The story has been told over and over for years now: In the midst of fashioning an offbeat yet deeply influential series of recordings featuring sounds that he would christen “Ambient Music,” the English conceptual artist and record producer Brian Eno chanced upon a distinctive musician busking in Washington Square Park. Stopped in his tracks by the player’s blissfully arresting work on the autoharp, a keyed zither chiefly familiar among folk groups and in elementary-school music programs, Eno dropped a note in the performer’s case, inviting him to come make an album together.
That busker, Laraaji – named Edward Larry Gordon when he was born in Philadelphia in 1943 – responded with curious enthusiasm. The result, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, brought his ecstatic strain of meditative music, which previously had circulated principally on self-released cassettes, to a global audience.
Since then, Laraaji has continued to perform and record regularly, including collaborations with inquisitive artists and groups like Blues Control, Sun Araw, and Julia Holter, while also conducting workshops meant to harness the healing power of music – and of laughter, as well. A number of his early self-released cassettes and subsequent studio albums have been reissued in recent years. And on Oct. 29, Laraaji revisits Day of Radiance in a live rendition at BAMcafé, presented by World Music Institute in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Anticipating that event, we recently sat down with Laraaji – nattily attired head-to-toe in shades of deep saffron and orange – on a quiet park bench near a busy Harlem crossroads. There, the congenial master discussed his musical roots, background in stand-up comedy, spiritual path, and artistic evolution, and contemplated the causes for his recent resurgence.
STEVE SMITH: How big a part did music play in your childhood?
LARAAJI: From the church, church-influenced – my mother always sang around the house. Then around fourth grade, the school system introduced us to something called a fife, like a tonette. And of course the radio was always going. In fifth grade I was allowed to take serious lessons with the violin; my mother really sprang for that. And then she saw I was interested in the piano and put a piano in the house, and I attacked that. For those four years – fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth – I was in the school choir, school orchestra, and the church choir, and I was doing doo-wop on the street corner with friends.
I recognized the ability of music as a vehicle to lift me out of any kind of depression, and I understand now why teenagers blast their rock music when they go into their rooms: It creates a clear space for them to shut out the unwanted vibrations. So I used music to lift me into… I didn’t call it “other dimensions,” but lift me away into a more pleasant space.
Playing the piano was improv, and even when I was taking lessons I explored improvisation a lot. Then along came the trombone in high school, playing in the marching band. So my life was full of music, full of expression. I listened to the radio and bought records. Music was a staple, automatic; it was a part of my life.
Did you connect in any way with the historic jazz scene in Philadelphia?
Well, I grew up in New Jersey. My body was born in Philadelphia, and for a few years the family lived there, but then we moved to New Jersey. Where I was, there wasn’t a noticeable jazz scene, but I would hunt it out for the records: Erroll Garner and a couple other names that don’t come to mind. Florian ZaBach at that time was a violinist who was inspirational. He was on TV – TV would have the Liberaces and the Florian ZaBachs of the music.
Comedy was a part of my life then, laughing and humor and going to films… I should mention that cinematic scores were very impressive to me. I didn’t realize how strong an influence they had on me until I got into composition and noticed how much I reached for that expansive experience. Once or twice, my aunt, on visiting New York, took me to Radio City Music Hall, and the orchestra there made a big impact on me. I even see some of my influences now stem from just my few experiences of the Radio City orchestra. The sound stuck with me, and sort of set the tone of my New York experience: the sound of a sophisticated cosmopolitan area.
Then I got to college and was introduced to piano as my major instrument, and theory and composition. Four years of college got me to a point of not feeling like a trespasser in the field of music. Had I gone one more year, I could have gotten a degree for teaching, but the idea of teaching in that format wasn’t interesting to me – although now I feel that I teach in another way.
What was it about your formal education and the classical model that made you realize this might not be your path?
At the time I didn’t realize it, but I hear now, when I see teachers who’ve gone through the process and were happy to get out and get a pension, who’ve said that bureaucracy was the issue that dampened their experience of being in the school system. I assume if they were in a Montessori School or a Waldorf School it might be different. Maybe I understood intuitively that teaching wasn’t going to make me as happy; I felt composition, exploring, experimentation more than teaching in a formal sense. Also, maybe I would have stayed another year had I not been totally inspired by audiences who saw my comedic talent and advised me to go to New York and try my hand in stand-up comedy.
