Stephan Micus has invented what might be the best job ever. He listens to music from around the world, identifies rare sounds that strike his fancy, discovers what instrument made those sounds, then learns to play it by immersing himself in the culture of that instrument and the best practitioners he can access to teach him. Sooner or later, the instrument will likely become one of the “lead actors” in his next project.
There are 11 instruments from 10 countries on Winter’s End, the 24th solo album Micus has released on ECM since 1977. The lead actor here is the chikulo, a xylophone-like instrument from Mozambique, with large gourd resonators hanging beneath its wooden keys. Too unwieldy to be deployed much and difficult to master (Micus restricted himself to the four-note bass version), the chikulo’s unmistakable presence graces seven of the album’s dozen original songs. Another instrument Micus recorded for the first time is a tongue drum he built 40 years ago, as a replica of those used in Central Africa. On “The Longing of the Migrant Birds,” he layers the percussive resonance of three tongue-drum and two chikulo passages along with 14 vocal tracks sung in a made-up language, creating a beguiling meld that’s at once earthy and ethereal.
Like many Micus albums, Winter’s End has an epic arc to its structure. Thus, “Autumn Hymn” and “Winter Hymn” bookend the program, and songs two and 11, “Walking in Snow” and “Walking in Sand,” both contain an exquisite sense of space punctuated by a solitary 12-string guitar. Between those walks are a “Baobab Dance” of four kalimbas, chikulo, and sinding (a Gambian harp); the “Southern Stars” of four charangos (a Peruvian stringed instrument), five suling (a Balinese flute), a sinding, and two Egyptian nay flutes; and other impressionistic destinations and activities.
That some call what Micus does New Age music is ironic. It feels like a palpable grasp back to ancient sages from an Old World.