Ambient Music Pioneer Laraaji On Sound and Spiritual Practice, Vision Songs and Laughter Meditation

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Laraaji, photo courtesy the artist

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.

Best Shows in Denver 7/11/19 – 7/17/19

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Laraaji, performs at Rhinoceropolis on July 12. Photo by Greg C Photography (www.gregcphotography.com)

Thursday | July 11

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Deerhunter circa 2013, photo by Tom Murphy

What: Deerhunter w/Moon Diagrams
When: Thursday, 07.11, 7 p.m.
Where: Ogden Theatre
Why: Deerhunter’s main contribution to modern rock music is fusing a garage punk energy and sensibility with a knack for otherworldly melodies and a gift for soundscaping straight from the realm of dreams. Oh, and a genuinely emotional intensity that comes from a deep place of alienation and, paradoxically, yearning for connection. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is the group’s 2019 album and a commentary on the seemingly broken world (politically, economically, socially, culturally) we find ourselves in at the moment.

Friday | July 12

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Versing, photo by Gordon De Los Santos

What: Froth w/Versing and Shark Dreams
When: Friday, 07.12, 8 p.m.
Where: Globe Hall
Why: Versing’s 2019 record on Sub Pop 10000 is a pointed take on an unwillingness to commit to being on the right side of history at a time when the twin forces of oligarchy and fascism are on the rise and infiltrating and coming to political ascendancy worldwide. Its angular dynamics surge forth with great momentum while remaining tunefully melodic. Froth is a fuzzy psychedelic band whose vocals seem more soulful than bratty and that makes all the difference.

What: The Blasters, Supersuckers and Wayne The Train Hancock and MC Clownvis Presley
When: Friday, 07.12, 8 p.m.
Where: Bluebird Theater
Why: The Blasters are legends of southern California rock whose mix of Americana, rockabilly, R&B and blues effected with impressive musical chops and raw passion made the group respected in circles much wider than the image of a blues rock band might now. Supersuckers moved from from Tucson, Arizona to Seattle in 1989, a year after forming, and became immersed in the then burgeoning alternative rock world but like other significant bands of the era like Love Battery and Gas Huffer never really got big but put on lively performances and produced good records. Not really grunge so much as garage rock and in the past couple of decades they’ve been known to do some more country-oriented shows. Seeing as they’re sharing the bill with The Blasters that is a distinct possibility.

What: Hi-Dive Hug Down: Panther Martin, Super Bummer, Jobless, Night Champ
When: Friday, 07.12, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: Group Hug is putting out albums by some of Denver’s best lo-fi indie rock bands and this is a showcase for some of the best of the lot. None of them are much alike and all experimented with a more popular style earlier in their lives as bands but are now making truly interesting music.

What: Patriarchy in Retrograde at Mercury Café: R A R E B Y R D $, Lady of Sorrows, Bonnie Weimer
When: Friday, 07.12, 8 p.m.
Where: Mercury Café
Why: Celebrating the inevitable end of the patriarchy you can catch some of Denver’s most innovative female musicians including transcendental hip-hop group R A R E B Y R D $, operatic, beat-driven darkwave ambient artist Lady of Sorrows and the avant-folk of Bonnie Weimer.

Saturday | July 13

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FELIX FAST4WARD, photo by Tom Murphy

What: Laraaji performs “Vision Songs” w/Free Music, J. Hamilton Isaacs, Goo Age and Fragrant Blossom
When: Saturday, 07.13, 8 p.m.
Where: Rhinoceropolis
Why: Multi-instrumentalist ambient and drone legend, and Eno collaborator, Laraaji makes a rare Denver appearance to perform from his vocal material “Vision Songs.” Laraaji fuses performance, composition and spiritual practice and does workshops on “Laughter Meditation” throughout the world. Read our interview with Laraaji here.

