It’s all too easy to describe a piece of ambient music as “meditative”, but the work of Laraaji makes a strong case for the supposed interconnection of mind, body and sound. Across five decades his discography has so successfully manifested the spiritual passion of its singular creator. Having studied several musical instruments from a young age in Philadelphia, the man born Edward Larry Gordon grew up with a broad scope of artistic interest, which would lead him from a composition and piano course at D.C.’s Howard University into the world of acting and standup comedy. Music remained a constant fascination, and it was after a chance discovery of an old zither in a New York pawn shop that Gordon’s career took on a whole new direction.
By the early 1970s Eastern spirituality had already left an obvious mark on western pop culture, with bands as famous as the Beatles capitalising on the psychedelic hedonism of the late ‘60s and drawing inspiration from the creative practices and aesthetics of ancient Asian cultures. Laraaji’s awakening coincided with his newfound infatuation for the strikingly unconventional stringed instrument. By electrically modifying the zither and transposing his piano-playing skill, Gordon realised he could create strange, hypnotic music to supplement his burgeoning interest in meditation and yoga practice. This convergence revolutionised Laraaji’s perception of his creative pursuits, which were now a greater extension of his spiritual musings.
Before the end of the ‘70s he was playing for passersby on the busy streets of New York City, inviting them to slow down and enter the contemplative space of his repetitive music. It was whilst counting his change after a day of playing in Washington Square Park that he noticed a note from a man named Brian Eno inviting him to a recording session. Laraaji remembered the names “Fripp” and “Eno” from a discussion he had had with an interested couple, who urged him to check out some of their music. He figured if the name happened to pop up again, he wouldn’t hesitate to “move closer to it”.
Eno’s ambient series had begun in 1978 with Music For Airports – an album which he created in pursuit of a music which could be listened to almost subconsciously. It’s wind-chime pianos and artificial choirs revolutionised the function of the song by re-contextualising sound to supplement the environment in which it was played rather than taking up space in the centre of the room. This was followed by Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, recorded in collaboration with avant-garde composer Harold Budd, which further expanded on the idea of a music so discrete that the listener could quite easily forget it was there. The series would become the centrepiece of Eno’s artistic philosophy, influencing entire generations of musicians and shaping his own work with bands such as Talking Heads and U2.
Upon meeting, Laraaji and Eno agreed to record what would become Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance. Whilst the former was the sole performer on the album, the latter worked as a producer, subtly manipulating the recordings to expand their dimensions. The album was divided into two distinct halves. The first focused on Laraji’s zither conjuring kaleidoscopic patterns of sound – tumbling icicles of sound which shimmer with brilliant clarity. Across three separate versions of ‘The Dance’ Eno accentuates different characteristics of the instrument. On the first the producer harnesses the resonant frequencies to maintain an atmosphere of calm, but as the music develops into the second theme Eno loops and delays the sound to weave an intricate tapestry of rhythm. On the final theme the listener is drawn closer to the timbre, as the low pitched sound elevates the coarse texture. In contrast to earlier Ambient installments, this was a far more active listening experience.
Side two explores more familiar territory as Eno’s influence rises closer to the surface. ‘Meditation No.1’ and ‘2’ take a far more impressionistic approach, returning to the territory first charted on Music For Airports. As if heard through a strip of gauze, the zither appears blurred, half-remembered from a dream the night before. The sharp edges of ‘The Dance’ have eroded almost entirely and the notes blend into one another like watercolour. Whilst the former hypnotises through repetition, ‘Meditation’ simply disassociates by transforming the intensely psychical sound of the zither into a shapeless entity, easing the transition to a contemplative state. The title couldn’t have been more appropriate: Laraaji was already receiving requests to record long mixtapes of his music, tailor-made for healing, yoga, and meditation groups.
The international coverage afforded to Day of Radiance upon its release in 1980 didn’t last long, and Laraaji continued to perform on the streets and issue private recordings as he had done before. It was not until the early ‘90s that attention started to return to his work following a management deal with Eno’s company Opal. Since then he has deservedly become one of the most beloved and respected figureheads of the ambient and new wave community which has enjoyed a major revival in recent years thanks to the retrospective digging of online collectors. Most of all, it’s delightfully ironic that this music, designed to blend so seamlessly into the background, remains in the focus of so many listeners today.