Molding Sounds into Music: Southeast of Rain’s 42 Days

Southeast of Rain, a duo comprised of pipa player Sophia Shen and vocalist Lemon Guo, are composer-performers, sound artists, and longtime collaborators with an enthusiastically experiential and interdisciplinary approach to their art. They created their debut album, 42 Days, from a fruitful residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, California in the fall of 2019. Resolving to compose a new work each day of their residency, Shen and Guo collected field recordings during “soundwalks” in their local environment and documented their various improvisatory sessions. 42 Days features eight of their compositions, accompanied by descriptions from the composers that read more as introspective journal entries than as formal program notes. These reminiscences are fascinating, unvarnished insights into the unique genesis of each work.

Day 4  – Constellations for solo pipa was created by Shen during the early morning hours in the residency center’s gym–a dusty, resonant space that would serve as the duo’s creative incubator. Constellations stands out for its captivating musical rhetoric; slow and punctuated at first, with intense outbursts that ebb and flow, and “weird tunings” (Shen’s description of her own experimental tuning efforts) that surprise the ear, until the sound recedes quietly into the distance. She draws out each phrase carefully, leaving space for the echoes between them as a singer might pause between sentences, heightening suspense and anticipation.

Southeast of Rain--Photo by Daniel Southard

Southeast of Rain–Photo by Daniel Southard

Another standout is Day 18 – to Frank the Owl. Inspired by the calls of a local baby owl, improvised hockets, and the chance high hums of a water radiator, Shen and Guo demonstrate the beauty of slow and subtle changes. Unlike the clear temperamental shifts of Constellations, the melody of to Frank the Owl begins simply with pipa and two voices responding in harmony. The work unfolds gently as new motifs and harmonies emerge from the pulsating rhythmic canvas. Themes come and go, repeating for a time, and then transforming into new motifs. The clear, vibrato-less purity of Guo’s voice and the bright, resonant tones of the pipa create a meditative chant-like song. Despite the small forces, there is an expansiveness to the music, a swelling and contraction that pervades one’s awareness.

Sometimes Shen and Guo introduce texts into a piece, such as Day 25 – Traveler, inspired in part by the author Li-Young Li, whose work “The City in Which I Love You” Guo was reading at the time, and partly by her own father’s visit from China. More often, the voice is simply a breath-driven instrument in the fabric of an entrancing, ever-changing soundscape, anchored by the steady rhythms of the pipa.

Lemon Guo--Photo by Mengtai Zhang

Lemon Guo–Photo by Mengtai Zhang

Day 33 – Improvising in the Gym was created in front of a live audience. Here, Shen and Guo are at their most impressive, listening to one another’s chosen melodies and responding in real time. It’s a peculiar type of sensitivity that can only be learned by intense collaboration and a deep focus on one’s artistic partner. Indeed as Guo notes, “It’s funny how ‘composed’ this piece sounds.” Shen appears to lead the modulations by shifting from one sound palette to another while maintaining a steady rhythm for Guo to compose her own part to. There is no hesitation between the performers, only one fluid response after another as they adapt their material to what has just come before. Their acute awareness of each other and their willingness to adjust on the spot demonstrates an unique openness, confidence in, and dedication to their techniques as both performers and composers.

Day 42 – Unwanted Bits are (as the name suggests) the leftover parts, the “almost-abandoned clips” that were saved and repurposed. Creating art and finding art in nature, and then turning those elements into another kind of artistic creation is not always an easy or linear task. However, such efforts are certainly capable of generating works of unexpected beauty, and this track serves as a reminder of that. Day 42 – Unwanted Bits is a thoughtful and fitting end to the disc.

Sophia Shen--Photo by Kevin Corcoran

Sophia Shen–Photo by Kevin Corcoran

42 Days is a collaborative gem and a highlight among this year’s new releases. The particular excellence of this album lies not just in the music itself, but in the very approach of the artists creating it. Shen and Guo select and mold the materials that they have created and collected from trials and chance encounters, shaping them into cohesive and attractive compositions. The composers’ boundless and playful approach draws the listener in. Their openness, intimate collaboration, and introspective musicality keep them engaged. 42 Days is the sort of album that can be enjoyed for the simple beauty of the pieces within, as well as one that inspires a sort of breathless introspection–a meditation on the perception of time and space in sound. Shen and Guo are an outstanding duo–excellent musicians and brilliant artistic partners.


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