Uncut MARCH 2023 - by Rob Young


Newly unearthed recordings and a 1970s gem are collected on a four-disc motherlode of zithery bliss.

Think of a song, not any particular song, just the idea of a song. Say it's the late 1970s when Laraaji was roaming the streets and parks of New York with his electrofitted autoharp. A song with its anticipated structure and its lyrical text is there to tell you about an experience. Laraaji's music is the experience.

The life of Edward Larry Gordon, born in Philadelphia in 1943, appears to have been one long chain of serendipity. Raised in New Jersey, he sang in Baptist church choirs as a kid before studying piano at Howard University. A talent for performing, comedy and role play brought him to Harlem's Apollo Theatre, where he acted as host in the mid-'60s, while also serenading legendary boho hangouts Café Wha?, the Bitter End and the Village Gate with his folkish songbook. He even scored a role as long as a goldfish recall in Robert Downey Sr's cult ad-men madness movie Putney Swope in 1969. But this is all ancient prehistory.

A little more sand runs through the hourglass and we're in Washington Square Park, circa 1975. Ed Gordon is by now entrenched up to his scapula in the cosmopolitan alternative lifestyle movement in which everything from yoga and meditation to pot, improvised music and barefoot dancing is involved. His guitar has been pawned and in its stead an autoharp purchased on impulse. Jenny Lynch is passing by in the park and likes what she hears emanating from the autoharp, which e has stripped of its chord bars and amplified with an electric pickup. He taps and strums the pentatonic-tuned wires with chopsticks, brushes and metal slides. Jenny is a luthier who just built a hammered dulcimer for folk musician Dorothy Carter. She writes down his number, recommends him to Carter, and before you know it he's accompanying her and running workshops on 'electronic autoharp experiments with tuning and phase shifters' at the 1976 Boston Globe Jazzfest and Music Fair.

The year 1976 is an epochal time for the age of Aquarius. Progressive music, radical psychiatry and alternative medicine melt together in a quiet counterculture-shock known as New Age. A transitional flap on the mystical wing of popular culture. Hippiedom's last sigh, impotently puffing a farewell reefer as synths and sinewaves are swung up over the ocean. The dawning of a musical age impossible to imagine even just a handful of years back at Monterey and Woodstock.

This moment is Ed Gordon's moment. Ed Gordon, Larry G, Laraaji - a morphology of name and identity in mirror sync with his expanding musical consciousness. Punks in dark clubs and dives snarl about music and society being on a road to nowhere. For Laraaji (and fellow voyagers) music is a healing force, a pathway to the mindful zone, a daily microdose of aural Ambien. On the two unbroken sides of Celestial Vibration from 1978, he made a record of the sort of stardust he was sprinkling around at creative dance companies, holistic drop-in centres and yoga classes at that time. Bethlehem and All-Pervading, twenty-four minutes each, only cease because the needle must skate to the still-point at the centre.

They're both here at the start of Segue To Infinity, the first of four discs. The rest are parts of this period of Laraaji's history we've never heard before. They are taken from ultra-rare acetates - spotted on eBay by a sharp-eyed collector. The mint A++ white labels, credited to Edward Larry Gordon, had been retrieved from a storage unit, sold at a flea market and finally offloaded online where a college student recognised the name and made a winning bid of $114. They are now in the safe hands of the archive label Numero Group, who have form when it comes to independent and private-press New Age re-releases.

Celestial Vibration has been aired once already on Soul Jazz Records. The remaining dug-up tracks won't disappoint anyone familiar with Laraaji's blissful lakes of kundalini stretching beneath billowing cumulonimbi of bliss. Ocean would be the ideal headphone accompaniment for standing too close to a Rothko canvas. A deep enveloping background accented with scudding strokes on the zither strings. Koto is composed of similar sonic ions, signposting the way ahead to beatless milestones like Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick - which in turn thumbs its way towards The Orb and other '90s ambient noodle bowls.

So far so rapturous, but the three tracks titled Kalimba provide the real revelations in this collection. Here Laraaji uses the zither both as a drum and a marimba. The first of them is eighteen minutes, the others upwards of twenty-two. These are audibly a far more physical test of endurance than the other tracks here. Thrumming sequences falling somewhere between central African log drum rituals and one of Can's Ethno-Forgery jams. He keeps up a meditative yet somehow surging two-handed groove, striking rattling blows on the strings with wooden or metal beaters roughly four to six times per second. These Kalimba pieces are the most exciting addition to Laraaji's canon - beautiful, intricate little cosmic clockwork mechanisms that must have been mesmerising to observe while they were being played. The track Segue To Infinity, that gives its name to the boxset, pairs Laraaji's orca bone harp tones with lark-ascending flute from Richard Cooper. It's the one that conforms to the most recognisable 'New Age' tropes although is still vastly more appetising - and less kitsch - than most of what you'll hear on the stereo down your local crystal-and- tarot boutique.

