The Japanese poem accompanying Winter’s End, Stephan Micus’ 24th solo album for ECM, seems like a metaphor for his music. He chuckles at the suggestion, as he thinks of the hours and hours working with dozens of different instruments, which he builds up layer upon layer in his studio. “For a musician or an artist, it’s very important to keep your childlike nature,” he says. “Of course, it’s more fun to walk in deep snow than on an asphalt road. This is something I try to keep in mind in daily life.”
The range of instruments on this album is one of the most extensive in Stephan Micus’ catalogue with eleven instruments from ten countries: Mozambique, Gambia, Central Africa, Egypt, Japan, Bali, Xinjiang, Tibet, Peru and the USA. Most important, there are two instruments that he’s never used before. One is recently acquired from Mozambique; the other has been sitting on a shelf awaiting its turn for 40 years.
It’s the chikulo that opens Winter’s End and defines its character, appearing on seven of its twelve tracks. Amongst the musical glories of Mozambique are the large timbila bands of the Chopi people. The timbila is a xylophone with wooden keys and gourd resonators hanging beneath. A timbila orchestra has several instruments of different sizes. Because he prefers to walk in the snow, Micus has just selected the bass instrument with only four notes, which gives a buzzing rhythmic support to the ensemble.
“I had heard about the timbila orchestras and seen some instruments. As it was a place I had never visited, I wanted to go. The higher instruments demand virtuoso playing and in this life, I would never be able to master that. But I’m also attracted to low instruments and when they showed me the chikulo its possibilities seemed very open.” In fact, the chikulo is rarely used these days in timbila bands as it’s so large and difficult to transport. Micus never saw one actually being used in an orchestra, but only demonstrated in a museum. He commissioned his own from timbila player and maker Eduardo Durão.
It is the woody tone and buzzing sound of the chikulo that opens the album, but most of the time Micus uses it without the buzzing membranes to create a cleaner sound. Alongside three chikulo on “Autumn Hymn", the opening track is a Japanese nohkan flute, traditionally used in Noh theatre. While the chikulo has an earthy sound, the nohkan seems heavenly and there is a natural earth and sky harmony.
The other instrument Micus is using for the first time is the tongue drum. He made it himself 40 years ago, sawing tongue-shaped pieces in the top of a wooden box following examples in Central Africa. “Back then, I played it several times in concerts and sang a single vocal line, but I was never quite satisfied with it. However, from the moment I combined it with the chikulo and added more voices, the two tongue drum pieces finally felt complete. I often have instruments for a long time before I manage to incorporate them in a composition - and if after 40 years one of them finds its moment it’s a very nice thing.” With the voices (singing an invented language) accompanied by percussive sounds from the tongue drum and chikulo, “The Longing of the Migrant Birds” and “Sun Dance” have something of the savannah about them.
“For me the beautiful thing about music is that it’s beyond words and beyond any message in words,” says Micus, but having created the album with its other textures of bowed and plucked strings, thumb piano, flutes and cymbals he created a kind of narrative out of the titles.
“I got this idea about migrant birds. A journey from Europe to Africa when winter is coming. In the third track I feel a kind of longing to travel and with the 4th track, “Baobab Dance” we have arrived in Africa.” Where we are at the end is ambiguous. As so often in Micus’ music, Winter’s End has a symmetrical structure, and the title “Winter Hymn” perhaps suggests a return. But winter is present in Africa too.
One of the remarkable things about Micus is the way he uses the sounds of the world as an inspiration and brings them together in unique and pioneering combinations. “To bring instruments together for the first time is fascinating. It’s like going to places where nobody has been. Surprisingly you can take these instruments from all over the world and they sound in harmony. It’s a beautiful message when sadly we humans haven’t got to that point.”