What: Esmé Patterson w/FELIX FAST4WARD
When: Saturday, 07.13, 7 p.m.
Where: Dazzle
Why: Esmé Patterson may have made her name as a songwriter in the more Americana vein with her old band Paper Bird. But as a solo artist she has pushed herself in increasingly interesting directions both sonically and creatively. And as a performer, for that matter, all while making poignant social and personal commentary. She is headlining but also on the bill is FELIX FAST4WARD who is one of Denver’s most gifted and imaginative electronic music composers and producers in various realms including dance, hip-hop and ambient.

What: Extra Gold, Bison Bone, Claire Heywood
When: Saturday, 07.13, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: A legitimate country show with a few of the Mile High City’s finest including the folksy/Merle Haggard-esque Extra Gold, Bison Bone and its eclectic yet singular blend of psych, country and pop and Claire Heywood’s smoky, grittily soulful country torch songs.

Sunday | July 14

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Don Felder, photo by Michael Helms

What: Don Felder
When: Sunday, 07.14, 5:30 p.m. gates, 7:30 p.m. show
Where: Hudson Gardens
Why: Don Felder is perhaps best known as the iconic guitarist for the Eagles during one of the most interesting, musically speaking, points in the band’s career. Sure, you may have heard “Hotel California,” the title track of the group’s 1976 album, who can say how many times but those distinctive lead guitar parts were written by Felder and his guitar interplay with Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey helped to define a certain sound of the 70s in southern California. While still in the band he wrote some songs that appeared on the soundtrack to Heavy Metal including “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” and “All Of You” lending the soundtrack some brooding darkness and beautifully decadent guitar work. Felder’s guitar style fit in with the country rock thing with the Eagles but what made it stand out was his knack for interesting dynamics and atmosphere even when he writes something more straight ahead rock and roll. His 2019 album American Rock ‘n’ Roll is a tribute to the music that is the title.

Monday | July 15

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Michael Mcdonald, photo by Timothy White

What: Have a Nice Life w/Consumer, Street Sects and Midwife
When: Monday, 07.15, 8 p.m.
Where: Hi-Dive
Why: Industrial drone, post-punk ambient or whatever one calls Have a Nice Life’s starkly brooding body of work, its dark compositions have proven influential on a generation of bands that have come along since its inception. Also on the bill is confrontational industrial/darkwave band Street Sects and ambient folk soundscaper extraordinaire Midwife.

What: An Evening With Michael McDonald
When: Monday, 07.15, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Chautauqua Auditorium
Why: Michael McDonald’s smooth and soulful vocals have been a part of American rock and pop music for over four decades now. Whether as a singer in Steely Dan (both live and in studio), The Doobie Brothers, as a solo artist and in his numerous collaborations including with the likes of modern hip-hop/jazz genius Thundercat, McDonald brings a deep musicality and keen ear for melody that transcends genre. He will be performing a series of shows in Colorado that we will include on our Best Shows list up to and including his show at the Denver Botanic Gardens on Thursday, July 20.

What: Headboggle, Malocculsion, Page 27, Blank Human
When: Monday, 07.15, 7 p.m.
Where: Rhinoceropolis
Why: Noise shows are a rarity in Denver these days when once you could find them on the regular when it was more possible for artists to have a warehouse to make this kind of thing or where impromptu venues were more open to hosting this stuff forbidding to more mundane sonic sensibilities. This show includes ambient/noise scaper Blank Human and the godfathers of Denver noise, Page 27 in its first show since the departure of long time member Michael Nowak.

Tuesday | July 16

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Author & Punisher, photo courtesy Relapse Records

What: Treasure Mammal (AZ), EVP, Chromadrift, Techno Allah
When: Tuesday, 07.16, 9 p.m.
Where: Rhinoceropolis
Why: An ambient and industrial pop kind of show.

