globe for more than half-a-century studying ancient musical techniques and instruments. Rather than employ them as reflections of their respective traditions, he combines modes of expression in exciting new ways. Since 1978 he has recorded exclusively for ECM Records, but unlike most of its artists, he is one of the few label boss Manfred Eicher doesn't produce. Early recordings, such as 1977's Koan and the following year's Til the End of Time, found Micus playing various flutes -- from shakuhachi and sho -- to guitars, rabat, and rahab, to singing. Later recordings such as 1986's Ocean and 1989's groundbreaking The Music of Stones revealed he was creating an original vanguard "folk music." 1994's Athos (A Journey to the Holy Mountain), was an outlier for Micus as he recorded self-penned a cappella chants for up to 22 voices. Micus travels to different global regions and learns their traditional instruments (and collects them) as taught by local masters. Then he creates an interrogatory process that combines them with others in his collection. 2001's acclaimed Desert Poems utilized multi-layered vocal chants with singing, doussn' gouni, flower pots, and sattar. For 2013's Panagia, he returned to Greece and celebrated the female goddess/deity of its title with Tibetan chimes, Burmese temple bells, Zanskari horsebells, multi-tracked vocals, six diltruba, and numerous flutes, zithers, and kalimbas.
Micus was raised and educated in Germany in a home that was not musical. On his 12th birthday he received a guitar and learned to play. He became interested in the concert flute after listening to Jethro Tull. He was playing in rock groups at school but quickly moved away from it and began making music with English texts and acoustic guitar. He says he made his first album while still in school. He first heard Indian classical music toward the end of high school and for him, it marked the moment he knew his vocation. At 16 he traveled to India to learn to plays its classical music on the sitar, establishing a pattern that continues to this day. Since that time, he has spent extensive periods studying ancient musical techniques across the globe and collecting ethnic instruments, some of which were previously unknown in the West. After returning, Micus traveled to New York and hung out at WBAI, then a haven for musicians who recorded for ECM. He had made his first recordings on a journey to Spain, and WBAI program director Judy Sherman (later a producer for the Kronos Quartet) liked them enough to create an hour-long broadcast. She encouraged him to look Eicher up when he returned to Munich. In 1976, he called the producer and they met. Eicher was present in the studio for his first two label offerings, Implosions and Behind Eleven Deserts; since that time, Micus has recorded alone with engineers. Initially, Micus was given the same restriction as most ECM artists in those years -- three days to record and mix. But by the '80s, he began to record with a month-long break between days of taping. From 1978 on, he delivered an album every two or three years with no input from the label. His infrequent concert appearances and his constant travel and studies made pursuing a conventional career impossible. Micus' reputation spread across Europe and Asia with each successive release. In the U.S. it was less so, but musicians found his work inspiring and instructive. On 1983's Listen to the Rain, critics remarked in wonder about his inventive use of four multi-tracked Spanish guitars, all playing in counterpoint in different octaves. New age audiences were hipped to his music through programs like Stephen Hill's syndicated Hearts of Space, but the composer ignored the phenomenon. For Micus, the '90s proved to be an intense time of discovery; the decade marked the release of some of his most significant recordings such as Athos, To the Evening Child, and Desert Poems, but it was in the early 21st century with Garden of Mirrors (mid-2000), and reissues of Desert Poems and Koan a year later, that his reputation as an innovator was cemented in the Americas, guaranteeing him a modicum of security. He built his own studio in Mallorca and released Towards the Wind in 2002, Life in 2004, and On the Wing in 2006, all of which kept his multi-cultural and multi-instrumental style intact.
Micus delivered the concept recording Snow in 2008 with a cover painted by his late father Eduard. It was his most intimate and personal date. Along with his usual plethora of instruments he added the charango, a South American stringed instrument from the Andes. On Bold as Light, he employed customized versions of the raj nplaim, a free-reed bamboo pipe from Laos, and the Japanese nohkan flute, also made of bamboo. As always, he not only studied the music of the instrument's native regions, but expanded the tonal reaches with his customization of them. For his 20th album, Micus collaborated with Greek historian and scholar Vassilis Chatzivassiliou in pre-production. The professor selected Byzantine-era (seventh century) texts that were ancient prayers to "Holy Mary" (the "Panagia" of the title). The artists gave modern voice to these texts by utilizing bells from several traditions, gongs, stringed instruments, and up to 20 voices. Panagia was issued in March of 2013.
Micus' iconoclastic musical odyssey brought him to the nyckelharpa, a keyed Swedish folk harp. Modifying it to suit, he learned to play it with a long (rather than the traditionally short) bow, and upright in order to manipulate it like a cello. Micus made the nyckelharpa the centerpiece of his 22nd album, Inland Sea, in 2017. The instrument was not only bowed, but plucked, scraped, and multi-tracked in ten compositions along with shakuhachi flute, balanzikom, genbri, guitars, various zithers, and his voice. Two years later, White Night offered an album-length meditation on moonlight that uncharacteristically found him recording two of its tracks, "The Moon" and "All the Way," with his army of instruments and vocals in a single take. ~ Linda Kohanov