Stephan Micus – Inland Sea
(ECM 575 2569. CD review by Brian Marley)
There’s a touch of the Medieval about Inland Sea. Dawn, for three nyckelharpa, bears more than a passing resemblance, both in string sonority and wistfulness, to the swaying, sliding 14th-century Italian preludal dance, Lamento di Tristano.
The nyckelharpa is a Swedish keyed fiddle that’s similar to a hurdy-gurdy and produces raspy drones that excite a series of sympathetic strings. This is the first time Stephan Micus has used it on CD, and it features on six of the ten tracks alongside an arsenal of instruments from around the world: the Japanese shakuhachi, the balanzikom from the borderland between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the Moroccan genbri, plus various zithers (some homemade) and guitars. Micus also sings on a couple of tracks, a husky plaint in a language all his own.
Whereas most modern instruments have been adapted from old and sometimes ancient models to produce the cleanest sound possible, Micus obviously relishes the rougher textures and less precise pitch of folk and so-called ethnic instruments. He travels extensively and studies instruments in situ before bringing them back to his studio. He doesn’t attempt to reproduce traditional playing styles, or even adopt traditional playing methods. For example, he holds the nyckelharpa upright, like a cello, whereas the standard technique is to hold it like a guitar.
As with Micus’s other albums in the ECM catalogue, all 21 of them, this is a solo effort. The danger of working alone over such a long period is that one can fall into a rut. Micus seems to have avoided that. The other problem that can arise with solo work is that a certain stiffness can set in when multitracking instrumental parts. But here, with one exception, the music breathes freely, as though played by several musicians in real time. The exception is the sixteen-strong choir of Micuses on Virgen de la Mar, which feels just a bit too clean and tidy in its surrounding. A choir of mixed voices would have worked better, but that’s not how Micus likes to do things.
One of the unusual ways the nyckelharpa is used on Dancing Cloud and Nuria is as a percussion instrument. The clacking of the keys is used to rhythmically underpin flowing melody lines. Though the nyckelharpa and that extremely obscure instrument the balanzikom are new to Micus’s soundworld, the shakuhachi has been with him for decades, going back to his earliest recordings. It’s featured here on three tracks, and is beautifully paired with bass zither on Reaping Storm.
Micus’s music has frequently been called evocative, and it is, though of what and where is hard to say. It seems to exist in a timeless nowhereland that’s nonetheless strangely familiar. That it’s elegant, rather beautiful and occasionally surprising is also true. If you’d like to explore his unique soundworld, Inland Sea is as good a place to start as any.