INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork AUGUST 7, 2015 - by Mark Richardson
LARAAJI: ALL IN ONE PEACE
Why has new age music floated back into the musical conversation? The answer is complicated. Reissue culture in general has kicked into overdrive, as music across the spectrum gets rediscovered and re-packaged at a pace we've never seen before. The line between ambient music with cultural cache (Eno, spacey krautrock) and relaxation tapes for the bourgeoisie has grown blurrier, not to mention the mainstreaming of yoga, locavore eating, and sustainable culture, all of which focus on the body and the senses as a ballast for data-driven digital reality. And there's also the fact that the idea of "functional music" in the playlist era has become so widely accepted. In this climate, it makes sense that mellow music designed for meditation and relaxation would wind its way back around.
Into this context, enter Laraaji. Born Edward Larry Gordon, he knocked around several creative spheres in New York in the 1960s and '70s, working as an actor, comedian, and musician. Always a spiritual seeker, he had an epiphany in the '70s that caused him to trade in his acoustic guitar for a zither, and in the latter part of the decade he began busking in Brooklyn and Manhattan and releasing some of his home-recorded improvisations on small-run tapes. Laraaji's first wider notice came when Brian Eno heard him playing in Washington Square Park and asked if he wanted to record an album as part of Eno's Ambient series. Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance, released in 1980, has always been a bit of an outlier in terms of Eno's ambient discography, because it sounds like no other music he was ever involved with (Eno produced, but it's a Laraaji album all the way). The intense energy of the hammered dulcimer on the record's first side could be trance-inducing, but it in no sense slips into the background.
For many observers, Ambient 3 was Laraaji's big moment, but he has released many dozens of albums since, most of which were not marketed to the broader music-buying public. For many years, if you walked into a new age shop anywhere in the United States, from Santa Cruz to Burlington, Vermont, you'd find a rack of tapes for meditation and relaxation that you'd never find in a regular record shop. And among these you might find a release from Laraaji. Only recently, with several reissues and the release of an excellent collaboration with Blues Control, has Laraaji's work started to reach beyond those origins. This history is part of what makes this particular set interesting: three early Laraaji releases are being put out, on tape, by Leaving Records, a Stones Throw subsidiary co-run by L.A. beatmaker Matthewdavid. Where they were once presented as music for a specific purpose and offered for sale to those heavily invested in new age culture, they are now re-presented to an audience who hears them mostly as strange and obscure music to be collected.
The earliest tape in the set, Lotus Collage, which Laraaji issued himself in 1978, situates his music at an intersection of drone and Terry Riley-style minimalism, with a bent-note attack that draws in the music of India. Laraaji described his musical epiphany in terms of a universal vibration, and his music seems especially attuned to the feeling of matter moving rapidly in space. It has an elemental quality and the textures are metallic (his zither is outfitted with a pickup, and tuned to favour open strums and drone), bringing to mind oud, harp, guitar, dulcimer, bells, mbira, chimes, and singing bowls. At points on Lotus Collage he'll break into a strummed rhythm with damping that almost sounds funky, but these more propulsive moments are gradually subsumed into the drift. The overall feeling is one of relaxed contemplation, but Lotus Collage is ultimately a dynamic set, with intense peaks and lulling valleys. Like the other pieces here, it was clearly designed with tape in mind - two pieces, each just under thirty minutes, perfect for a C-60.
Unicorns In Paradise, from 1981, was presumably issued on a C-90. Over two forty-plus minute tracks, Laraaji makes use of a Casio keyboard to flesh out the buzzing zither with softer, rounder tones. The sharp attacks of Lotus Collage are nowhere to be found, and instead, aside from some repetitive keyboard parts deep into the second side, the record as a whole is very open-ended and free, as if it's a seed being blown along by a gentle breeze. It's a less cosmic sound than the earlier release, more atmospheric and diffuse, and it seems designed to give a room a certain tint rather than being a vehicle for close listening. You could isolate any two-minute section of the whole and have no idea whether it comes early or late on the album, but in this case that doesn't seem like a negative.
Connecting With The Inner Healer Through Music gathers two very different pieces that have never appeared on the same tape. The first side, a multi-part piece called Trance Celestial, is a gorgeous collection of drones that feel richer and more fully formed than his earlier work. Here the divisions between individual instruments all but disappear, and everything feels integrated and focused. At times, the effect is close to the blissed-out post-shoegaze of Windy & Carl. The second side is a thirty-five-minute piece with Laraaji on vocals offering a kind of guided meditation over plings and trails of synth.
The sound of Laraaji's voice, intoning over wisps, underlines just how differently we listen to this music today, in contrast to the spiritual seekers who presumably bought it in 1983. Bad-vibes films and television shows from True Detective to Inherent Vice have cast this kind of calm, echo-laden speech in a very different light, highlighting the creepiness and cultish aspects over the presumed search for spiritual enlightenment. It's also a reminder of how new age spirituality is so easily twisted into something dark, since it does, after all, involve people at their most open and vulnerable. But none of this speaks to Laraaji's intentions; thirty years later, he is still making the rounds of yoga and meditation centres, putting on workshops that emphasise the healing power of laughter. This is not an artist who takes himself too seriously. And the fact that his music is returning thirty years later into a new world to reach people in a new way is an inspiring tribute to our highly cyclical world.