Stephan Micus: Life (2004)
German composer Stephan Micus has spent decades traveling the world in search of new music, as much figuratively as literally, and the results of his very serious globe-trotting experiences have been documented on sixteen ECM albums, the latest being Life. He brings together a large collection of instruments from Africa, Asia, and Europe for this particular journey, but he makes use of them in very idiosyncratic ways, preferring to explore sonorities in a purist fashion rather than replicate the traditional modes of play or musical styles from their cultures of origin. By the use of extensive overdubs he creates thickly textured pieces that resonate and reverberate openly and freely.
Whatever you may argue about music needing context in order to be properly appreciated, Life really requires some study of Micus' background and master plan. It's based around a koan (a Zen Buddhist riddle) about the essence of life, and rather than defeat that story by reductionist logic, I'll just refer you to the informative liner notes for the complete picture. The koan unfolds in ten parts, each performed by Micus alone on up to 20 overdubbed instruments (including most frequently, by number anyway, his own warm but otherwise neutral voice, which closes the suite in solitude). Each part has its own signature sound and texture, and that's important in conveying the emotional overtones appropriate to the ongoing stages in the koan's development.
One has to wonder what sort of meditation was required for Micus to put this recording together over the course of four years in his studio on Mallorca. Among the bagana (Ethiopian lyre), gongs, sho (Japanese "mouth organ"), nay (Egyptian reed flute), dondon (Ghanaian "talking drum"), and so forth he constructs discrete layers that progress very gradually and deliberately. Smooth, flowing melodies are the norm, and percussion is used as a way of coloring the music rather than marking time.
Listeners who fear the sort of glacial, self-referential displays of torpitude that characterize the global New Age movement will find Life a refreshing contrast. It's meditative but not somnolent, questioning without obtuseness, and deeply respectful of the tonal colors of the sound spectrum. Not for everyone, that's for sure, but I for one learned from listening and considering the messages this record conveys.
Track Listing: Narration One and the Master's Question; The Temple; Narration Two; The Monk's Answer; Narration Three; The Master's Anger; Narration Four; The Monk's Question; The Sky; The Master's Answer.
Personnel: Stephan Micus: bagana, Balinese and Burmese gongs, Bavarian zither, dilruba, dondon, kyeezee, maung, nay, sho, Thai singing bowls, Tibetan chimes, Tibetan cymbals, tin whistle, voice.