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"I'm fond of imperfection," said M. Bailey Stephenson, creator of experimental act Sun Riah (styled in lower-case letters as "sun riah"). In response to whether or not perfection exists, she said, "I hope not."
Sun Riah is a solo project built on fragility, which is nearly a paradox in itself. With looping and effects pedals, Stephenson composes melancholy soundscapes from atmospheric harp layers while singing deeply personal moments of darkness and loss. It's the kind of music that picks up the pieces from broken circumstances, but it holds and contemplates them rather than gluing them back together. Her work blossoms from imperfection, which is to say it's born in something inherently human.
"Our ability to feel complex emotions," she said, is one of humankind's most unifying traits, and it's one that she'll be exploring in a new light on her forthcoming follow-up album. "I'm inspired in this particular project by loss of control and looking at the relationships between humans and the environment—landscapes and cityscapes, loss and growth and change. I've been inspired recently by transitions, particularly in seeing places that I really love, realizing that they're not gonna be there anymore."
Time and space are crucial elements in music on which such a concept hinges directly. Fortunately, Stephenson has proven herself well-versed in them. Firefly Night Light, her first full-length album as Sun Riah, was one of last year's most exciting and acclaimed underground releases, and her ear for sonic space was key to its success. That record's somber compositions unravelled in a delicate, well-crafted environment, an intangible chamber of the soul rather than a physical place of the world.
On the new album, though, Stephenson is poised to bridge those two spaces more directly. "It's going to be an album about a place," she said. "I'm recording the sounds of that place and writing music to accompany those sounds and the emotions and histories and stories that took place in that space."
Field recordings are a natural progression for Sun Riah, not just because they embody the album concept so well, but also because their unpredicability suits the project's experimentation. For example, during live performances where venues cause audio feedback, she has at times made it an effort to "try to make it a part of the music." The field recordings are not all that different. By sourcing external sounds for musical narrative, she's making music part of the space rather than vice versa.
This level of openmindedness to mistakes and the unexpected comes at a time when slick studio production work is standard. NPR published an article about the importance of imperfection in music, and even though it was written 7 years ago, it still makes the social media rounds from time to time. It essentially argues that composite takes and digital fixes in search of the perfect recording scrubs away that which makes style and chemistry. It erases the life of a human performance.
When M. Bailey Stephenson creates, she tries "to capture a moment, an emotion, or a particular place." Such muses are not perfect, and she understands and welcomes that as a primary inspiration. Rather than simply purge her intense emotions, she spends time with them, listens to them, accepts them, and discovers the beauty in them. She finds transformation in understanding, and few concepts are as powerful as that.
This article was derived in part from an experimental interview using a choose-your-own-destiny structure, which you can read here. In this interview, Stephenson also discusses the importance of live performance in the creative process, the pros and cons of making experimental music in Oklahoma, and the unique challenges of playing gigs with a harp.