You were already doing that while you were in school?
Yes. Part of the school curriculum, or school lifestyle, had opportunities for talent shows. Plus, there were lots of funny gentlemen in my school; we’d team up and do teamwork together. I just loved laughing and getting people into the laughter zone. And it worked so well, so I came to New York and tried my hand at the Bitter End café, and got such a welcome that I decided to move to New York at the end of my fourth year of college, and pursued acting and comedy with the thought that it would give me more money, the same kind of money it gave Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. I could set up an apartment with a lovely carpet and a grand piano, and get into my writing. [Laughs]
Was there a specific transition point at which you turned from writing scores for other people to enact to becoming the hands-on practitioner you’ve been ever since?
That is a very observant question. Wanting to become a composer, in the back of my mind was: well, when I start creating big scores, I’ll have to go out and get an orchestra and pay for musicians, a studio… how am I going to do all of that? Then when the synthesizers came in, the synthesizers were bringing many kinds of orchestral sounds into the keyboard, and I had developed keyboard skills – suddenly it made my orchestral visions more hands-on and available.
Even in the current day, the digital orchestral sounds available in synthesizers and even in some computer apps have allowed me to take advantage of my orchestral, symphonic sensibilities in an even more minimalistic way. I mean, if I would just want an English horn there, I don’t have to go out and hire an English horn for a whole session. [Laughs] So it’s been a blessing, and I don’t see any musicians complaining anywhere… I don’t think it’s put any musicians out of work. But it’s allowed me to do the more expansive scores.
The music I reach for is informed by an expansive, cosmic hearing experience in the ’70s, when I heard music that seemed to represent the emotions, liberated from limited, linear life, open and robust, and flowing in the continual here and now. Having that experience put me more into appreciation of synthesizers that allowed me to do this experimental thing of sounding like a fluid, spontaneous orchestra – I don’t think that could happen with a live orchestra, really. [Laughs] And you’d want to get them there at 3 o’clock in the morning, when you’re at the peak of your spiritual meditation.
So, the synthesizers… and the zither. The zither has allowed me a unique project of fashioning a very individualistic sound. The zither, the kalimba [thumb piano], the voice, and various other instruments, plus my orchestral orientation due to my years at Howard University, have allowed me to bring this musical experience together. Sometimes I forget how valuable it is, how much I appreciate it, until I look a plumber or a car mechanic – that they can do their own thing, and even customize it. I said, wow, look, I can do my own music and customize it.
When did your meditative discipline begin to intersect with your musical practice?
I landed in New York from Howard University in ’66 and begin exploring acting, comedy, and some music. An acting agency, Ernestine McClendon acting agency, which specialized in people of color, got me a role in a movie called Putney Swope. [Editor’s note: Directed by Robert Downey Sr, the film was a 1969 satire concerned with race relations and corporate corruption in the advertising world.] I went for the actual filming somewhere down on Wall Street, and I was there for only two nights that involved my two pages of the script. I didn’t know what the whole movie was about.
Months later, it came out and I got to see it… Holy mackerel, is that what I’m a part of? I guess it was cool; it was underground, had some touchy, edgy subject matter. Then one Sunday I met an angry black poet who voiced his disenchantment with Putney Swope, and it got me thinking: How can I be consciously aware of my boundaries or ethics? Do I have any ethics? Would I drink liquor? Would I push alcohol? Would I do a nude scene? Would I curse? Would I shoot a gun, cause blood to happen onscreen? If the money was right, would I do it?
At that time, people like Shirley MacLaine and a few other actors and actresses were being written about as having a spiritual connection to their life. And I thought, maybe that’s what I need to do, get deeper into my spiritual core. I grew up in the Baptist Church and I heard all the teachings, but I wasn’t sure what they all meant – but I was encouraged to be a nicer person. [Laughs] I guess that’s what bothered me: How do you be a nicer person in the mass media? So I tried diving into meditation; I searched until I could find my own way into meditation. I wasn’t sure what meditation was supposed to be until this Western writer, Richard Hittleman, had a book on Bantam Press, Guide to Yoga Meditation. I read it and it demystified meditation, and empowered me to go in and find my own inner meditation stream.
