With highlights from a largely untapped discography reissued on vinyl this autumn, we spoke to Brian Eno collaborator and trailblazing New Age musician Laraaji to find out just how music can alter your life.
If one genre has stood out for reappraisal in 2013 it would have to be New Age. Harmed by its association with commercialised ‘healing music’ and the booming multi-million pound business that emerged in the 80’s and 90’s as major record labels realised just how stressed out the American public really were, the genre has since cast an unhappy shadow across some truly fantastic music. This year however, labels like Numero Group, Light In The Attic and now All Saints, have, with a string of considered releases, stripped back the lifestyle fluff to reveal a core of committed, highly talented musicians whose influence stretches back through the avant-garde to jazz and gospel spirituals and forward via Fripp and Eno to noise, drone and even trance. New Age has been re-appropriated for the 21st century, an age where no music is accepted as simply either sacred or profane.
Not that the pejoration of New Age was the slightest concern for Edward Larry Gordon or, as he came to name himself, Laraaji. A stand-up comic who spurned his guitar in favour of an autoharp he was compelled to buy in pawn shop in 1974, Laraaji’s path to music was set by series of consciousness altering or ‘clairaudient’ (as opposed to clairvoyant) experiences that would eventually lead to a chance encounter with ambient progenitor Brain Eno and the recording of Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance, a splendid and cascading stream of consciousness channelled through Laraaji’s open-tuned autoharp, or electric zither.
Of the self-released cassettes and CDs that followed, Brian Eno’s All Saints Records have chosen to reissue three full LPs on vinyl; the superb Essence/Universe from 1987 and Flow Goes to the Universe (1992) and The Way Out Is the Way In (1995), bound together in the beautifully produced Two Sides of Laraaji. A compilation of collected works from the last 35 years has also been made available under the title of Celestial Music 1978-2011.
Touring regularly as a musician and leader of a self-devised laughter workshop, we spoke to Laraaji on the telephone to learn a little more about the real New Age and were moved to discover a man for whom art and life are simply one and the same.
It’s never a bad idea to start at the very beginning. What are your earliest memories of playing music?
In school in forth grade where we were able to practice on violin, trumpet or clarinet and I chose the violin. It felt like a calling from a past life, when I saw the violin and was given the opportunity I jumped at it and chose it almost without thinking over the other instruments. I was also exposed to opportunities to play the piano during that one hour between Sunday School and church on Sundays, so I was doing violin and piano.
You say the violin was like a calling from a previous life. Your choice of instrument was ultimately a very important part in the music you would go on to record yourself.
Yes, my appreciation for strings and the sensitivity that goes into performing on that instrument, with the instrument being connected under my chin. Also from what I understand, the tones of the violin enter a certain part of the brain directly.
There is certainly no other instrument played so close to ones ears. However, the violin was ultimately supplanted. How did you come across the autoharp, the instrument that would go on to make your own?
I was not really aware of it until I was living in New York in the late 60’s pursuing stand-up comedy in the Hootenanny’s and coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Occasionally a blue-grass band would be on the bill and the bluegrass band usually had about 5 or 6 instruments and one of them was the autoharp. I remember my first impression of seeing the autoharp, that it looked like an instrument that had a bigger life than what was being expressed.
It was somewhere around 1973-74, going through some transitions spiritually and socially, that I was in a pawn shop in New York Queens pawning a guitar at a time when I wanted a little more cash in my pocket. I just went into the pawn shop and tried to make a deal to get some money for the guitar, but the clerk offered me just $25 and I thought, ‘gee this is not going to work’, and just about then, a very clear direction or guidance – you could almost say it was so clear I could hear it translated into English voice – directed that I not take the money but swap it for the autoharp in the window. So I followed this direction and I left with the autoharp.
I began playing it and felt like ‘gee I wanted to take the chord bars off and do what I did with the guitar’, tune it in various open tuning systems and just hang out with a groovy feeling. And step by step this led to more experimentations and I began playing with bows, hammers and eventually electronics and it became like an unfolding meditation. It still keeps unfolding, the things that I can do with an open tune autoharp and electronics. That led to my busking on the sidewalks of Brooklyn and New York.
It was during this time that Brian Eno famously dropped his telephone number into your case with the expressed desire to make a record with you…
Yes, I was busking solo in the north east corner of Washington Square Park. There was a visual environment too as I sat in the centre of this cobblestone circle in the lotus position on a cloth on the ground and would play with my eyes clothes doing these streams of consciousness through music, putting out sound with hammered zither, set up just wafting a sheet of sound harmonics.
Although it’s a period we now connect strongly with the work of Eno and others, the music you were making must have been very personal and unconnected to contemporary music at the time.
It was unlike anything I had heard. My whole approach to music at that time was a response of having a clairaudient experience in 1974. The best way I can explain it is like an infinite number of brass instruments weaving this very glorious, triumphant, textual, cacophonous, endless stream of music. And it was jamming and wailing and it was the most sweetest music I’d ever heard and I had to put that music as a soundtrack to a movie the movie would probably be a full grand celestial homecoming of all galaxies and all species. So that was a consciousness opening, a consciousness shifting experience that lasted about five or six minutes, long enough and powerful enough to shift my direction in music.
