After the needle drops on Ashley Bellouin’s debut album titled Ballads you know right away this isn’t going to be a sappy collection of odes to lovers and significant others. The pastoral drone of harmonium, glass armonica, and other assorted spectral toys hit your ears and seem to open a portal that leads into some great, dark unknown. You float along these beautiful tones created both with instruments hand held and manipulated in the digital realm. Bellouin, along with guitarist Ben Bracken and cellist Teddy Rankin have created two atmospheric tracks, “Bourdon” on side A and “Hummen” on side B, that feel like ideas and emotions forming in some artistic “big bang” . Ballads follows in the footsteps of classic electronic and experimental composers like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnick and pushes the boundaries of what instrumental music can and should be.
According to Ashley Bellouin’s biography, “Bellouin holds an MFA in Electronic Music & Recording Media from Mills College, where she studied with Maggi Payne, John Bischoff, and James Fei. Here accolades the Frog Peak Collective Experimental Music Award for most outstanding thesis”, and it goes on to say “She has presented her work at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Soundwave ((5)) Festival, the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, UC Santa Cruz, and Stanford University, among other venues. Her residencies include the Paul Dresher Ensemble Artist Residency Center, the UC Berkeley Center for New Media, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, and EMS in Stockholm, Sweden. Additional awards include a YBCAway grant from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.” She has also worked with synth pioneers Don Buchla and Dave Smith, working as an engineer at Dave Smith Instruments.
What I take away from listening to her excellent debut is that yes, she’s more than proficient technically with the instruments here, but that as a composer Bellouin understands that there’s more to a musical piece than just noise for the sake of noise. Both “Bourdon” and “Hummen” are as eloquent as they are heady. They are soundscapes that journey through the head and heart. They work on an intellectual and gut level. Mica Levi hinted at this musical terrain on her Under The Skin S/T. Like Levi, Ashley Bellouin takes a minimalist approach to composition, but results are anything but minimal.
Ballads is an album that begs for late night headphone sessions. It’s an existential whisper from the universe to our ears. Bellouin’s light touches and droning instrumentation seem to amplify a great unknown. An unknown we need only to drop the needle to receive.