And I did it: I found it using breath and focus, learning how to stay focused and calm, and spent many hours in that zone. And that opened me up to hearing a new music model, a new sound vision, and that sound vision had to do with music as being whole at every moment. This music model was the closest to the cosmic music, which yogis say has no ending, no beginning. It’s the music of the continual present, the music of all space and time vibrating now. The eternal now: Everything is one, right now.
Now, how I was able to grasp and integrate that experience in this little brain, I don’t know! [Laughs] But I was guided to start working with the zither autoharp. And eventually I figured out that I was using music on this side to integrate and hold the experience of that music that I can’t make, so that informed the music that I reach for now. Also, the music has gotten me to play for many spiritual, New Age conferences, where I got in touch with teachers and heard their stories and messages, and that helped to form my more spiritual understanding.
That influenced my direction to do music for this community, the community that’s friendly with meditation, friendly with yoga, friendly with alternative consciousness, and seeking answers from within themselves – music that allows people to relax and listen to their inner voice, or to reduce stress, trauma, and anxiety in the world. On the side I would still play rock & roll and rhythm & blues at the piano, because it’s a joy music, it’s a recreational music. But when I address myself to service, what has come out is this music that helps people to calm down and listen to their inner voice, and to feel less anxiety in the world.
Other archetypal New Age musicians, like Iasos and Steven Halpern, tended to look for soft, fluid sounds – sounds almost without any discernible surface tension. But even in your most processed, smoothed-out recordings there’s something sunny, affirmative, and percussive about the autoharp’s pinging, pealing quality. Why did that instrument speak to you?
My first exposure to that instrument was during the years I was doing comedy in the Village, stand-up comedy at hootenannies and talent shows. I would see some group get onstage, and part of that ensemble would be an autoharp that was played very gently, usually by a female. The sight of that instrument kind of touched me, maybe from a past life – I felt some kind of unique connection to it. But I didn’t explore it until I was in a pawnshop one day exchanging my guitar for money – and guidance says, “Take the autoharp.”
I took it home, strummed it, and said, hmmm, O.K.… And then guidance: Try my favorite piano chords and guitar chords. Then I took the chord bars off and started modifying it, electrifying it, and playing it with different unusual tools, like chopsticks, snare-drum brushes, and bows, and a vocabulary developed. How I would do it: go into meditation, put a tape recorder on, and then explore the instrument, just free; listen back to the recording, and anything that sounded interesting I would extract and repeat about a hundred times to get it into my subconscious vocabulary.
The first experiments were acoustic, and then I went down to Sam Ash or Manny’s Music in New York to see if I could somehow electrify this. I found an electric pickup, put it on in the music store, and strummed it, and from across the store this clerk says, “Ahhhhhh, I’m in heaven!” [Laughs] And I made this connection: This musical experience I had of the other dimension, I didn’t know how I was going to share it on this side, and he’d made me aware that maybe this instrument could play a part in my at least pointing to that music.
Your stand-up comedy background fed into another part of your spiritual discipline: laughter therapy. How did that come about?
All my life I grew up laughing: laughter with family, I wrote comedy, played in comedy teams in high school and college. When I got into meditation, the impression I was getting from people who were trying to teach me was that it’s a solemn, serious affair. Then someone showed me a book that was…he spoke it, he didn’t write it, but his followers wrote it for him: Osho Rajneesh, Bhagwan. He was a very potent but controversial teacher. And one book that was released under his name was a book of meditations, and there was a page called “Laughter Meditation.” His suggestion was upon awakening in the morning, do not open your eyes; do some stretches and dive into your laughter for 15 minutes, and do this for seven days. It was part of a three-week process; the other seven days you do some crying or stillness.
I tried the seven-day laughter, and I was very impressed. It was the first time that I ever tried laughing while laying down in the morning, just to jump-start my day. Sometimes it took me five minutes to get into my authentic laughter, and it was usually accompanied by some familiar body language, facial expressions, breath patterns. I liked the effect. I liked how it opened my energy up to more spontaneous laughter during the day. I liked how it made me sharper in listening to and appreciating laughter in public places, and improved my ability to make and hold spaces for other people’s laughter. It opened up my speaking, singing voice. And so I began sharing that in a five-minute exercise in the course of my musical workshops, my conferences.
