Laraaji was born Edward Larry Gordon and as a youth he learned to play a variety of instruments and did voice training before going to college at Howard University. In the 70s Gordon was living in New York City and studying Eastern spirituality and mysticism when he picked his first zither in a pawn shop. From there he modified the instrument to be electronic and performed and composed with the zither in unconventional ways. He was busking in Washington Square Park when he met Brian Eno and the two came to work on one of the first several albums in the “Ambient” series released by Eno in the 70s and 80s. 1980’s Ambient 3: Day of Radiance was markedly different from other entries in the series as the zither as processed through effects was still fairly organic and brought endlessly fascinating textures to the collaboration.
Laraaji has gone on to have quite a prolific and varied career as an artist and spiritual practitioner. He has done albums with Michael Brook, the inventor of the “infinite guitar,” with Roger Eno, Bill Laswell, Jonathan Goldman (a practioner of healing through sound) and avant-garde noise folk sculptors Blues Control. In the mid-80-s Laraaji released recordings collectively called Vision Songs and broadcast on his public access television show as a practice and example of raising spiritual consciousness through music. He also holds workshops in Laughter Meditation worldwide. Laraaji will perform at Rhinoceropolis on Saturday, July 12 with Free Music, J. Hamilton Isaacs, Goo Age and Fragrant Blossom.
We recently interviewed Laraaji via email and discussed his blending of music and spirituality, the aforementioned Vision Songs and Laughter Meditation as well as his more high profile collaborative projects.
Tom Murphy: When you were studying Eastern mysticism did you find any connections between what you learned that route and the music around you at the time? How would you describe those connections?
Laraaji: I observed that drone music at that time reflected the sensation of eternal present time which is emphasized in eastern philosophy—the continuum of consciousness. Also deep yogic level relaxation and meditation as reflected in the music of Stephen Halpern. The heightened sensation of bliss and ecstasy as reflected in the music of Iasos at the time in the late 1970’s. Terry Reilly.
How did you turn a zither into an electronic instrument? Was anyone doing anything comparable at the time you started doing that? Did you process those sounds early on or was it more for amplification?
My first autoharp/zither was acoustic. And after exploring alternative tunings I investigated ways to amplify it. [I then purchased] an electric pickup made especially for autoharps. I dove into amplified autoharp/zither research and decided to add sound treatment with the MXR 90 Phase shifter. After recording the album Day of Radiance with producer Brian Eno my interest in other [effects] pedals expanded to include chorus, delays, flangers and reverb.
How did you meet Brian Eno and as a producer how involved was in shaping the sound of Day of Radiance?
Brian introduced himself to me while I was playing Washington Square Park [in New York City in] 1978 and extended the invite to join him in his Ambient album productions. His suggestions to depend more on live studio microphones and Eventide effects, mixing as well as overdubbing a second zither helped to shape the Day Of Radiance sound.
You’ve worked with Michael Brook. How did you become familiar with his music and what lead to that collaboration?
Michael Brook was involved in my initial collab performance tours with Opal Evening, a tour project in the late 1980s to mid 1990s. Michael was a performer as well as sound engineer for the tour. As a result his live recordings of all the shows contributed to eventual record releases.
Tell us about Laughter Meditation and why you think it is beneficial to people in practicing it.
Daily Laughter as a mindful practice treats our energy presence to heightened functioning. Included in this is our immune system, our blood flow, our hormone flow, our breath flow. The reduction of stress and emotional tension through mindful laughter prepare us for meditative relaxation and stillness. In this practice our focus is not to find something funny at which to laugh but to explore self-willed laughter as a force for therapeutic recreation and and inner spiritual self connection.
Vision Songs seems like a further expansion of music and art as spiritual practice. Did you broadcast performances of that music on your public-access show in New York? Why were you drawn to that way of putting the music and those ideas out there? What about performing Vision Songs in the live show format do you find interesting and powerful now?
Vision Songs is where I was at the time in the early 1980s seriously investigating spiritual consciousness and sharing my awakening through [spontaneously] inspired songs and music with an expanding spiritual community in the USA. Sharing the songs in live show allows me to free sing the themes and lyric contents of these songs into fresh listening.
Certainly artists like John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane have had their music described as spiritual in philosophy, practice and in the impact of the music itself. Nusraat Fateh Ali Khan and others have been practitioners of Qawwali as part of their fusion of musical and spiritual practice. Who are some artists now that you feel are operating in those modes that you find compelling?
Artists who seem to be performing in these deep intentional spiritual modes [include] Don Conreux, Gong Master, Jon Serrie, Constance Demby, Stephen Halpern and Pauline Oliveros to name a few.