What: Imperial Teen
When: Tuesday, 07.16, 6 p.m.
Where: Twist & Shout
Why: Imperial Teen includes current and former members of Faith No More, Sister Double Happiness and The Wrecks. Their left field pop got a boost when “Yoo Hoo” appeared in the 1999 film Jawbreaker. Though the band’s excellent 1996 album, produced by Steve McDonald of Red Kross, garnered no small amount of critical acclaim it was oft found in bargain bins at music stores. The group’s playful songs and interesting and illuminatingly personal takes on controversial themes has set the foursome apart from many of its late era alternative rock/pop peers. In 2019 the group released its latest album Now We Are Timeless. Since Jone Stebbins lives in Denver now, Imperial Teen is in some ways a local band.

What: 3TEETH w/Author and Punisher and GosT
When: Tuesday, 07.16, 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Marquis Theater
Why: 3TEETH is one of the better newer industrial rock bands. But the reason to go to this show is to witness Author and Punisher who creates his own instruments and whose cybernetic appearance is no mere affectation as it incorporates controllers of various types that can be executed by a single person. The project’s music is industrial but more raw and experimental than most music calling itself that these days.

Wednesday | July 17

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The Beths, photo by Mason Fairey

What: The Beths and Girl Friday
When: Wednesday, 07.17, 7 p.m.
Where: Globe Hall
Why: The Beths from Auckland, New Zealand started in 2015 and absorbed some of that worldwide retro-90s fuzz rock vibe of the time. But since the trio is from New Zealand it always manifests differently and its melodies go down unconventional paths and the progressions resolve in fascinatingly unpredictable ways. Plus Elizabeth Stokes’ vocals are bright and strong and not couched in manifesting angst so obviously. The group did title its 2018 album Future Me Hates Me tells you that you’re in for something more interesting than “summer time good time music” and yet the group’s music is upbeat and hopeful.

What: Michael McDonald
When: Wednesday, 07.17, 7 p.m.
Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek
Why: See above for 7/15 for Michael McDonald.

What: Dinner Time (GA), Sliver, Gila Teen and Moving Still
When: Wednesday, 07.17, 8 p.m.
Where: Thought//Forms
Why: Atlanta’s Dinner Time is a low-fi indie pop band with some raw and ragged edges to its songwriting so that it can sound a little bratty and snotty like a punk band you’d actually want to listen to. Also on the bill are ex-nü metal wavers Sliver whose covers of 90s Bush songs, at least in essence, are almost as good as the real thing. Somehow Moving Still invited Sliver’s singer to perform with them because they’re good people and taking Chris Mercer under their wing and cultivate the guy’s tastes until he realizes that Nirvana was not influenced by Gavin Rossdale. It’s an uphill battle. Gila Teen is a post-punk/pop death rock band from Denver and one of the Mile High City’s greatest duos whose emotionally vibrant sad songs chase the blues away.

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Hippo Campus, photo by Pooneh Ghana

What: The Head and the Heart w/Hippo Campus
When: Wednesday and Thursday, 07.17 and 07.18, 8 p.m.
Where: Red Rocks
Why: Hippo Campus from St. Paul, MN are technically an indie rock band but its beat-making and pop songcraft is more akin to R&B and hip-hop with a focus on mood and atmosphere. Its diverse and imaginative songwriting manifested brilliantly on its 2018 album Bambi and in 2019 the group released a cadre of songs in two volumes called Demos I and Demos II. The song experiments on both show how the band got from the promising songwriting of the 2017 album Landmark to the sophistication of craft heard on Bambi. At the top of the bill for this show is indie folk band The Head and the Heart. Maybe “indie folk” doesn’t apply so much anymore as the band has expanded its sounds and songwriting style in all directions. Its 2019 album Living Mirage finds the band truly utilizing space in its songwriting in a way that allows for the expansive feelings inherent to its specific musical style to stretch out and resolve organically. Which is interesting to see in the music of a band that has reached its level of relative commercial success when there can be pressure for efficiency in delivering satisfying musical hooks. This line-up plays both Wednesday July 17 and Thursday July 18 at Red Rocks.