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Stephan Micus: nyckelharpa, voice, shakuhachi, balanzikom, genbri, guitars, zithers

There are inland seas like the Caspian or Lake Baikal which are vast lakes with their own microclimates in the Eurasian steppe. Several of Stephan Micus’ instruments come from these regions and beyond. But for Micus, the Inland Sea is also something within - a state of mind and a very personal landscape.

This is Stephan Micus’ 22nd solo album for ECM. He’s a musician like no other, taking his audience on musical journeys to far-flung places and sound worlds that are totally unique. Micus is the master of his own musical landscapes, a one-man universe of sound. For the past 48 years he has been travelling, collecting and studying musical instruments from all over the world and creating new music for them. He often combines instruments from different cultures and continents that would never normally be played together. In each album he focuses on a particular cast of characters, his instruments, and creates his musical journeys with them.

At the heart of this album is the nyckelharpa - a keyed fiddle which is the Swedish national instrument. David Harrington of Kronos Quartet describes it as a ‘dinosaur’, partly because it is so extraordinary looking, but also because it has strange archaic elements like sympathetic strings underneath the four playing strings. The strings are stopped by a set of wooden keys, so it’s an impressive piece of engineering as well as a craftsmanship.

“With most instruments I spend years studying how to play them and then try to forget everything I’ve learned,” says Micus. “I look at it as if it just arrived from Mars, without any preconceptions. Then I experiment and try to find all the possibilities inherent in the instrument and try going to the borders of what it can do”.

This is the first time Stephan Micus has used the nyckelharpa. As with most of his instruments, he’s customised the instrument to suit his particular ideas and needs.Traditionally, the nyckelharpa is predominantly used for polkas and other dance tunes so it has a short bow, more suited to rhythmic music. Micus uses a much longer bow enabling him to play more sustained notes.

Micus never even attempted to play the nyckelharpa in the conventional manner, slung round the neck like a guitar. Instead he plays it like a cello, holding it upright between his legs. This is closer to the other bowed instruments he plays, the Indian dilruba and the sattar from Xinjiang in China.

“Until now I’ve only played bowed instruments from Asia,” Micus explains, “and I like the nyckelharpa because it carries a European spirit which I was keen to bring into the music.”

So the opening track, Haze, sounds almost Baroque with its clean textures, plangent string counterpoint and curling ornamentations. Accompaniment comes from the plucked strings of a balanzikom, an instrument which is so rare it doesn’t have a single entry on the internet. Micus brought it back from the Wakhan valley on the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. “It’s one of the most enchanting places I’ve seen in my life with mountains of over 7000 metres on each side of the river - which is the border - and small villages on either side. They use the balanzikom for Sufi ceremonies, but I heard it being played only briefly by a farmer.” As with the nyckelharpa, Micus is using the balanzikom for the first time.

Sowing Wind introduces the second melodic instrument on the album, the Japanese shakuhachi flute, a favourite of Stephan Micus. He started to learn it 43 years ago when he visited Japan for the first time. Its richly textured, breathy sound has a soulful profundity. It features on three of the tracks of Inland Sea and seems to offer a voice of spiritual wisdom.

The third melodic voice is that of Stephan Micus himself singing in an invented language. In Flor del Sur he’s singing over the robust plucking of the balanzikom. “When I bought it,” Micus explains, “it had very cheap nylon strings and I thought I’d replace them with high-quality nylon or gut strings so it would sound even better. But actually it then lost the character that was attracting me. I investigated all the fishing shops I could find and tried different types of fishing line. In the end I learned that the Japanese made the best-sounding fishing nylon. It’s interesting how it’s not always the best quality things that produce a desired result. Sometimes something much cruder has exactly the quality you’re looking for. The balanzikom has a special sound no other instrument has”.

The emotional centre of the album is probably Virgen de la Mar - the goddess, perhaps, of that inland sea. As well as playing instruments from around the world, Micus has studied polyphonic singing in Georgia and Bulgaria - both of which inform this track which seems like a hymn full of unusual and surprising harmonies.

Accompanying the melodic voices on this album is the sound of plucked strings - the balanzikom, the Moroccan genbri, associated with Gnawa musicians and which Micus used for the first time on his last album Nomad Songs. There are also guitars, a chord zither and a vast bass zither with strings 1.7 metres long. The latter two designed by Micus himself.

“As on the bandoneon, the keys of the nyckelharpa are quite noisy, which for some people might be irritating. But I tried to make a vice into a virtue and used this ‘noise’ to make separate percussive tracks which are integral to the sound of Dancing Clouds and Nuria. Actually on the whole album no percussion instruments were used. Just different sounds coming from the nyckelharpa”.

So over 10 compositions, the nyckelharpa is bowed, plucked, struck and stroked, multitracked and misused in many glorious ways. Rarely has it been played so high or so low or had its sympathetic strings strummed like a sitar as at the beginning of Dancing Clouds, where it also becomes a throbbing percussive orchestra behind the plucked and bowed strings.

In the foot tapping finale, Nuria, the nyckelharpa becomes a deliciously irregular rhythm section behind Micus’ shakuhachi and voice to create a satisfying apotheosis.

“When I play,” says Micus, “I am listening to the instrument and telling the stories it has inside it. It’s like a human being and each of us has unique stories to tell. Similarly, if I try a tune I composed for one shakuhachi on another one it somehow doesn’t sound right. The melody was really made for, and with, that particular instrument. A composer is like a guide taking you on a walk. He will take you from where you are, lead you into unknown territory and bring you back.”

The Inland Sea is Stephan Micus’ nyckelharpa journey.

© Studio Svengali, December 2020
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