Stephan Micus is a unique musician and composer. He collects and studies instruments from all around the world and creates his own musical journeys with them. This is his 25th solo album for ECM and its sound is dominated by the four-metre long Tibetan dung chen trumpet, an instrument he has recently learned and is using for the first time. It was the thunderous sound of this instrument that led to the album’s name and its nine tracks celebrating deities around the world. “I dedicate this music to the big family of thundergods around the world, humbly hoping that - when they hear it - their destructive powers will be somehow pacified,” he says. It features instruments - all played by Stephan Micus - from Tibet, India, Burma, Borneo, Siberia, Japan, South America, Gambia, Namibia, Sweden and Bavaria.The album will be released to coincicde with Stephan’s 70th birthday January 19.
Stephan Micus’ new album is a tribute and offering to thunder gods around the world. As a natural phenomenon so dramatic and alarming, it’s clear that cultures everywhere would create their gods to placate lightening and thunder.
However Micus’ original inspiration wasn’t the thunder gods, but an instrument. Since 1973 he’s been travelling extensively in the Himalayas, from the Hindu Kush, Ladakh and Zanskar in the west to Eastern Nepal and Sikkim in the east. “The great attraction first of all was the mountains and the dramatic landscapes, but a highlight always was spending time in the Tibetan monasteries. Whenever I could I would listen to the ritual and ceremonial music. Music that seems timeless - both ancient and modern - at the same time.”
The most striking instruments in these Tibetan monastic ceremonies are the long dung chen trumpets, growling as a deep fundamental tone behind the most significant and profound ceremonies. This ritual trumpet is the inspiration behind Stephan’s 25th solo album for ECM, a compelling statement about our reaction to the power of nature, our inability to control it and desire to placate it.
Stephan Micus has travelled the world studying and collecting instruments and playing them in his own compositions. When he wanted to learn the Tibetan dung chen trumpet, it proved surprisingly difficult. He finally found a monastery in Bodnath, a Buddhist centre in Kathmandu, Nepal where the monks agreed to teach him. “They said that it is usually only taught to monks and that I am possibly the first non-Tibetan to learn and play it.”
The dung chen tracks are the most dramatic on the album and form the opening, centre, and closing, like a repeated pattern in a mandala. The central track is dedicated to the Tibetan Buddhist thunder god Vajrapani - usually depicted in images or statues with the the ‘vajra’ (lightning bolt} in his right hand. “I wanted to combine the dung chen with the nohkan - both instruments played in orchestras far from the Western understanding of music and both influenced by Buddhism.” The nohkan is the flute used in Japanese noh theatre. Although gyaling shawms are part of Tibetan Buddhist rituals ensembles, it seems surprising that flutes are not used.
In Tibetan music, the dung chen only plays a couple of low drone notes, but on this album Stephan makes it do agile horn calls. And he combines it with a Siberian instrument, the ki un ki, a two metre long stalk through which the player inhales, rather than blows. Closely miked, this sounds remarkably trumpet like. It’s amazing how these two contrasting instruments sound so appropriate together.
Micus first saw the ki un ki in Munich when Siberian groups toured Europe in the 1980s. He wanted to buy the instrument, but the player couldn’t part with it till the tour was over. Afterwards, the Udegey (one of the many indigenous peoples of Siberia) left two instruments for Stephan in Berlin as a present. “The ki un ki is just a stalk growing in the forest. Once cut at the bottom, the instrument is ready to play. When my first composition with it was finished, I had a strong wish to visit the Udegey to see how they lived and especially to see the plant growing in the Siberian forest. But it was in the time of communism and I could not get a permit. Finally in 2014, I was able to visit the Udegey around 200 km east of Khabarovsk, almost near the Pacific, and thank them for their present.” The only other time Stephan has used the ki un ki is on his 1990 Darkness and Light album when one reviewer wrote: “it sounds as if Miles Davies has finally gone really mad”.
“All these instruments have their own stories - how I was able to find them or how they were able to find me”, says Micus. “It’s the personal stories of the instruments that help give me the energy to create music with them. If I could just buy these instruments online from Amazon, it would never be the same.” The Himalayan horse bells he is using come from an adventurous trek in Zanskar.
Another instrument Micus is using for the first time is the kaukas - a five string harp or lyre of the San people in Southern Africa, “it’s very aesthetically beautiful looking somehow like a sailing boat, one of the most archaic instruments on our planet. It took me a long time to find the kaukas as it is, like so many other instruments, disappearing and hardly being played any more. I finally found one in a San settlement in Nambia”. Its soft, metallic plucking joins the sapeh from Borneo and accompanies Stephan’s voice on A Song for Armazi and A Song for Ishkur (the thunder gods of Georgia and ancient Mesopotamia).
Nine thunder gods are praised with instruments from Tibet, India, Burma, Borneo, Siberia, Japan, South America, Gambia, Namibia, Sweden and Bavaria.