Words by Simon Broughton
Radiant, original and beautifully constructed, Panagia is Stephan Micus’ 20th album, which is an achievement in itself. In its own way it is a quiet masterpiece. The word panagia refers to the Virgin Mary in the Greek Orthodox church, and the album includes six settings of Byzantine hymns to the Virgin (although Micus says it’s dedicated to ‘the female energy that is everywhere in the world’).
The opening and closing hymns are sung to an accompaniment of Bavarian zither, but the others are written for between ten and 22 voices, all multi-tracked by Micus. ‘I Praise You, Sacred Mother’, is performed by 20 voices and strongly influenced by Georgian polyphony. In his music, Micus isn’t interested in imitating traditional music, but creating new sounds.
On Panagia the vocal tracks alternate with instrumental ones, mainly for string instruments that he’s collected on travels around the world: plucked zither, 14-string guitar and Chitrali sitar (from Chitral, western Pakistan), and bowed Indian dilruba and sattar from the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Often the bowed instruments sing troubadour-like melodies over the accompaniment of plucked strings. At other times the music sounds ritualistic with gongs and bells. It harks back to a previous album, Athos (1994), which also used Byzantine texts, but predominantly featured wind instruments. The music is predominantly slow and contemplative and has the otherworldly beauty of John Tavener or Arvo Pärt, although Micus’ music could only really have been composed and played by the man himself.
TRACK TO TRY: You are the Life-Giving Rain
(On ECM Records)