Breathing the music

Audiences in Jerusalem can enjoy some of Micus’s musicianship at the German artist’s two performances at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on September 3 and 4, as part of this year's Sacred Music Festival.

Stephan Micus (photo credit: RENE DALPRA/ECM RECORDS)
Stephan Micus
Stephan Micus is a breath of sweet, relaxing fresh air.
That is patently clear after just a few minutes of conversation with him, and also comes across in no uncertain terms in his music, which feeds off as broad a cultural spectrum as one might find within a single artist’s purview – all in a gentle and organic manner.
Audiences in Jerusalem will be able to imbibe some of Micus’s tranquility and eclectic musicianship at the German artist’s two performances at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on September 3 and 4, as part of this year’s Sacred Music Festival.
Micus is the quintessential hands-on world music artist. The 63-year-old musician plays literally hundreds of instruments from all parts of the globe. In addition to spending long hours in his recording studio and performing live, he spends a significant portion of the year trawling previously uncharted musical and cultural regions of the world, from which he returns to his home in Mallorca, Spain, laden with exotic musical devices.
For his Jerusalem concerts he will pack his luggage with a relatively compact array of seven instruments from a typically broad range of ethnic domains, including a Bavarian zither, a couple of Japanese flutes – the bamboo shakuhachi and the nokan seven-hole flute, which is also made of bamboo and features in the Noh theatrical discipline – a nay Persian flute, a kalimba thumb piano, a duduk double reed wind instrument that hails from Armenia, and Irish tin whistles. Some of the above will be augmented by vocals and appear on his enchanting new CD for ECM records, Nomad Songs.
Although his main line of endeavor follows a sonic avenue, one of his earliest formative sensory influences was of a visual nature. His father was a painter, and Micus says his dad introduced him to the mysteries and joys of visual art from a young age.
“I was very lucky to have a painter in the family, and since I was eight or nine years old, when he used to design magazines to make money, he used to ask my opinion of his work,” he recalls. “He’d have four or five possibilities [of designs], and he’d always ask me which one I liked best, and why, and we’d discuss it. That was a really great education for me.”
It has stood Micus in good stead over the years, and become an important part of his professional aesthetic toolbox: “I have chosen the photographs for the covers of, I think, the last 22 albums I recorded, and I used parts of my father’s paintings on a couple of them, too.”
His visual sensibilities have evolved over the years, having fed off all the sights he has taken in during his globetrotting.
“My father taught me how to see more than the average person, and that is one of the reasons why I like to travel, and for me it is very important to be in nature and look at nature and landscapes,” he explains. “In some way, that has also influenced my music.”
For Micus, it is not just a matter of, for example, sitting with a master of some instrument or other and learning how to eke out pleasing or stirring sounds from the new apparatus. His music exudes a total-experience feel, and conveys the sense that he is conversant with the instrument’s original milieu.
“I think that to learn how to play an instrument from another culture other than your own, it is necessary not only to take music lessons, but also to try to understand all aspects of that culture, starting from religion, philosophy, architecture, poetry and everything, including food and, of course, the landscape,” he says. “For me, music is the deepest statement of any culture, so to really understand it, you have to try to understand all these ingredients.”
He has maintained this high level of musicianship for nigh on 40 years. Even so, growing up in 1960s Germany, he started out on his musical odyssey with the usual suspects.
“I was into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and that kind of thing,” he recalls.
He also began his hands-on musical work with that prerequisite elementary-school instrument, the recorder.
There was also some guitar strumming in the incipient Micus mix after the youngster heard some flamenco music.
The musical plot thickened and spread after he heard British prog rock act Jethro Tull, and particularly its leader, Ian Anderson, reeling off his trademark pyrotechnics on flute.
Encountering the magic of iconic Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar in the early ’70s also helped to point the teenager in an eclectic direction, and he promptly packed a bag and left for India with $40 in his pocket. He spent three whole years studying the sitar, although it does not feature in his current instrumental arsenal.
Typically his vocals do not involve any language-based lyrics; they are based more on syllables and consonants put together in a gibberish style that trips along nicely with the instrumental layer.
He always plays all the instruments on his records, and will employ loop technology to provide his Jerusalem audiences with a multilayered offering.
The nonverbal aspect evolved as a matter of youthful default.
“We all loved the Beatles and the Stones, but of course, as a kid, I couldn’t understand the lyrics,” he says with a laugh. “It was all completely abstract to me.”
His current “lyrics” may not come from any recognizable dictionary, but you still get the sense that the man is saying something of great relevance as he lays his vocals down.
In addition to providing enriching, soothing entertainment, he attaches great importance to the ethnographic and anthropological benefits of his music.
“I was thinking the other day that the work I did was only possible in my lifetime.
Before that, it was not possible to travel to so many places in a relatively short period, and after my lifetime, many of these instruments will not exist anymore.”
Thankfully Micus is still with us and will hopefully continue his musical and cultural odyssey for many years to come.
The Jerusalem audiences at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, at any rate, will doubtless feel suitably uplifted and becalmed for the weekend.
For more information about the Sacred Music Festival: