Stephan Micus is a unique spirit in what used to be called world music. His dedication to unfettered exploration of his musical vision is truly impressive. On White Night, his 23rd solo album for ECM, Micus unleashes his visionary creativity to take his listeners on a journey through his imagined world, illuminated by the full moon and with a soundtrack out of his sublime dreams.
Micus makes this music with an assemblage of instruments from disparate cultures such as the African “thumb piano” known variously as the kalimba, mbira, etc.; the Armenian woodwind called the duduk, tibetan cymbals, cane whistles, the hourglass-shaped dondon, a Ghanan “talking drum”; and the sinding, a West African harp with cotton strings. Where no existing instrument could make the sounds he heard, he made or commissioned them, including a 14-string guitar, a bronze-keyed kalimba, and lyrics to sing in his own invented language.
All that of course would be meaningless if it didn’t sound fantastic. But it does. This music is open-hearted and inclusive, welcoming the listener into its secret world, entering at sunrise through “The Eastern Gate” and exiting 10 tracks later through “The Western Gate.” In between are sonic portraits of “The Bridge,” “The River,” “The Moon,” “The Forest,” “The Poet,” “Fireflies” and more.
My favorites are those bookends, the two gates. They’re lovely programmatic pieces that delightfully conjure a morning and an evening in some mythical yet somehow substantial ancient Levantine walled city.
Much of the magic of this recording stems from Micus’s repurposing and reimagining of traditional instruments. The bass duduk is the best example. In traditional Armenian music it’s always used as a drone, according to Micus’s liner notes, but here he employs it as the chief melodic instrument on several songs including the two gates. The duduk is a double-reed instrument like an oboe or bassoon, which gives it a timbre all its own. The bass version sounds somewhat like a bass clarinet, woody and throaty, and these two tunes, in which it’s accompanied by the 14-string guitar played in the manner of a Levantine lute of some sort, it conjures visions of Eric Dolphy on a pilgrimage, perhaps.
This is truly a solo album, although on many of these tracks Micus employs multi-tracking techniques to layer sounds both instrumental and vocal, and on others he plays absolutely solo and records in one take. Tunes like “The Bridge” and “The River” are examples of the former technique. “The Bridge” features four kalimbas playing a mesmerizing circular pattern and the sinding providing a soft drone, all behind Micus’s solemn vocals. “The River” instead of vocals has a lovely duduk melody line and just two kalimbas, one of them fitted with rings on the keys to give a buzzing, rattling percussive base.
The 13 cane whistles on “Fireflies” call to mind Andean panpipes while the seven delicately layered voices evoke delicate hula accompaniment. The stately solo duduk performance on “The Moon” and the solo kalimba take on “All The Way” both would fit comfortably in modern improvisational music programs.
I’m most moved by the warm timbres of the bass duduk and that 14-string guitar, but the sonic riches of Micus’s White Night are legion. Far from the sadly amorphous noodling of so much “New Age” music, this is inspired and inspirational music for the open-hearted, performed by a true master with skill and knowledge to back his vision.