Though the purity of the moonlight has silenced both nightingale and cricket,
the cuckoo alone sings all the white night. (Anonymous, Japanese)
“I’ve always been inspired by moonlight,” says Stephan Micus. “Often I go walking, swimming in the sea or, best of all, cross-country skiing when the moon turns the snow into millions of diamonds. Moonlight for me has a special magic.”
Stephan Micus has a strong and physical relationship with nature, landscapes and the people who inhabit them, all over the world. You hear that in his music which is created for instruments he has collected in years of travels and re-fashioned for his own use. He plays all the parts and multi-tracks them with up to 22 layers on the ‘Fireflies’ track on this album. By contrast, ‘The Moon’ and ‘All the Way’ are solo pieces recorded in one take.
On White Night, his 23rd solo album for ECM, Micus takes us on a journey into an imaginary world entering at ‘The Eastern Gate’ and exiting at ‘The Western Gate’. In between the gates unfold the different scenes of the composition: ‘The Bridge’, ‘The River’, ‘The Moon’ and so on. Aside from the 14 string guitar, to conjure this world Micus plays instruments from Armenia, Tibet, India, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and Ethiopia, most of them in combinations never heard before.
For each of his albums, Micus uses a defined cast of instruments to create its distinctive soundworld. On White Night, the leading characters are African ‘thumb pianos’ (kalimba) and the Armenian duduk, two instruments which are extremely different in their personalities. The duduk always has a trace of melancholy, whereas the kalimba is imbued with a spirit of joy. To combine the two is like bringing two irreconcilable spirits together.
The technical name for the kalimba is a lamellophone, which comprises metal tongues attached to a resonator. They are known by different names in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa - mbira, kalimba, sanza, ndingo etc. On this album Micus uses instruments he has collected in Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and Ethiopia. “These are old and unique instruments,” he says. “Most of them I found in remote villages and so each one has its own story connected with the people I met, with the landscapes and these memories help me create the music for them, something an instrument bought in a shop could never do. In most cases I change the tunings according to the music which evolves when I start improvising on them. My first kalimba I bought in Tanzania some 26 years ago.”
“Whenever I travel I take a kalimba with me on my journey. It’s such a great instrument to carry along,” says Micus who has a practical relationship with these instruments. “It’s small and doesn’t disturb anyone. This enables me to keep working on some tunes and rhythms even if I am on the road.”
One of the solo tracks at the heart of the album is ‘All the Way’, played on a kalimba Micus bought in a village where the indigenous San people have been settled in Botswana. This is a one-take performance on an instrument of 22 keys.
“I admire the way that for thousands of years, the San lived on the land without leaving any traces or without doing any damage to it, just like the Australian aborigines or Native Americans. But strangely people have always looked down on these people, while really we should honour them for this great achievement”. This kalimba solo is a tribute to all people who respect our planet and preserve its amazing beauty. Another kalimba, from Tanazania, that Micus uses on ‘The River’, has small rings on its keys creating a buzzing sound like waves and splashes in the water.
On ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Forest’, Micus uses a kalimba specially created for this album. He commissioned the South African instrumentalist Phillip Nangle to build an instrument with just bronze keys instead of the usual steel ones. Bronze gives a warmer, more mellow sound, which makes a superb accompaniment to Micus’ voice singing his lyrics in an invented language.
Micus has made two trips to Armenia to learn to play the duduk, the plaintive, oboe-like instrument which lends its melancholy tone to so much Armenian music. The first time he studied with Djivan Gasparyan, the second with Gevorg Dabaghyan, two musicians who are considered by many to be the greatest living masters. He’s used the duduk on two previous albums Towards the Wind (2002) and Snow (2008). Traditionally the bass duduk is only used as an accompanying drone, playing just one or two notes. But on the opening and closing tracks of White Night Micus uses it for soulful melodies that frame his story with themes of deep profundity. You’ve never heard a duduk go as low as this.
The other solo in the centre of the album is ‘The Moon’, a duduk solo, played on a much smaller instrument than the standard one. The composition has nothing to do with traditional Armenian music, but certainly evokes the lonely, misty and ethereal shimmer of the moon in the night sky.
For many of his CD booklets Micus chooses a small text to intensify the particular mood of each album. For White Night he’s chosen a Japanese poem, so the track ‘The Poet’ could represent the anonymous writer reciting his verse about the entrancing birdsong in the white, moonlit night.
Other striking instruments we hear are Indian cane whistles multi-tracked many times, which in ‘Fireflies’ alternate with Micus’ own voice in chorus. “They are simple cane flutes which you play like a recorder. I bought them on the street somewhere costing a few cents each.” And there are the Tibetan cymbals which Micus bought in Ladakh. These are ritual temple instruments and their clashing rhythms bring a ceremonial quality to the opening and closing of this album.
It’s a reminder that Stephan Micus’ music has a profundity, that connects to cultures all over the world and their musical expression. But as he says, “it makes no sense for me to play traditional Armenian duduk.” His desire is to take us on a journey, using rare and obscure instruments combined in a novel way, to reach out to our universal emotions.
“Nowadays people in cities have lost contact with the moon,” says Micus. “I have lived all 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.”