Back in the spring of 2017, singer Lemon Guo opened an outdoor festival along the Hudson River sponsored by Columbia University. Her calmly hypnotic yet gently playful electroacoustic set, a blend of ambient music with traditional Asian tinges, could have gone on twice as long as it did and the crowd stretched across the lawn would have been happy to hear it. Fast forward to 2021: Guo has a new album, 42 Days, by her duo project Southeast of Rain, an online collaboration with pipa player Sophia Shen streaming at Bandcamp. Recorded remotely over the web during the lockdown, it’s similarly intimate, intriguing, inviting music.
Shen plays solo in Constellations, the first number, making her way from delicate tremolo-picking, through spare bends, enigmatic thickets and echoey harmonics, pushing the limits of traditional pentatonic Chinese modes. That was day four of the two musicians’ collaboration. Day eight, Between Fleeting Somethings has a coastal California rainstorm, fleeting vocal peaks, slow doppler-like ambience and gentle rattles from Shen’s pipa.
The eleventh day of the two musicians’ collaboration was a productive one, a trance-inducing Shen soundscape peppering immersive ambience with sudden metallic flickers. Day eighteen is titled To Frank the Owl. a steady, catchy, balletesque theme: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sofia Rei catalog.
Guo’s plaintive, hauntingly microtonal chorale, Luminescence, descends from Bulgarian-inflected leaps and bounds to more stark, spaciously drifting figures. Day 25, Traveler, has Guo’s Balkan melismas far back in the mix behind an enigmatic calm.
If Improvising at the Gym reflects actual events, it’s a beautiful, stark and slowly unwinding example of what a couple of composers can do when the endorphins kick in, Guo’s warmly mapled clarity over Shen’s elegant tremolo-picking. The two wind up the album with Unwanted Bits, Shen’s wounded, exploratory plucking over a surreal pastiche of found sounds. If this is what Guo and Shen can do without the the chemistry of actually playing together in person, imagine what magic they’ll be able to conjure once we’re all free of the lockdown.