Born in 1953 in Germany, Stephan Micus made his first journey to the Orient at the age of sixteen. Fascinated by the variety of musical cultures around the world Micus has travelled in virtually every Asian and European country as well as in Africa and the Americas. Studying with local master musicians he learned to play numerous traditional instruments, many of them unknown in the Western world. However, Micus‘s intention is not to play these instruments in a traditional manner, but rather to develop the fresh musical possibilities which he feels are inherent in them. In many of his compositions, which he performs himself, he combines instruments that have never before been played together. The resulting dialogues further reflect his vision of a transcultural music.
In addition to his exclusively acoustic instruments Micus also uses his voice, at times – with multitrack recording techniques – creating whole choral pieces by himself. The words he sings usually do not carry any known meaning. However, on Athos and Panagia he set to music ancient Greek prayers to the Virgin Mary, on Desert Poems he performed two original poems in English and on Life he has set to music an ancient Japanese Koan.
Many of Europe’s leading dance companies have chosen his work for their productions. He has performed hundreds of solo concerts over the last 30 years throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.
He has studied a variety of instruments including guitar, concert-flute, sitar in Benares (India), flamenco guitar in Granada (Spain), shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and sho (Japanese mouth organ) in Kyoto (Japan), suling (Balinese flute) in Ubud (Bali), Uillean pipes in Carna (Ireland), sinding (African harp) in Gambia, dondon (talking drum) in Accra (Ghana), doussn’ gouni (African harp) in Bamako (Mali), duduki (Georgian oboe) and Georgian polyphonic choral singing in Tbilisi (Georgia), hné (Burmese oboe) in Yangon and Mandalay (Myanmar), duduk (Armenian oboe) in Yerevan (Armenia), bagana (Ethiopian lyre) in Addis Abeba, nohkan (flute of the noh theatre) in Kyoto (Japan), Bulgarian polyphonic choral singing in Plovdiv (Bulgaria), genbri (bass lute of the gnaoua) in Essaouira (Morocco), ryuteki (flute of the gagaku orchestra) in Kyoto (Japan), tama (talking drum) in Kafountine (Senegal), dung chen (Tibetan alphorn) in Kathmandu (Nepal).
In search of musical culture and context Micus has travelled extensively, in particular in India, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Thailand, Egypt, Burma, Sri Lanka, Turkey, USA, Canada, Israel, China, Gambia, Senegal, Nepal, Ladakh, Sinkiang, Venezuela, Tanzania, Argentina, Peru, Ghana, Mali, Jordan, Georgia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Cabo Verde, Mauretania, Armenia, Karabagh, Siberia, Mongolia, Namibia, Iran, Tajikistan, Botswana, Sarawak, Colombia, Mozambique.
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Some of the instruments used by Stephan Micus on record and in concert:
Japanese bamboo flute with five holes and no mouthpiece, capable of subtleties unequalled by any other flutes in the world. Used for meditation by Zen monks.
10 and 14-string guitar
A new type of guitar designed by Stephan Micus, allowing many different kinds of stringing: 10 single strings, or 7 double strings, or sympathetic strings as on a sitar, etc.
Indian bowed instrument with 4 metal and 24 sympathetic strings and frets like the sitar. The bridge runs over a goat skin.
Originally from Bavaria, with different strings and tunings.
Japanese 'mouth-organ' consisting of 17 reed pipes inserted into a cup-shaped wind chest. Blowing into this wind chest while closing holes in the pipes produces a series of chords. The pipes sound whether the player breathes in or out, so a constant tone may be obtained. Has to be heated before playing.
American version of an instrument that is played in many parts of the world, such as Persia, China, the Balkans and the countries of the European Alps: it has 62 metal-strings across a soundbox which are struck with two small wooden hammers - one of the ancestors of keyboard instruments.
Ancient Egyptian hollow reed flute.
Long necked bowed instrument used by the Uigurs, a Turkman people from Western China. It has one metal playing string and ten sympathetic strings.
West African harp with five strings made of cotton. The resonating body is a gourd stretched with a goat skin. A tin rattle may be attached to the instrument. Plucking the strings sets the rattle in motion, adding a percussive element to the instrument's rather hollow sound.
West African harp with four gut strings over a gourd resonator and an attached tin rattle. The rattle is set in motion by the simultaneous striking of the strings and the sound box. In former times shepherds also used the Bolombatto to frighten off wild animals.
West African harp with six nylon or gut strings. The resonating body is a gourd stretched with a goat skin.