Down on the street, Laraaji visualises his ideal record producer. The universe makes it so. A scrap of paper left in his zithercase in 1979 contains a phone number. At the end of the line is Brian Eno. Sleevenotes by Vernon Reid of Living Color, who has known Laraaji since the '70s, and Numero Group archivist Douglas McGowan, perform admirable detective work without being able to conclude exactly when, where or for what precise purpose these unearthed tracks were recorded. Irreconcilable facts place them either just before or just after the 1980 release of Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance on Eno's EG label. In any case, these beautiful, vaporous exercises in musical mindfulness restored to us on Segue To Infinity are convincing proof that Laraaji didn't need any Eno to help him read the map.


[DISC 1] Celestial Vibration Bethlehem / All Pervading [DISC 2] Edward Larry Gordon Recordings Ocean / Koto [DISC 3] Edward Larry Gordon Recordings Kalimba 1 / Segue To Infinity [DISC 4] Edward Larry Gordon Recordings Kalimba 2 / Kalimba 4

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What did you feel when these acetates were unearthed?

I was slightly nostalgic, remembering patterns that I frequently used at that time, my approach to playing the zither, and the type of electronics I was using. I was using inexpensive phase shifters, under $200, while today I use higher- end pedals. I got away with lo-fi pedals back then.

What strikes me with some of these tracks is the physical endurance required.

I do performance callisthenics. One of my favourite practices is repeating a phrase a hundred times. You can imagine it gets monotonous. But I use it to get new performance patterns into my subconscious mind as part of my vocabulary. I found out that by doing it a hundred times, I can get into a repetitive pattern. Performance is a yoga-like, athletic discipline. I get lost in the moment of the improvisational surprises. I'm outside of the thinking mind and I'm thinking and enjoying and savouring it. So it's a yummy sensual experience.

You seem very much in control of your destiny.

It became conscious and intentional when I began studying metaphysics and the laws of consciousness - how to use consciousness consciously. To attract into your personal life visions of things you think you want to experiment on or experience.

I once tried to be a songwriter and I'd write songs and send them to the Library Of Congress... but none of that material got released. But when I started letting music flow spontaneously, then more things happened, I felt I was on the right path. With the ego-driven path I had difficulty creating what I wanted. When I got into letting go and trusting and observing what I am supposed to be allowing, things happened more smoothly. Then I would make choices. Decide I'm going to attract the right synthesiser or the right producer. I remember praying for the right producer to come into my life and that was just before Brian Eno happened. The rest is pretty much flowing freely, and suddenly I'm travelling all round the world, effortlessly.

Have you received further enlightenment during your travels?

I have. It has confirmed my suspicion that when I let spirit-revealed music come through, it bathes the listener, whatever part of the planet they are on, with a significant experience. It's music for all God's children [laughs]. In my earlier music I used to tune to pentatonic scales. Japan and Asia resonates to that kind of music, and I notice my music is pretty well appreciated there. As I travel around the world I watch people go into deep relaxation or come out of anxiety and lose stressful headaches, or get wonderful visions for whatever creative project they're working on. It told me that my music doesn't work just in New York but has an application across the globe.

Can you talk about the relationship between music and the cosmos?

My sense is that nonlinear space is more relevant, more real than external space. Don't tell Elon Musk that! That's been my work: metaphysics, meditation study and listening to teachers, to get myself to a place of honouring this inner space, this non-linear space. I feel comfortable here, I feel infinite contentment here, and I can bring this contentment into the music. When I perform music I'm not intent on endings and beginnings, because this inner sound - the Sanskrit nada - has taught me that the wholeness of the cosmos is in every moment. There's no real ending or beginning. There's a continuum.

All that from just stretched wires and a piece of wood.

The zither is a metaphor for the universal field and the universal soul. I'm interacting with this instrument, but it's not just a piece of wood with thirty-six strings vibrating. I am consciously, empathically holding and strumming and interacting with this instrument as though I'm communicating with the universal field. These instruments are tools for my acting out on this plane a sense of rapport with the invisible. Occasionally in warm weather I'll go out to the beaches with my zither and play with the surf. Get as much oceanic energy into my physical performance, which allows the listener to have a sense of inner neutralisation.

Can you imagine making music on another plane of existence?

Sometimes I feel that Earth is a testing ground, to plant experimental culture here and then to harvest those who excel in certain expertise. Then move them into another constellation where their expertise can help to evolve whatever civilisation is there. Sometimes I get a whiff of that.

How does music actually heal?

Music is a way of drawing our awareness back into the present time, where there is no separation. For a while you can experience a lack of separation, a lack of heart-angst. One time in Florida I was playing a concert for a Unity church and in the audience was a woman in a wheelchair. After the concert we took some questions and she said, "I can't walk, but when I heard your music I saw myself dancing and soaring." And I thought, 'Hey, that's pretty lovely.' A month later I'm at the same church again, attending a service, and in the vestibule meet-and-greet, this woman walked towards me slowly with a young man at her side. She gets closer and says, "Hi, I'm the woman who was in the wheelchair, and I want you to meet my dance instructor." And I said, "Woah!"