Since her early-’00s days as a student studying jazz at Trondheim Musikkonsevatorium in Norway, Anja Lauvdal has been involved in a head-spinning array of bands — Moskus, Your Headlights Are On, Spacemusic Ensemble, Broen and Jenny Hval’s combo, to name just a few. She’s been a part of an equally hefty amount of collaborations, many of them improvisatory in nature. Over time, the Oslo-based keyboardist and composer has put her stamp on countless styles, from free jazz to leftfield pop and indie rock, to sounds that defy an easy categorization. After a decade as a key player in Norway’s progressive music scene, ‘From A Story Now Lost’ — an album of celestially sublime ambient pieces recently released on Smalltown Supersound — marks her debut as a solo artist.
“I think that for a long time, I didn’t really need it,” Lauvdal says, explaining why it took so long to put out her own music. “I really enjoy collaboration, and I have a very social relationship to music. It’s hanging out with friends and playing together, which is a really nice way to be in the world. But maybe six months before the pandemic, I was extremely tired from touring a lot and from being sort of dragged in a lot of different directions with all the many different projects, and so I sort of needed to gather my thoughts.”
Lauvdal decided to take a bit of time off — then Covid came along, and she had a lot more time off. “I suddenly found myself sitting in a room and playing alone for myself,” she says, “not having an audience and not having anybody at all, not even somebody recording it. I was completely alone, and that was a super-weird and intense feeling for me. Like, who do I do this for? It was a very, very new experience, but also sort of what I needed to get back the joy.”
The album was produced by Laurel Halo, the Ann Arbor-born, Berlin-based artist who, like Lauvdal, has a penchant for aural experimentation. The process, true to Lauvdal’s background, was a collaborative one, initiated by sending sketches over to Halo. “We found some mutual favorites,” Lauvdal recalls, “and we talked a lot about process, and then she asked, ‘Do you ever improvise with your own improvisations?’ That was really a door-opener for me, because up till then, I’d only sampled other people and other instruments.”
Files were sent back and forth; more improvisations would be layered on top, more processing would take place, harmonies would be added, and so on. The results were worth the effort: ‘From A Story Now Lost’ is one of the most engrossing ambient albums you’re likely to hear this year. Piano chords hover, wrapping around melancholy melodies; synths sigh; other tones, including xylophone, occasionally pierce through. Sometimes, the tones are organized around rhythmic scaffolding; more often, they seem to unfurl at their own meandering pace. They feel like something apart from the world, outside of the constraints of space and time.
Time and how we perceive it is one of the themes of ‘From A Story Now Lost,’ according to Lauvdal, and she’s fascinated by narratives that have been lost, and the people who have been forgotten, as time flows onward. Some of the album’s music was inspired by Agathe Backer Grøndahl, a prolific and respected composer and pianist who was active in the latter part of the 19th century, but is largely overlooked today. “Her sister is a painter [Harriet Backer], who is very famous here,” Lauvdal, who grew up in a small town on Norway’s west coast, explains.
“She just got her own room at the National Museum. But when you read about Harriet, she talked so much about her sister, the piano player, like, ‘Agathe is the star of the family. She is this crazy, talented person’. But she almost doesn’t exist now in the Norwegian music scene, and I can’t really understand why, because she made a lot of beautiful compositions. It made me think a lot about time, and what stories are being told, and who is being heard. The universe is filled with these kinds of stories that are still there, but they just haven’t really gotten their place yet.”
‘From A Story Now Lost’ doesn’t quite sound like any music that Lauvdal’s been involved with before; it’s a pretty safe bet that whatever comes next will see her veer off at a different angle. Speaking of her musical wanderlust, she brings up This Woman’s Work: Essays On Music, a collection of essays edited by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and music writer Sinéad Gleeson.
“The book had an interview with the drummer from the Boredoms, Yoshimi P-We,” Lauvdal says. “She said about herself, ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t see genres, or who doesn’t see styles.’ I related to that, and it’s just come naturally to me to be that way. Being linked to, and being inspired by, so many different musicians... I mean, Norway is a small country, but we have a lot of music here and lots of musicians, and we are very connected to each other because we’re so small — so that might also be part of why I am this way.”
Lauvdal doesn’t plan on ending her collaborative ways; a new Moskus album, ‘Papirfuglen,’ came out this past winter, for instance. (The LP, a collection of charming improvisations, is worth your time.) “And I’m still doing lots of other things,” Lauvdal says. “But musically, making this album does feel like something has opened for me.” Let’s hope it never shuts.