It grew into a whole workshop on its own, especially with the introduction of laughter yoga, which was started by Dr. [Madan] Kataria. He and his wife started laughter clubs in India, where they would laugh on the beach for a half-hour before work. He, being a doctor, did a documented study on the health benefits of laughter and published it. I was able to get my hands on a copy of it and built some exercises around it, which extended my workshops.
The healing power of laughter – I had always suspected it, and these exercises help us to get more of the nitty-gritty health benefits out of laughter. So what I used to do was get people to laugh to break them down in spirit, whether they were bullies in my neighborhood or I just loved seeing that warm human spirit, to now, with the intention of knowing that it can help people in their healing journey, or as a way to go into a yoga posture called Shavasana, which is the final posture in Hatha Yoga, where the self is in a state of natural relaxation and meditation. And that is integral in my vision of getting more people to have their own inner expanded meditation experience. Laughter as a vehicle into expanded relaxation and meditation is still in harmony with the musical vision, too, supporting people’s inward journey.
Brian Eno dropping a note into your instrument case while you were busking in Washington Square Park, inviting you to record with him, is a wonderful story often reported. The result was Day of Radiance, part of his famous “Ambient Music” series. What impact did making that record have on your mission and career afterward?
Technically it made me aware of how high-quality microphones were out there [laughs], because I’d been going line-in and settling for it mainly because I could go through effects. I became aware of how much more of my zither sound was available through high-quality microphones. Two, that trusting a producer to guide one in the studio can feel vulnerable, but it also is a growing experience – you look at other sides of where you could be going with your music. So I’m open to working with producers, and I find I learn a lot more than I thought.
We all can use a guru now and then.
Yes, to hear how other people hear it. I even let a child play on my autoharp, and he taught me that I could play it by standing on it. [Laughs] Also, it put me on the global map, and pulled me closer into what it’s like to be an icon… not that I’m saying I’m one, but being associated with Brian, I can be anywhere in the world and somebody will recognize me and strike up a conversation. And then, out of the blue, they’ll pull something out of their pockets and say, “Can you get this to Eno?” [Laughs]
You’ve stayed busy over the years since then, with concerts, workshops, and so on. But ever since your collaborative album with Blues Control came out in 2011, there’s been a sustained, visible resurgence of interest in your work. You were included in the important 2013 anthology I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990. Your early albums and tapes have been reissued by the All Saints and Leaving labels. And you’ve worked with younger performers and bands like Sun Araw and Julia Holter. What do you think is behind this burst of attention?
Someone said people who are 20 years younger than me, or people who are the same age as I was when I was doing the music, can relate to the music. Someone pointed out that even the synthesizer I was using at that time has sort of a toy-playful quality, and it sort of represents where musicians who are at that age are exploring. They can relate to that sort of exploring, maybe little fumblings, seeking, experimentation. When I think about it, the three stages of an artist that I’ve been exposed to are periods of imitation, experimentation, and self-realization. So in that period I was exploring, experimenting, and I have a feeling that that mood and atmosphere, young people, especially those asking for cassettes and LPs, are kind of relating to that mood in themselves. That’s one; two, it might have been an innocence in that period, an adventurous spirit of not knowing, just breaking free of the mold. The music I was doing kind of represents what teenagers or people in their twenties probably want to do: They’re out from home, they’re out from under authority, and they want to fly their wings.
I’m just speculating on that, but one promoter did tell me that the synthesizer I was using and the effects I was using, the approach I was using, people in the younger generation who are going toward this music can relate to. I’m using a lot of high-end, high fidelity electronics now, and even during my concerts, someone will come up and say, “Do you have any of your earlier music?” [Laughs] Perhaps 20 years from now, these people will want the music that I’m creating right now. But still, the intention behind the music I’m doing now, the older audiences do appreciate the serenity in the ambient and the minimalistic.
I wonder, too, about the tenor of our times. Early on when this so-called New Age resurgence was being depicted in the mass media, there was often a tone of ironic snark: wink, wink, isn’t it funny that hip kids are getting into this offbeat music? But the more I listen and read and explore, the more it seems that there’s a real sincerity, a yearning for something genuine and deep expressed in those old recordings that they want to recapture and bring into their own lives. Have you sensed that?
