Laraaji’s Cosmic Ambience and Stunning Beauty

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 11.27.13 in Spotlights

In May of 1978, Brian Eno found himself subletting a flat in Greenwich Village in what would prove to be a fertile period for the man and his music. Within the next two years, he became a staple on the downtown scene, recording no wave bands for the epochal No New York compilation and collaborating with CBGB fixture Talking Heads on a series of records that moved their sound away from punk and toward a polyrhythmic groove that would power the band on into the ’80s. But late in 1979, Eno happened upon a busker while strolling through Washington Square Park. He was sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed, lost in the waves of sound he coaxed from his zither.

When Edward Larry Gordon opened his eyes, he found amid his donations Eno’s business card. He entered the studio with Eno a few months on and emerged with a new name (Laraaji), a new album (1980′s Day of Radiance, released as part of Eno’s influential Ambient series), and a new sound: his zither run through a patina of electronic effects. It was a relationship that would continue throughout that decade and into the ’90s, with Laraaji releasing a string of albums for Eno’s All Saints imprint. This music revealed a strain of New Age that could be by turns placid yet exquisitely psychedelic, mind-elevating and body-erasing.

Gordon’s life, in particular, serves as a definition and counterpoint. He was born in Philadelphia, where he learned to play violin, piano and trombone; he eventually studied composition in Washington, D.C., at Howard University. After college, in the early ’70s, he relocated to New York City, where he took up stand-up comedy and acting, in addition to playing music gigs. No doubt influenced by the Eastern spiritualism infused into the late-’60s free jazz of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders that still hung in the air of the Village, Gordon began to study with gurus like Swami Satchidananda and Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati. But it was when he came upon a zither in a pawn shop that he became attuned to his musical and spiritual calling.

Celestial Music features some of Laraaji’s earliest home recordings, revealing a sound both percussive and spacious. His zither playing evokes a river’s motion, transitioning from kinetic movement to tranquility in an instant. Perhaps the nearest antecedent to it is in the harp playing of John Coltrane’s widow, Alice Coltrane, as she unshackled herself from the constricts of jazz in the early ’70s and began to meld Eastern mysticism to Western musical instrumentation in her own group recordings.

The title of Two Sides of Laraaji, meanwhile, is a misnomer: Traces of Greenwich Village folk, spirit jazz, ambient electronica, lounge exotica, drone, trip-hop (in collaboration with producer Bill Laswell), even some experimental noise (courtesy of a lengthy jam session with Blues Control from 2011) can be gleaned. Of the five titles being reissued, only The Way Out is the Way In — made in collaboration with Audio Active — is skippable, a by-product of the early ’90s that finds producers smothering Laraaji’s playing in bombastic Big Beat drum programming. And in digitally processing one of the man’s lectures about laughing meditation (Laraaji’s website boasts of both “Celestial Music Performances and Seriously Playful Laughter Workshops”) the man sounds like a deranged Mad Hatter cackling and lecturing you on the benefits of “cosmic energy.”

For those fearing they may be entering a realm of New Age mists and wispiness, Laraaji’s music has far more coursing beneath its placid surfaces. On the transportive 25 minutes of “Being Here” (from 1992′s Flow Goes the Universe), his zither transforms into something akin to light on still water, the very act of listening not unlike floating weightless. The water metaphor becomes literal on “A Cave in England,” where a field recording of a waterfall melds with Laraaji’s strummed strings, the white noise of it soon becoming meditative.

To these ears, Laraaji’s masterpiece remains 1987′s Essence/ Universe, and it’s nothing short of aural bliss. It’s beautiful, minimal, evocative music, whether or not you enjoy astral projection, lucid dreaming, chakra massage, or nurturing your inner child. New Age music is often used (and derided) as being a tool for self-help or even worse, of being a form of music with no pulse, neither sharp nor rough edges. Yet there remains in Laraaji’s music, an ineffable stunning beauty. At its finest moments, it dances just beyond conscious apprehension.

Laraaji also appears briefly on I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990. Along with Iasos, Steven Halpern, Constant Demby and others, he represents the core of New Age music, but the true treasures of the compilation come from other musicians who perhaps released a few private-press cassettes before disappearing back into the ether (or the ashram). I Am the Center explores every corner of the genre, primarily that intersection particular to this music, wherein seer meets musician, where spirits commune via their earthly vessels (both Iasos and Larkin deploy the preposition “through” when describing their musical inspirations), where sound can be visionary, where music could be considered as both a form of psychotherapy and as life force.

Artists like Daniel Emmanuel, Peter Davison and Judith Tripp are Laraajis who never had the fortune of meeting their Brian Eno, or garnered much interest outside of a small circle of cassette enthusiasts. New Age was once an underground, this flurry of release activity tells us. At the very least, a new generation of listeners who gravitate towards the ecstatic sounds of modern acts ranging from Sigur Ros to Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds to Mountains to Julianna Barwick, might be encouraged to immerse themselves a bit deeper in the genre and imagine New Age less as ideal for a spa soundtrack, and more like a cauldron, magical and dark.