Afghan lute with 13 sympathetic strings. A folk instrument with a very earthy character and an especially 'dry' tone quality. The three main gut strings are stretched across a goat skin.
Indian string instrument with 13 sympathetic strings, 6 - 7 melody strings, and a resonant body fashioned from a dried gourd. The frets are movable.
Short German Renaissance reed instrument.
Table harp. A contemporary cross-breed of bowed psaltery, zither and harp. By means of a special string arrangement, the instrument can be both plucked and bowed.
Bowed instrument from India with 3 main gut strings and 35 sympathetic strings.
Accompanying drone instrument from India.
Xylophones used in the Gamelan orchestras of Bali.
West-Indian percussion instruments made out of old oil drums.
In China, stone-instruments had been in use for thousands of years, but are nowadays neglected. Micus also plays the stone-instruments of German sculptor Elmar Daucher who has developed completely new shapes for sonorous stones.
Bamboo rattles in tuned pitch from Java and Sumatra.
From Burma, Bali, China, Korea.
Bells and Chimes
From Burma and Tibet.
Irish tambourine drum, 50 centimetres in diameter. Played with a mallet while the other hand produces varying tones by pressing on the drum skin.
A set of 30 ordinary flowerpots, tuned with water and played with the hands or with mallets.
Hollow reed flute of the Balinese Gamelan orchestra, similar to the recorder.
Ki un Ki
A wind instrument used by the Siberian tribe of the Udegeys. It is a two-metre long stalk similar to our hemlock cane. In contrast to almost all other wind instruments, the tone of the ki un ki is not produced by exhaling, but rather by inhaling. The sound is suggestive of a trumpet. As the instrument has no fingering holes, the pitch can only be altered by lip pressure.
A one-meter long bronze rod is suspended from a hanging frame drum by means of a metal string. When the bronze rod is struck, the instrument's three components vibrate simultaneously and produce a gong-like tone of extremely long duration.
Tongues of various sizes are sawn in the top part of a wooden box and hit with mallets or with the hands.
Iraqi reed instrument.
Ancient Ethiopian lyre with ten gut strings which produce a distinct buzzing sound. The resonating body is a wooden box stretched with a goat or cow skin. It is thought to derive from king David's harp and is traditionally used exclusively to accompany religious songs.
'Talking-drum' from Ghana. The two ends of this hour-glass shaped drum are covered with membranes which are connected by leather strings. By squeezing and releasing these strings with the arm a variety of pitches can be produced.
Double reed instrument from Burma. Due to its very high volume and piercing sound it is mostly played outdoors. The reed is made of layered palm leaves.
A recently developed metal percussion instrument inspired by the steeldrums of the Caribbean.
An extremely rare Indian bass bowed instrument, similar to the dilruba, with movable frets. The bridge runs over a goat skin.
Irish metal folk flute.
Lamellophone from Tanzania. Metal tongues (flattened bicycle spokes or umbrella spokes) are fitted on a small wooden box. One end of them is fixed to a bridge so that the other free end can be plucked by the thumbs. Little rings are added to the metal tongues that give a buzzing timbre. Some people used the instrument to induce a trance for walking long distances.
Lamellophone from Botswana. It is similar to the Kalimba, but the ndingo´s metal tongues are made of thicker iron pieces which are tuned with small pieces of wax. Traditionally musicians play the ndingo over tin cans for better resonance. For Micus´recordings a wooden box has been attached to the instrument for this purpose.
A set of forty tuned gongs from Burma.
Plucked instrument from the South American Andes, resembling a miniature guitar with five pairs of nylon strings. It evolved in the 18th century from the contact of Spanish settlers with American Indians. Originally its resonator was made from the dried shell of an armadillo, which has recently been replaced by a wooden body.
Armenian double reed instrument made from apricot wood with a distinctive breathy timbre. Although limited in its tonal range it is capable of subtleties unequalled by any other reed instrument in the world.
A free-reed pipe made from bamboo, played by the Hmong people of Laos for entertainment and courtship.
Large zither made from Alpine sycamore maple. The vibrating length of the steel strings is about 1.70 m.
A new type of zither - designed by Stephan Micus - which allows its sixty-eight strings to be tuned in several chords.
Long necked lute with frets from the Chitral area of Western Pakistan. Made from mulberry wood it has five metal strings.
A bass string instrument with three gut strings from Marocco.It has a wooden resonance body over which a camel skin is streched. Hitting this skin while plucking the strings adds a percussive element to the playing. Played by the Gnaur, descendents of former black slaves, the instrument which has its roots in Subsaharan West Africa is traditionally used only in collaboration with large metal castanets and human voices for healing ceremonies, which usually last through a whole night.