My sense along those lines is that what’s available on the open market is you got rap, hip-hop, heavy-handed music. The music of this age, thinking holographically, probably contains the drama of this age, the trauma of this age, whereas in that earlier music there’s an innocence – a passivity, maybe – that isn’t so harsh or aggressive.
I’ve wondered as well about growing recognition of a spiritual void that we’re compelled to seek ways to fill… some sense that life could be better than what we’re typically being presented with.
There could be a sense of a void in any viable spiritual stuff: You see it, but when you get close to it, you realize it’s vulnerable. And finally you just come home to it: I have to do it myself. I have to find the center in myself. That’s what many teachers have said: Find it in yourself, because if you’re attached to something that’s out there, it’s tricky. You can listen, you can use it as a guide, you can look where the finger is pointing, but not get attached to the finger.
I would say that sound and light are two elements that I’ve been advised are going to be key role players in the New Age, for medicine and spirituality – that light and sound can vibrate above human ego, so they can be guides in a way that won’t trip up the follower. Musicians work with tone, and I would say that on I Am the Center there is a tone of passivity, peacefulness, gentleness. The New Age music that I’ve heard, some of it, I would say, is a little too passive and peaceful. [Laughs] And some of it really takes me deep. I’m glad I heard as much as I did, in order to find what I did find. Some of it really took my hearing into a new dimension, to immerse myself in a vibratory experience. That’s music working non-linearly, music as a wall of sound or an immersive space or a continuous drone, and these can drop the listener into present time.
This relates to what I was describing before about the bright, clear, percussive quality to your strummed autoharp. In everything you do – even when it’s disguised intentionally, like in the blurred surfaces on Essence/Universe – there’s a palpable physicality, a dance, a sense of exercise and motion.
Yes, that’s an enthusiasm that comes over me as I home in on source, on the present. It’s an exuberance, a jubilance, a fearlessness with expressing and letting it flow. It could be oceans roaring; it could be the sound of timbrels clashing. This is the model, the vision I received in the ’70s… the sound-vision had all of that in it. It was uncontainable, the roar of the infinite present moment. So I, like a child trying to emulate its parent, feel the energy there. It helps to do yoga exercises and physical exercises and breathing exercises and silent, still exercises to get into that place – it’s like musical acting.
The sound of the autoharp, I have to admit, is really dependent upon my taking the time to find a tuning that my heart resonates with. Sometimes the tunings make me think of the great Americana, sometimes they make me think of an ocean, or of European ethnic dancers dancing, or some Asian celebration. To design a tuning, that’s the degree of my compositional skills: to compose a tuning that has within it worlds that come forth. In that world there might be dancers, there might be Tibetan monasteries, and I just go searching and bring them out.
You mentioned European dancers, and that’s something that you’ve said before specifically about the three “Dance” pieces on Day of Radiance – that you were conjuring folk dances that hadn’t existed, but could.
Yes, I can visualize dancers. A senior, an elder, once heard me doing that hammered [dulcimer] work, and he said, “That’s happy-feet music,” and he was tapping his foot. So that set up an image for me, to think of happy feet tapping, and in that particular hammered rhythm I use a vision of imaginary happy feet. And other kinds of dances, I do think of either angels dancing or ethnic groups doing folk dances.
When you perform Day of Radiance live, as you’ve been doing in some of your recent concerts, how strictly do you adhere to attempting to literally recreate pieces you recorded more than 25 years ago?
I’m going to bring two zithers tuned in those Day of Radiance tunings, and do hammered zither work on one and meditative on the other – but I’d like to do some modern pieces around it, too. The hammered work is always fun; I do versions of it all the time in my concerts. The specific tuning Day of Radiance was in was a pentatonic tuning, so I would focus on making sure that my hammered work is in pentatonic, and that the meditative side is in more of a minor mode. And I use some of the playing techniques, the hammered techniques and strumming techniques that I used on both of them. So I revisit the continuum; I don’t go to the past. That’s what the sound-vision taught me – that there’s a continuum, and I can just reconnect with it.
Interview was condensed and edited. Laraaji performs Day of Radiance at BAMcafé on Oct. 29 at 9 p.m., presented by World Music Institute and Brooklyn Academy of Music. Free admission. www.bam.org