“I put aside time every day to shift my sense of who I am—not the world’s definition of who I am.”
You know the story, right? While strolling through downtown Manhattan in 1978 Brian Eno found himself enchanted by the siren call of Laraaji, a berobed disciple of eastern mysticism, playing the zither in long, hypnotically repeating patterns, eyes closed, busking in Washington Square Park. Eno and Laraaji (born Edward Larry Gordon in 1943) began collaborating soon after that, releasing Day of Radiance in 1980 as part of Eno’s legendary “Ambient” series. Laraaji had already made two excellent albums before that day in the park, in the limited-run but burgeoning private press world of a new genre known as “new age music.” In the decades since Laraaji has become synonymous with spiritual music, his profile increased due to the fact that the genre he helped create has become popular again. But whether or not Laraaji’s trending, his music is always generous. There’s room for everyone in his bright and pleasing long-form excursions on the electric zither. He’s shifted instruments on his latest release, a series of solo piano meditations called “Sun Piano,” but his wider project remains: soothing, repetitive, meditative, and expansive instrumental music, with occasional spoken word spiritual guidance for the listener. Laraaji studied music formally as an undergraduate at Howard University in the 1960s, but it was through his discovery of yoga and meditation as a young man that he developed his ongoing music and recording practice, with releases now nearing fifty. We spoke in early July of 2020.
THE BELIEVER: I’m curious if you have a daily spiritual practice, and what that looks like?
LARAAJI: It started out years ago being a set pattern and now it’s loosened up. The idea is to draw back into a space beyond the thinking mind through a practice of meditation and yoga. This allowed me to feel the presence of the sound of the cosmic field, also known as “the music of the spheres,” the soundless spins which some people define as the practice of Nada yoga. Oh and dancing too, dance meditation through “the five rhythms,” moving energy through those five rhythms. I also do tai chi in the park which is about 10 mins to a half hour of moving to the center of consciousness. And music too, sitting down at the keyboard or playing the zither, just free associating with sound takes me to an elevated state and gives me an intimate sense of union with the universe. When I wake up I do some smiling or laughter or yoga and then I sit still and just remember. I remember the self behind the world self. That practice helps me in performance too. It makes it so I can feel my way to it when I perform.
BLVR: So much of what you’re describing sounds like different ways of being calm and centered. Are you trying to get away from feelings like overwhelming desire or arousal or even anger and rage?
L: In the 1980s I did a seven day mental diet where the idea is to let go of one thing at a time, like the anger you experience when someone gets in your way on the subway and you respond to someone with an expletive. [Doing that workshop] made it so that I don’t need to respond that way anymore. But also when I do hammer work on the zither or when I play the piano hard or in certain dance work I wind up releasing a lot of that. Lyrical stillness can follow when you focus on that. My anger used to be pretty intense. I did things deliberately in order to tone down the anger narrative in me. I learned to access the timeless self apart from the personal history self. I used to sit and meditate and take off every title that was ever used for me – the bad ones and the beautiful ones and painful ones – to see what’s there after that. By doing that I was able to come back to the personal self that was balanced with sustained stillness through inward sitting, knowing the self behind the physical self. It helped me to move through the world with a sense of balance, so I’m less likely to be put in anger.
BLVR: But I imagine you still get angry right?
L: Yes I can feel it coming on and then divert it from taking over. I feel the rising of that energy and I know it could go into violence and I choose to go into a different direction. Like on the subway when you see someone smoking a cigarette. Tension comes up, I think “can I tolerate the smoke? or shall I move?” Anger is not good for my system. Going into anger can create havoc that may not settle for years. Anger shows up as an opportunity or a temptation, and I choose not to be consumed by that.
BLVR: That must take a lot of work!
L: It takes focus and commitment. I put aside time every day to shift my sense of who I am—not the world’s definition of who I am. It is an inner cosmic knowingness, that I’m beyond this world, I’m still in it, but I won’t be done in by it. But yes, my anger can still erupt around boundaries, when someone oversteps.
BLVR: Let’s talk about music—I promise not to ask you about Brian Eno.
L: Ha! Well he is responsible for bringing me into the music world in many ways.
BLVR: Well I’m wondering how you listen to music, and what music you listen to.
L: I listen to Pandora’s Laraaji station usually. Or various forms of comedy. Also Jazz, Oscar Peterson, Weather Report, I like music that grabs me, that moves me.
BLVR: What music were you passionate about when you first discovered the zither?
L: Samuel Barber adagio for strings, Motown and dance music from then, the Beatles. Really what I really listen to now is the inner sound current known as Nadam. I listen to that at home, walking around, all the time.
BLVR: No Pandora station for that!
L: Ha! Well, it resonates and has no beginning or end. But certain sounds like the gong, or forms of chanting—these can prepare your psyche to notice the inner sound experience. Like when I’m in savasana in yoga where your mind is empty, your body is relaxed and you’re in the best place to hear the worldly sound vibration, that’s when we say aha! The cosmos has a sound! Like in the Christian Bible – in the beginning there was the word, it can be heard anytime anywhere when the focus is right.
BLVR: Right now we’re in a time of great social and political upheaval, and I’m curious if you have been participating in the protests.
L: I’ve chosen to go within. I want to be in a place where I can consider all sides of the situation while also understanding Black history and Black accomplishment and learning more about Black contribution too. So I’m trying to know more about the history that has been stolen from us. But ultimately it’s cosmic life that really matters. We’re vulnerable until we recognize the cosmic life within something like Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter should move forward, I am for it, but it’s a stopping place on the way to cosmic life which lies beyond it.
BLVR: Thank you for speaking today.
L: You’re welcome. Goodbye never and hello forever!