Long-necked lute of the Uigur people from Xinjiang, Western China. Traditionally seven metal strings run over a snake skin which gives the instrument a special resonance. Micus plays the rewab with three gut strings.
Laquered traverse bamboo flute used in the Japanese Noh theatre. Its unique feature is a short tube that has been fitted inside, which upsets the normal acoustic parameters and makes it overblow not in octaves, but rather in sevenths and ninths.
A bowed instrument from Sweden. The player does not touch the strings with his fingers but changes the pitch of the four playing strings by means of the fifty-one keys which are attached to tangents, similar to the hurdy-gurdy. It has twelve sympathetic strings.
A rare lute with seven nylon strings played in the remote Wakhan valley of Tajikistan for Sufi ceremonies. Its body is made from mulberry wood over which is stretched a goat skin.
A hollow wooden box with eight differently-pitched tongues cut into its top surface. Of African origin, it can be played with the hands or mallets.
A bass xylophone from Mozambique. It is used in timbila ensembles which can consist of up to a dozen xylophones of different sizes. The chikulo only has four keys of heavy tropical wood about 80 cm long and 18 cm wide. Under each key is a huge calabash which acts as a resonator. In each calabash is a plastic membrane adding a buzzing timbre to the sound.
South American percussion instrument. A calabash is cut open on the bottom and a goat skin is stretched over the hole. A long metal spring is fixed to the goat skin and when put in motion it creates a sound similar to thunder.
A pluriarc of the Southern African San people. It has a trough-like wooden resonance body from which project five curved wooden sticks. Metal strings run from the ends of each stick to a string holder on the sound board.
Lute from Borneo carved from a single bole of wood with five metal strings.
Part of the Tibetan monastic orchestra, it is a four-metre long ritual trumpet similar to the Swiss alphorn but made of metal. In the traditional music just one or two very low notes are
produced. The instrument is also used to herald announcements.
Some years ago while travelling in a bus in Nepal it became clear to me how the perfect music should be. It was a very strong experience. We were driving through a valley at quite low altitude, maybe four to five hundred meters. In that area the landscape was very fertile. There were rice fields, water buffalos, children, trees, parrots and colourful villages full of vibrant life. Behind all of that one could see the mountains standing seven, eight thousand meters high, an inhospitable zone where no one can live. They appeared to be a symbol of eternity and with their shining snow peaks, also of purity. These two things side by side, colourful life and the eternal pure and unreachable, sometimes one dominating, sometimes the other, struck me to be the image of perfect music. The two opposites complemented one another; the fields would not have been so interesting without the mountains, and the mountains without the fields simply too cold. In my music I intend to have both of these elements present, the love of life’s emotions and this dimension of the eternal, unreachable. Music which emphasizes only one of these aspects becomes either too sweet or too cold. The perfect balance of course, will appear for each listener to be in another place.
From an interview with the magazine “Die Bühne”, Austria
Since he has improvised, composed, researched and recorded almost entirely on his own for four decades, it’s tempting to describe the multi-instrumentalist, singer and self-taught ethnomusicolocist Stephan Micus as world music’s most productive hermit – except that he’s travelled hundreds of thousands of miles in that time, insatiably learning from intimate encounters with that dwindling number of traditional musicians still untouched by globalization.
[…] Micus has played everything from bamboo flutes to rustic stringed instruments, from percussion to stones, and has overdubbed his voice to make full-sized choirs […]. He began with a piece for two tin whistles played in vivacious harmony and evoking the sounds of village dances and Andean panpipes. He accompanied a solemnly sung Greek prayer with a glittering shower of zither sounds, evoked a desolate winter on the Japanese nohkan flute against a pre-recorded clamour of metallic strings, then thumb-picked an almost Steve Reichian dance on an African box strung with spokes. […]
The second half brought more revelations, not least the Armenian bass duduk, which unleashed spookily sonorous purrs and car-horn growls that seemed incompatible with its modest dimensions. More fragile flute music, […] and a delicate tin-whistle encore wound up a transcendental meditation of a concert that nobody on the planet other than Stephan Micus could possibly have performed.
John Fordham, The Guardian
Stephan Micus is a man to be envied. Whereas ordinary mortals have just one life, he seems to lead three different ones all at the same time: one to travel, another to study and learn and a third to record a whole string of CDs of his own compositions. And he does all this without losing any of his tranquillity. His music is resounding proof of that.
