Photo by Rick Bahto
There are two ways to approach psycho-acoustics. You can, 1) Study the perception of sound or; 2) Create sounds to alter perception. Ashley Bellouin does a bit of both. Having worked with both Dave Smith and the late Don Buchla, she is a disciple of radical electronics. She recently designed her own instruments, most notably a variation on Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica and a curious structure known as HEADPSPACE: a hexagonal cylinder suspended by strings, amplifying the vibrations of wind. So in this sense, Bellouin falls into the first camp.
But she is also a musician in equal measure. Lifting ideas from psycho-acoustics (spatialisation, beat frequencies, auditory illusions), she implants hallucinatory effects within pieces of introspective drone. Not as a novelty, but as an artistic device. Just as her instruments aim to displace traditional forms of listening, the music of Ashley Bellouin requires a special kind of ear. One that is robust to mystery and transfiguration.
Her debut vinyl, Ballads, presents two sidelong pieces, ‘Bourdon’ and ‘Hummen’, pieced together like clasped hands. ‘Bourdon’ takes as its focus a harmonium and the mellifluous Sequential Prophet 6, an instrument Bellouin helped to develop at Dave Smith. ‘Hummen’ by contrast explores the extraterrestrial frequencies of her custom-build glass harmonica. She is also joined by Ben Bracken and Teddy Rankin-Parker, embellishing the pieces with tones from electric guitar and cello, respectively. Although seemingly minimal in composition, an attentive listen to this album reveals painstaking micro-tonal and harmonic shifts that creep steadily into ear shot. Unsurprising then, that this was not the product of some spontaneous live jam, but the conclusion of a three-year project.
Music like this puts a time-stamp on the now. It staves off the future and widens the present. It makes possible the ability to observe ones surroundings by bringing the world closer to the mind. I therefore believe that the name ‘Ballads’ must be being used with some level of irony. Although there is plenty of romance in this music, it’s a far cry from the pompous sentimentality of narrative opera. It’s not recounting unrequited love nor dwelling in nostalgia. Where ballads adopt a garish, undignified display of emotion, Ballads meditates in patience.