Here Comes the Sun King: Laraaji in the Light
A conversation with the benevolent monarch of warm drones and sunny tones.
The man born Edward Larry Gordon is dressed nearly head to toe in a vibrant orange. Later he will explain the significance of that color, but for now he’s setting up an array of organic instruments in an art and performance space while a number of people wait, most of them laying on the ground—a select few have even brought their own pillows. Most are roughly half of the age of the performer who now goes by Laraaji (think Larry G. with an accent). His performance feels more like ceremony; the chime of a Tibetan cymbal signals the beginning and, an hour or so later, the end of the performance. Between that time Laraaji will play the electric zither, laugh loudly and quietly, perform synthesizer drones, and basically do his best to take everyone out of their heads—at least for a little bit.
“I would say about every other day I am up in the middle hours of the morning sketching out ideas, exploring, inventing, reworking programs around synthesizers, or tuning the zither. Constantly plucking away,” he says.
Talking to the man who has been recording and reworking themes of meditation and spiritual enlightenment since the mid ’70s, it’s remarkable how much time he still dedicates to fine-tuning his musical explorations. A quick search through his discography shows a prolific amount of releases: privately released albums, cassettes, CD-Rs, and lately, projects on experimental indie labels. He was famously approached by Brian Eno, who saw him performing on the street in Washington Square Park in the late ’70s. The resulting collaborative album, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, was released in 1980 and presented a shimmering calm with an active musicality that sounded different than many of Eno’s music-as-furniture outings. The way he talks about it now, Eno’s role in the studio was more as a guide.
“He selected the approach I would use, which was more microphone energy,” Laraaji says. “I was used to using electric pick-ups. He coached me in restricting my musical expression to what he hoped would be an ambient performance in the studio. He talked about repetition. He talked about music to be in [a] space with.”
Yet just a few years before making space music with Brian Eno, Laraaji had been an active young high school student with his eyes on a future engineering career. A passing mention of Howard University—a place where a young man could pursue a career in the arts—put the brakes on an engineering degree, and he instead went in for music theory. There he learned the classics—and learned he could speak the musical language and orchestrate. After four years, rather than continue with getting his teaching credentials, he did what any young man with eyes on a classical music career might do—he moved to New York City to become a comedian.
“I did quite a few shows. I did tours,” he says. “I worked with Job Corps, who commissioned artists to go out traveling in these remote areas to provide entertainment. I performed as an emcee and comedian at the Apollo Theatre.”
You can find him in the film Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr.’s masterful commercial satire from 1969. He’s somewhere in the middle dressed all in white playing Mr. Victrola Cola. That film was pivotal for him.
“My experience with Putney Swope made me want to become clearer about what kind of experiences and roles I wanted to portray in the mass media, as opposed to just going in for the money. I decided then that meditation is what would give me that clarity. As a result of that I was guided to start working with the electric zither. Now I had this meditative inspiration, [and] I had this unique musical instrument that was portable and it allowed me to play on the sidewalks of New York to earn money. That led to gigs: playing for parties, playing for meditation centers. It became my new form of income.”
And that’s it. The comedian finds cosmic inspiration and discovers the zither. But laughter has remained an essential part of his music. He soon began leading laughter meditation workshops—a role he still performs. The post-Eno years saw him embraced as a cosmic new age figure. The music he created—a vast and deep selection of drones and highly melodic journeys into inner space—is largely unencumbered with the trappings of production tricks of the ’80s and ’90s. His collaborative efforts with people like Roger Eno, Michael Brook, and Bill Laswell made his music a constant in meditation centers and beloved amongst fans of ambient music and classical minimalism.
But a funny thing happened. These improvisational pieces, these golden-hued, Terry Riley–like journeys into the unknown, began to find an audience with a new generation of musical outcasts. New Age started to be viewed as a vast genre with fragments of folk, classical, and space music that was more than ready to be reexamined. Laraaji recorded a collaborative release with Queens-based art-rock duo Blues Control in 2011. Then the reissues started—collecting past bits, repressing long out-of-print records—which got his particular brand of pure sound onto the turntables of people wanting to have their minds blown in a quieter sense. The concerts became less populated by the masseuse and psychotherapy crowd and more by record nerds, NPR listeners, experimental music fans: young people who, if you really want to spin it, are relishing the chance to just be still and in the moment. The new brigade of listeners and musicians in his wake is not lost on him.
“When I left college, I felt like I could inspire, influence, and impact people outside of the formal classroom teaching,” he says. “I feel like that’s where I’m at now. When I interact with young musicians who are exploring this alternative, electronic, experimental, ambient music, I am in fact modeling for them so that they can explore their own contribution in that medium.”
“When I left college, I felt like I could inspire, influence, and impact people outside of the formal classroom teaching.”
This year sees two full-length releases from Laraaji. Sun Gong, which, he says, “explores shamanic or otherworldly emotional responses in the listener: Ominous or timeless, transcendental or cosmic.” The other, Bring on the Sun, is a “series of very short pieces that incorporate multi-instrumentals in a clearer way. You’ll have harmonica and organ drone and then you’ll have kalimba and tabla percussion.” They are both extraordinary pieces of music that rival anything he’s recorded. It’s music that feels connected to the Earth, but is so far-reaching in scope it feels limitless. He has put a musical language to what feels unspeakable. Putting this thought to him, he circles it back to his attraction to the color orange—his signature visual element.
“I found myself using the color [in the ’70s] to verbalize something that I didn’t know how to verbalize with words. I felt drawn to wear that color without understanding the connection between my inner transformation and the color orange as representative of transformation.”
If he’s successful at transforming the crowd, it’s hard to tell; most people are lying horizontally, after all. And that’s fine with him. His music, he feels, is a “sound that acts as environment, within which a person can perform, think, massage, or just chill out. You’re not required to listen to a rise, a fall, a beginning, or an ending. Just feel a musical sound presence enveloping you in which you can immerse yourself.”
Laraaji then rings the ending chimes for his performance, and our conversation is soon to follow suit. The gong, the zither, the kalimba, the rain stick—all travel-friendly items that make up his portable orchestra, his travelling portal into the cosmos—need to be packed up. FL