The father of Annbjørg Lien played the hardanger. This is a Norwegian fiddle with violin upper strings and antiphonic understrings. His daughter from the age of six played the same instrument, and eventually, at the age of 14, she went abroad alone to play in festivals. I discovered these facts as I was reading two interviews, one at Rootsworld, one at Exposé. At this time of her childhood the Norwegians did not trust their own folk music — she says — perhaps because they felt too recently decolonised by Sweden and were still finding their confidence. She was unusual, a child who played the hardanger fiddle where the other children did not play the hardanger fiddle but instead other instruments when they played instruments at all, which was probably not always, though that detail was not included in either of the two interviews.
Today the local folk music is more popular in Norway than it was when she was little, she says, though she does not add that the tango also is popular, so make of that what you will: these random facts. The second interview was conducted around the time that her 1999 album, Baba Yaga, was released in the United States. Baba Yaga was a breakthrough album for her, and mystic and stormy, with drones, cries, and electronic howls in a track like “Loki”, which was the first I heard of her — the American label Northside had it on one of their promotional compilations.
Khoom Loy is less stormy than “Loki”, not that stormy at all, though there is a sort of psyche-rock storm in “Needle’s Eye”, where the roar of guitar may be imitating the violent water that heaves around outside the Needle’s Eye itself. This Eye is a natural feature of the coastline near her home in Kongshavn: it is a narrow place through the rock to the sea. “Once in the strait one is struck,” she writes, “by the wonderful peace that reigns there while out in the open sea a wild storm might be raging.” The song opens with a fiddle group playing together acoustically in “wonderful peace,” then the electric storm-music hits. The abruptness of this shamanism obliterates the fiddles, they are suddenly gone, their song is gone, and the replacement goes splurt, roar, roar.
The title is all permeated with serenity. “This is a tribute to a lovely ritual of the East: releasing lanterns in remembrance of the dead, or as a prayer for a good life,” she explains. “Khoom Loy is the Thai name for these lanterns.” In the title song she sings gently, “Elevate, elevate, khoom loy, elevate,” and then lifts her voice smoothly. However it’s worth pointing out that Thai is such a highly tonal language that the khoom loy she’s pronouncing might not be the khoom loy she means. There’s no Thai music to go with the title, but other countries outside Europe run in and out with sarod, tabla, and the lute buzuq. A Nepalese man named Suman Sachin sings a drone on “Den Største Daarlighed”. He dominates the song, then he goes away and she starts to sing. Later she sings next to him, but on the whole her method of combining two musics is to interleave them, first one then the other, not to mingle.
But this is also because she uses pauses for emphasis when she composes: first music, then quiet, then music. So the natural way for her to join very different people together in one song is to have them take turns.
This style wants to be either ecstatic or still, and it’s not brilliantly suited to the mood of reverent modesty she seems to be aiming for, the “lovely ritual” of the softly rising lanterns, the glow, the smoothness. The Scandinavian fiddles are sharp, her fiddle is sharp. The non-string instruments are used for their warmth, the expanding circular dop of the tabla very different to the straight lines of the Kristiansand String Quartet in “Needle’s Eye”. And cornerlessness, a spreadingness, often surfaces, the repressive gentleness of her singing in the title song, and the way the flute lingers on after she’s completed a line. Hans Fredrick Jacobsen is the flautist. There was expansion in Baba Yaga too, in “Loki” — those storms — but rising up more naturally there than the new electric storm in “Needle’s Eye” — her sensibility might be expansion and contraction, like the hardanger itself, the directness of the upper strings and the reverberation of the lower, the mind of the instrument penetrating her subconscious and coming out at different times with different personalities, mythic on the earlier album, and then here trying to emerge, as in the cover photograph, as warmths and ambers, but stymied by the icicle cleverness of the fiddle.