Bold As Light

Stephan Micus

“The idea of sitting down at a table and making a composition on paper is totally foreign to me. To come up with a piece of music, I have to make the sound myself, have the instruments in my hands.”
Stephan Micus (1953) has a special and intense relationship with the countless instruments he plays. Many of the instruments, a number of which come from Asia or Africa, represent age-old musical traditions, some of them dying out while others have congealed into the stuff of museum exhibits. But in Micus’ hands they come alive again. He experiments with new sound possibilities and often plays the instruments in ways other than those he was taught by local masters during his distant travels. Improvising, he comes up with the most surprising combinations of instruments, whose melodic lines he plays separately into a multi-track recorder. The resulting polyphonic structures are staggeringly and mysteriously beautiful.
Micus’ three main sound protagonists in Bold As Light are the raj nplaim (a free-reed pipe made of bamboo) from Laos, the nohkan (a bamboo flute) from Japan, and the many male voices, which, of course, are all sung by Micus himself.
With this CD -the nineteenth for ECM- , the impressive discography Stephan Micus has built up continues unabated, each time with new and unique music.

Featured Artists Recorded

2007-2010, MCM Studios

Original Release Date


  • 1Part 1 - Rain: 6 raj nplaim
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 2Part 2 - Spring Dance: bass zither, chord zither, bavarian zither, nohkan
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 3Part 3 - Flying Swans: sho, 17 voices
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 4Part 4 - Wide River: 4 raj nplaim
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 5Part 5 - Autumn Dance: nohkan solo
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 6Part 6 - Golden Ginkgo Tree: kalimba, shakuhachi
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 7Part 7 - The Shrine: 6 raj nplaim, 15 voices
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 8Part 8 - Winter Dance: bass zither, chord zither, bavarian zither, nohkan
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 9Part 9 - The Child: 8 raj nplaim, sinding
    (Stephan Micus)
  • 10Part 10 - Seven Roses: sho, 19 voices, raj nplaim
    (Stephan Micus)
Micus’ three main sound protagonists in “Bold As Light” are the raj nplaim  (a free-reed pipe made of bamboo) from Laos, the nohkan (a bamboo flute) from Japan, and the many male voices, which, of course, are all sung by Micus himself. He drew inspiration for the multipart vocals from the intriguing polyphonic singing of Georgia and Bulgaria, which since the early Middle Ages has shaped the style of everyday singing as well as the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. On the very last track, the interwoven vocals make way for the Japanese sho (mouth organ), thus joining different aural worlds in a total sound whose divergent timbres have surprisingly much in common.

Each instrument, of course, represents a culture, an aesthetic and (religious) world of thought. The knowledge of this not only adds an extra dimension to the music but also at times helps clarify the mutual relationships in sound.
Micus: “The raj nplaim is an instrument of the Hmong people, who live in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and China. Though its sound suggests otherwise, it is a horizontally held bamboo pipe. A small metal-reed in the mouthpiece vibrates freely when you blow in it. The sound it makes is related to that of a mouth organ, harmonica or accordion. In fact, these instruments are in each other’s family: from the same region as the raj nplaim comes the khaen, a mouth organ and prototype for the Chinese and Japanese mouth organs, the sheng and the sho, which in turn were forerunners of our accordion and bandoneon.”

“Among the Hmong, the raj nplaim is always played as a solo instrument,” Micus continues. “You can find examples of this on YouTube, a medium I seldom go to for information, but that in this case is very educational. Years after my trip to Laos, I had the idea to have multiple raj nplaims playing together. This gives a harmonium-like sound, but with one important difference: the raj nplaim can make glissandos, something the harmonium or accordion cannot.”

Besides the traditional instruments from Japan, Laos, Bavaria, Tanzania and The Gambia that Micus plays on “Bold As Light” he has also designed two completely new ones specially for this album: the chord zither and the bass zither which he combined with the nokan that is normally played either solo or with drums and voices.

In appearance, the Japanese nokan somehow resembles the raj nplaim: it, too, is a horizontally held wind instrument. But there is a world of difference in the sound. Micus: “The nokan can sound very high and loud. The sound also has something intangible and alarming about it. This has to do with the intonation, which has been intentionally upset by the instrument builders.”

Micus seeks explanations for that “intangible sound” in the original context of the nokan: Japanese Noh theater. “The music of Noh is possibly the strangest music conceived by people on this planet,” he says. “It is very difficult to assimilate. If you don’t succeed, a Noh performance is simply torture, but if you do, it is an extraordinary experience because it frees you from all awareness of time.”

Micus was fortunate enough to have had daily lessons with a master of the nokan. He learned that a piece of bamboo is concealed within the instrument which causes it to produce unexpected pitches when overblown, thus making the performance of conventional melodies rather impossible. This fits in with the abstract aesthetics of Noh theater, where music, dance and costumes create an extraterrestrial reality, far away from the workings of earthly principles.

Like Micus’ other CDs, the compositions on “Bold As Light” are connected with each other; returning musical protagonists seem to be telling the same story but each from their own unique perspective. What is it about? The origins of human spiritual thought and deeds? The light that guides us and the darkness that tempts us?

“I never consciously concern myself while making a piece with that sort of conceptual question,” Micus says. “Actually, I’m a very practically oriented person. But I know that my work is experienced in many different ways. Every story that people may hear in my music is valid.”
2024 November 22 Ottobrunner Konzerte Ottobrunn, Germany