The New Yorker FEBRUARY 27, 2023 - by Amanda Petrusich


Much of New Age music exists somewhere between the intellectual avant-garde and wellness hooey. Laraaji shows that the genre's best practitioners were truly radical.

In 1969, Edward Larry Gordon - a standup comedian, part-time jazz pianist, and aspiring actor - walked into a New York City pawnshop, hoping to hock his guitar for rent money. Instead, Gordon found himself preternaturally drawn to an Autoharp, a type of zither popularized in the nineteen-forties by Mother Maybelle, of the Carter Family, and prominent in the folk revival then going on in Greenwich Village. He lugged it back to his apartment in Harlem and started tinkering, eventually prying off the chord bars (which allowed him to more easily experiment with pentatonic, modal, and minor tunings) and adding a contact pickup (which electrified the instrument). Soon, Gordon was playing the Autoharp through effects pedals, and cramming various odds and ends, including chopsticks, mallets, and pedal-steel slides, underneath the strings - a technique popularized, for piano, in the nineteen-thirties, by the experimental composer John Cage. Gordon's Autoharp no longer sounded dainty or sweet. It was now fierce, glimmery, and extraterrestrial.

Gordon, who was born in Philadelphia in 1943, was perhaps compelled toward the Autoharp by some Elysian force. He had recently become interested in mysticism and Eastern philosophy; years later, he would describe himself as "a conduit, a channel, and a medium." He started busking with the modified Autoharp in Washington Square Park, and brought a kind of tranquil, rapturous energy to the downtown scene. "As best I can recall, during the seventies, I was very much involved in the cannabis, barefoot dancing, new age experimental, meditation circle, and improvisational music culture," he has said. In 1978, he released Celestial Vibration, his début album, on a new independent label called SWN. In 1979, Gordon changed his name to Laraaji Venus Nadabrahmananda and started working with the electronic musician and producer Brian Eno, who heard Laraaji playing in the park and dropped his phone number in the collection basket. The following year, Laraaji and Eno released Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance, a hypnotic, pulsing instrumental album featuring a thirty-six-string zither and a hammered dulcimer. More than four decades later, the record still feels like an emanation from another plane.

Laraaji will turn eighty later this year. He has put out more than fifty albums, and continues to make new work. In addition to his music, he has taken to spreading the gospel of laughter as a transformative force. Every Thursday morning, on Dublab, an Internet radio station based in Los Angeles, Laraaji leads a three-minute "laughter meditation," in which he chuckles, hoots, and guffaws, sometimes over pinging, atmospheric sounds. He has said that he thinks of laughter as "a luminous language, a language of lightness, of brevity, of vulnerability." For the past few weeks, I have tuned in to the meditation with my one-year-old daughter in my lap. She finds the broadcast strange and hysterical. Laraaji believes that even a forced smile can open something up in our brains. He has described a good laugh as a "ventilation of your system." My daughter giggles; I giggle. She removes her tiny socks and tosses them in the air. Maybe something shifts in us. It is a nice way to start the day.