Were you aware of Brian’s work before you started working together?
Maybe about a month before, some kind tourists were passing by my busking area and engaged me in a conversation and it seemed like it was their decided mission to acquaint me with the names Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and strongly urged me to seek out their music and listen because there was something in what I was doing that would benefit from knowing what they were doing. I didn’t get around to looking up the music at that time, and a month later, I received this note from Brian in my busking case and I thought ‘Wow, what a co-inky-dink’.
What was your understanding of the genre of ambient music that your work with Brian Eno immediately placed you into?
The word ambient was new to me, I don’t think I’d heard it in any context, but I’d got the sense of what he was talking about, when he was saying that music wasn’t supposed to be up-front but more of an environment. The listener could be and think without having to have the musical journey forced upon them.
Another term which is used too often in a pejorative sense rather than just a descriptive one is New Age…
I still have faith in that term New Age, and it depends on the what the artist brings to the table with it. New Age may ultimately mean ‘now’ and ‘new’ I would imagine any artist in previous ages, if they were fresh and new to the ear, their music allowed the human emotional system to tap into a higher frequency or a higher capacity for feeling.
So the confusion arises because of the way New Age was marketed as healing music, when actually it just allowed people to feel in a different way? Or does your music has an explicit healing aim too?
For me they are both the same right now. Healing is feeling and feeling is healing. Music can aid a listener in feeling something that their present life situation doesn’t help them to feel. Openness, freedom, flow, exuberance, celebration, or feeling deep peace or deep tranquility. Feeling deep tranquility, one could say one could be brought back into balance, from depressions, anxiety or even paranoia. Bringing things back into balance means healing the emotional system back from the edge where edgy emotional states can lead to physical repercussions, whether they be worry or headaches or fear.
On the other hand, there is music that is alive and bright and celebrating on a level that’s not tied in to what’s going on on the planet but a sense of timeless celebration. Once again that wouldn’t be isolated to just this ‘New Age’, as I recall listening to the classics Richard Wagner and Samuel Barber, classical composers, and Negro spirituals too, they would use music to lift the human emotions.
So my music does that, its aim is to provide a listening experience that lifts the emotions to a bigger, brighter more positive space and at the same time alleviate and stressful conditions in life that would lead to a non-healing state.
Are you pleased that the records are being reissued?
I have been listening to them pretty intensely over the last few days and I am quite impressed with the reproduction and the artwork of Two Sides of Laraaji and the eco-friendly packaging. I’m like wowed, it was worth waiting for. I’ve been waiting forty years.
You must be pleased that it’s now reaching a new audience of music enthusiasts and record collectors who may not have approached your music from a healing perspective initially.
Yes, I’m happy that as I listen to tracks I feel they were mixed for youthful listening ears, almost for the avant-noise market as well as the deeper, dedicated meditators and contemplative lifestylists.
That’s an interesting connection you make between noise and new age as musics without conventional song-form that evoke emotional or physical states.
I would imagine that the popularisation of certain substances contribute to that. I wasn’t fortunate enough to really get into the rave scene while it was going on, but to do that there was a substance called ecstasy that I imagine had a lot to do with kind of music that was being produced. And the way I hear electronic, trance-dance music and repetitive loops lends itself to the listener being in some kind of special state while dancing.
Were you experimenting with substances of this kind during the making of your own music?
Yes, I felt very curious about the ethno-botanicals, mushrooms, LSD. I was very curious in what I could find out. Jam parties were very strong with marajuana and hashish. Stronger than that I was not that comfortable with.
Hallucinogenics are very connected to an understanding of different states of consciousness.
Yes, especially with a background in meditation, as one teacher once told me, ‘marajuana will take you where you’re going’. If you’re going down it will take you down, if you’re going up it will take you up. I learned through meditation to set an intention for it to be a safe journey and I would imagine that intention followed into the music that came out of that. The music should sound like the performer is on a sacred journey or inside of a sacred vision.
One final question, you seem to have quite a fondness for wearing orange and even recorded an album in 2001 entitled My Orangeness. Where does this come from?
I like the way it catches the sun. It’s a radiant colour. Before I was conscious of it, I was wearing it unconsciously to verbalise the impact of consciousness shifting that took place in the 70’s and that the colour orange, representative of fire, is a transformative element.
Also it is a colour of taking sexual energy and moving it into creativity; a vibrant, happy colour, a joyful colour. In the early 80’s a spiritual mentor advised me to wear more of it because he felt it was a surfacing of an inner initiation of consciousness experience and he was helping me to hone it through wearing of the colour, which in the Eastern tradition is a devotional practice; the wearing of the sun’s colours and honouring of the transformation and the inner movement of life force energy.
Two Sides of Laraaji, Celestial Music 1978-2011 and Essence/Universe are out now on All Saints Records. Click here for more info.