Many of his instruments, most originating from Asia and Africa, represent age-old music traditions that are in danger of dying out. Viewed in this light, Micus' compositional oeuvre can be regarded as the Noah’s Ark of sound.
His music has lost none of its innocence, but has gained much in terms of wisdom. His solitary lifestyle and tendency to work alone have enabled him to develop his own very distinctive sound, averse to any whims of fashion.
Stephan Micus deserves a place of honour among contemporary composers, a laurel wreath for his passion for experimentation and a deep bow for his solo craftsmanship.
When encountering the music of another culture, most Western musicians adapt by learning to play the instruments native-style and mimicing the music of that culture. But from the very beginning, Micus had his own direction and his own voice. He created his own very distinctive music, and though he used acoustic instruments from many cultures, he did it in ways they never dreamed of – rebuilding instruments, changing tunings, and playing them in idiosyncratic ways. And famously, he mixed instruments from around the world, or used whatever was at hand: stones, ordinary flowerpots tuned with water, and his voice – singing non-verbal improvised sounds over ten years before others made this approach fashionable.
The Hearts of Space
US nation-wide radio program
This extraordinary multi-instrumentalist is actually one of the few to have grasped in its essence what was the song of the world. With him there exist no territories or cultural atavisms, but a planetary polyphony projected on a horizon of eternity.His instruments exchange once more the out-lines of their countries of origin to become instruments without nationality in the hands of this nomad musician. Exceptional. Keyboards, France
Micus's music possesses gossamer beauty. Timeless, magical music with a universal appeal. The Times, UK
Listening to the music of Stephan Micus – which is as itinerant and wide ranging as his life – is one of the most profound experiences possible today. Beyond categories and labels, this German artist was already way ahead of trends when he released his first album in 1976. Fifteen recordings later The Garden of Mirrors, his first CD since the phenomenal Athos, seems on the surface to be heading in a stylistic direction pointing towards the Orient. But upon further listening it’s clear Micus is exploring an internal universe governed by natural elements on the one hand and, paradoxically, by silence on the other. “Passing Cloud”, “Gates of Fire” and “Words of Truth” are the titles Micus uses to name pieces that elaborate his personal liturgy and interpret the movement of water and wind, the flight of clouds and the voices of the spirit. An intrepid traveller and perpetual student, he has learned to play ancient and rare traditional instruments that are as evocative as they are esoteric. When he sings he sounds like a chanting mystic in a trance. The Garden of Mirrors is a recording to be experienced the way one would a journey, the type of voyage Bruce Chatwin would describe as “looking inward”. La Repubblica, Italy
A solemn music, at first enigmatic, then slowly revealing itself. The more one listens – really listens –, the more the music absorbs one. Die Zeit, Germany
… remarkable, haunting and truly timeless.
Down Beat, USA
Before there was world music, there was Stephan Micus, playing instruments from Afghanistan, India, and Indonesia. But ever since his first album (released in 1976) the German composer has not been making world music but other – worldly music. He plays ethnic instruments in nontraditional ways, multitracking them in layered arrangements and creating meditative excursions. Stephan Micus isn’t pan-cultural but transcends culture with music that’s innocent but not naive. Billboard, USA
Wistful, sweet-sad melodies, warm, glowing chords, shadows become sound; strands of light are tuned and strummed … a truly original voice, suffused with a mysticism that is equal parts Western and Eastern. Rolling Stone, USA
The music of Stephan Micus cannot be bracketed in a special category with jazz, Asian music or Indo-jazz. Multi-instrumentalist Micus – on bamboo flutes, rabab, sitar, zither and sho – is completely right: this music is not Japanese, not Indian, and not Bavarian … from the cultures which impressed him as a West European, he has created a high-standard eclectic music greater than the sum of its parts. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany
A music full of dignity, speaking about the understanding of life. The vocal sections are reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, Nomad songs and Japanese monks reciting sutras. This enigmatic musician manages to unite elements from Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East into a synthesis which explores the relationship between emptiness and form.
Swing Journal, Japan
Micus' style of singing is comparable to a universal language, to a transcultural code, as if participating in all languages and transcending them at the same time.
Basler Zeitung, Switzerland
Stephan Micus is inspired and abandoned, unself-conscious and disciplined all at once, producing dazzling sound and exquisite melodies. It’s ancient-sounding, witchcraft kind of music, music that’s innovative and entirely contemporary in its disturbing directness, a work of genius indeed, a unique talent, a painter of soundscapes, one of Europe’s strongest and most original soloists.