'Snow' is the title Stephan Micus has given to his 18th album for ECM. It is the outcome of continuous work he has carried out on journeys and in the studio since the release of his 'On the Wing' in early spring 2006. 'To me, snow is one of the most beautiful of all natural phenomena', explains Micus, who has been living in Spain for many years. 'It’s closely associated with lasting impressions of my original home in Bavaria, especially the long moonlit walks I used to take when I lived in the Alpine foothills. I've always regarded snow as the essence of magic, even more so today now that there's so little of it and the glaciers are disappearing.' Micus's music has always drawn on impressions of nature and the countryside. The inspiration for his new album came largely from a long study tour through Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the mountains of the Caucasus. He travelled through these distant and extremely isolated regions partly by Jeep, partly on extended trips by foot. He met people from many walks of life and became acquainted with their living conditions and musical traditions.
As always, Micus travelled with one object in mind: to learn new instrumental or vocal techniques from traditional masters. In autumn 2006 he paid his second long visit to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in order to study the duduk, an Armenian double-reed instrument made of apricot wood. The duduk, which figured prominently on his album 'Towards the Wind' in 2002 (ECM 1804), is known to have existed in pre-Christian times and is listed today on UNESCO's 'Masterworks of Mankind's Oral and Intangible Heritage'. 'Snow' presents it so to speak as the main protagonist of the musical activity, allowing it to appear in unprecedented combinations with African, Asian, South and North American and European instruments, including an especially expressive duet with the Bavarian zither.
In 'Snow', Micus usually presents the instruments he has gathered from all over the world in unorthodox contexts, altering their techniques and employing modified versions ordered from local instrument makers. For example the bass duduk, traditionally used only for drone accompaniments, is entrusted with broadly-arched melodic lines on an enlarged instrument with a lower range and darker sound. 'I've always tended to use instruments as large and low-pitched as possible', Micus explains. 'Every time I order one of these customised versions somewhere in the world, the craftsmen in the workshops raise their eyebrows. But usually their scepticism is followed by growing excitement once they hear the new instrument and recognise its expanded potential.'
'I feel strong ties to the sound of these age-old instruments. To me they lie somewhere on the border between an object and a living being, between a thing and a person. Sometimes I actually think of them as sentient beings. You have to listen to what they want to say. When you do, you connect almost automatically with their traditional idiom. To me, it’s important not to adopt any pre-existing melodies, or even fragments of them, but to develop a language of my own.' At times the result can be quite far removed from the instrument's traditional character. On 'Snow' this is especially audible in Micus's very free handling of the Bavarian zither to accompany the great duduk solo on 'Midnight Sea'.
While the human voice was entirely missing on Micus's previous album 'On the Wing', it plays a leading role on 'Snow', sometimes magnified into a mighty choir. Over the last 12 years he has travelled four times to Georgia to study its traditional art of choral singing. With the help of two teachers, he has explored the country's polyphonic songs (usually in three parts) between the Caucasus and the Black Sea. He drew further inspiration from a study trip to Bulgaria, whose famous women's choirs he has admired for many years.
'Snow' is also Micus’s first album to feature a South American instrument. He devotes two solos, each roughly five minutes long, to the charango, a plucked instrument from Peru resembling a ukulele. Egypt, Armenia, Burma, China, Germany, Gambia, Mali, Peru, Tibet and the United States: the list of the countries where the instruments on Micus's album originated makes it clear that the imaginary 'world music' that he has been playing for the last 35 years (he was born in 1953) is possible in this form only at the present moment. 'Fifty years ago I couldn't travel as much as I do today', he says, 'and in another 50 years many of the instruments may no longer exist as many musical traditions are threatened with extinction.'
Micus's working methods, too, are definitely connected with the immediate present. He plays each instrument and sings every voice himself. The 'score' is ultimately an accumulation of successively recorded tracks assembled in his studio. 'I don't write down my music in score notation but work with recording equipment from the very start. I improvise on an instrument as long as it takes to find a phrase that seems interesting. Then I develop and elaborate these seeds. Thanks to the recording equipment, I have a mirror for my work whenever I want, even after a long break. Letting things lie and listening to them later is a very important part of the process. Another is trying out the many possibilities of combining my instruments. It takes time, for the music has to grow organically.'