Laraaji Conjures a Baptism in Sound

Laraaji, a pioneer of ambient music, barely remembers recording most of “Segue to Infinity,” a four-disc trove of his early studio sessions. In the decades since he started recording, Laraaji has made dozens of albums and cassettes, both solo and collaborative. He has played concerts, festivals, webcasts, collaborations with musicians and dancers, yoga classes, meditation gatherings and more.

The collection, due Friday, reissues “Celestial Vibrations,” the small-label 1978 debut album that Laraaji made under his birth name, Edward Larry Gordon, and adds six extended tracks — each the length of an LP side — from the same era. Its recordings were rediscovered by Jake Fischer, a college student who bought them on eBay in 2021 for $114.01; they were acetate recordings that had been found in a storage locker. Many tracks on “Segue to Infinity” begin with the voice of the recording engineer announcing the take, sounding fairly jaded. Then the music scintillates, dances and reverberates on its own long time frames.

“I just vaguely remember doing the recordings, and I forget who was doing the business dealings with the record at the time,” Laraaji, 79, said via video chat from his apartment in Harlem. He was dressed in orange, the color he has been wearing for decades, with an orange tapestry on the wall behind him. It’s the hue, he has said, of fire and transformation, of sunrise and sunset, which “drives the energy toward creativity and self-realization.”

What Laraaji does remember is that the sessions were performed live in real time: “I was using loops at the time, but it was all straight in the moment.” He recorded most of the music solo, but the title track is a duet with a jazz flute player, Richard Cooper, whom Laraaji has been unable to find now that their music is being released.

At the time, Laraaji was playing for passers-by in parks and on sidewalks, performing hypnotic, billowing, open-ended improvisations with mallets on an electrified zither, an autoharp without its chord bar. He discovered the instrument in a Queens pawnshop when “a mystically intimate voice” advised, “‘Don’t take money for the guitar,’ which I was trying to pawn,” he recalled. “It said, ‘Swap it for that autoharp in the window.’”

It was ideal for a musician drawn to bell-like, consonant sounds. “I explored the autoharp and was surprised where it took me,” he said. “It gave me an instrument that I could perform from meditative states. It was exotic and it was like a miniature keyboard. It was quality controllable. It was portable. It was new. It was different.”

In 1979, the British musician Brian Eno heard Laraaji in Washington Square Park, where he often performed, “sitting on the ground with his little autoharp and two little speakers,” Eno recalled in a video chat from England.

Eno left Laraaji a note inviting him to record. “People are very nonchalant about something they see every day,” he said. But he saw something special in the man busking in orange robes. “I thought, ‘There’s probably nobody in this crowd who is going to think there should be an album of this guy except me, because I’m a foreigner and I’m a stranger and it looks exotic and interesting to me.’”

The album Eno produced, “Ambient 3: Day of Radiance,” was Laraaji’s first international release, in 1980. It is now considered a milestone of ambient and new-age music. Eno said his own role in the music was minimal. “I had a little bit of influence on some of those pieces, in that I added something to the processing of the sound,” he said. “But the music was all his.”

Another early Laraaji fan was Vernon Reid, the guitarist who formed the socially conscious hard-rock band Living Colour. He bought the “Celestial Vibrations” album on the street from Laraaji after hearing him play in Park Slope, and they went on to become friends.

“Laraaji was really a complete outsider,” Reid recalled in a video interview. “He played this mesmerizing music and he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder. He’s extraordinarily consistent in all the years I’ve known him. He showed me that there was a way to be in the world with music that wasn’t predicated on rage and wasn’t predicated on material things.”

“When Brian Eno encountered him, he wasn’t looking for Brian Eno,” Reid added. “He wasn’t the one trying to impress Brian Eno. There was no construct. He’s a person who was following this impulse. He just is what he is.”

But that identity has evolved. Edward Larry Gordon was born in 1943 in Philadelphia and grew up in New Jersey, attending a Baptist church. (The name Laraaji has echoes of “Larry G.”) “Bethlehem” — the first track of his debut album — was titled to commemorate the experience of being baptized when he was 12. “It was semi-traumatic and transformational. It was a very, very deep moment,” Laraaji said. “You’re in the water, so the best friend to you at that point is your next breath. I wanted to emulate that experience in life — to treat others to a nonverbal baptism experience by sound.”

“My music turns into a wafting sound or a wall of sound,” Laraaji said. “The idea is to move faster than the mind can track. And so the mind gives up and goes to a relaxed place and gives up its thinking function for awhile.”Credit…Balarama Heller for The New York Times

He played violin as a child and majored in piano and composition at Howard University, but also explored acting and stand-up comedy. After college he moved to New York City, where he appeared in Greenwich Village clubs as a comedian and hosted shows at the Apollo Theater. He also had a role in the groundbreaking 1969 film “Putney Swope.”

“The idea of invoking laughter has always been second nature to me,” he said. “But at some point when I began exploring consciousness, cause and effect, I realized that the material I was using for comedy wasn’t the most mindfully healthy thing for me to be sharing with audiences or to be conditioning myself with. So around 1970, I faded out of comedy.”

He grew increasingly interested in meditation and in exploring the healing properties of sound. Then and now, he said, his music grows out of “improvisation, experimenting with electric zither and exotic open tunings, and performing from contemplative, meditative states.”

Through the decades, his music has embraced advancing technology: guitar pedals, synthesizers, apps, all in the service of “adventurous sound painting,” he said.

“The texture of the music is like embracing a warm, immersive, friendly, welcoming, inviting soul with a warm, fuzzy hug. Or like a nice, soothing, safe place to be vulnerable. And I think of music as inspiring movement, inspiring a body movement, inspiring a positive movement of thought and social behavior.”

Laraaji has also returned to invoking laughter, but without telling jokes. Along with his concert schedule, he presents “laughter meditation” workshops, an idea he was introduced to at an ashram in New York. “The idea was to get people relaxed, chanting into their bodies and then get them to laugh for 15 minutes lying down,” he said. “The workshop evolved into a play-shop, where I direct people how to laugh using the voice, into the body, into the head, to massage the head, the thyroid, the thymus in the chest, the heart, the abdominal organs, and then releasing air from the alveoli in the lungs. So it becomes a total inner workout.”

The recordings that have resurfaced on “Segue to Infinity” can be simultaneously enveloping and propulsive. Some are simply named after the instruments they use: “Koto” (Japanese zither) and “Kalimba” (African thumb piano). And some derive their soothing tone, paradoxically, from nonstop motion: “Kalimba 2” is a 23-minute tour de force of sheer concentration and stamina.

“His innovation was to bring a rhythmic intensity at the same time as creating this shimmering kind of cloud,” Reid said. “There’s a kind of dance that’s inherent in what he does, and at the same time, the celestial vibration.”

Laraaji enjoys the paradox of hyperactivity bringing relaxation. “My music turns into a wafting sound or a wall of sound,” he said. “I think of dance movement or Brownian motion. The idea is to move faster than the mind can track. And so the mind gives up and goes to a relaxed place and gives up its thinking function for awhile.”

Hearing his old recordings may change the course of Laraaji’s performances. “People come to the concerts expecting a variety of Laraaji-isms, and I tend to go to a medley of things in my live performances,” he said. “I haven’t done really a thing in a long form for 15 minutes’ duration for a live performance, which is now something I will get back to. I respect long form. As James Brown said, ‘Stay on the scene.’”

Note: The photographer used a lens filter to create a starburst effect on these images.

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