Emotional Imagination :: Laraaji Discusses Sun Piano

Laraaji has been seeking transcendence for most of his life, beginning as a child banging out R&B covers in a Baptist church, through formal training at the historically Black Howard University, through his discovery of the mind-opening properties of the electric zither in the 1970s. Brian Eno heard him playing in Washington Square Park in New York City in the late 1970s and recruited Laraaji for his Ambient Series, producing the artist’s breakthrough Ambient 3: Days of Radiance in 1980.

Since then Laraaji has recorded dozens of albums, mostly on his signature electric zither, and all reaching for a calm, meditative other-ness that lifts listeners out of the ordinary into a different state of consciousness. For his latest, Sun Piano, Laraaji returned to his original instrument, improvising 12 short pieces for the piano in a Brooklyn Unitarian Church; the same session produced the quieter more nocturnal material that will be released on Moon Piano later this fall.

In this interview, we talked to Laraaji about his return to the piano, his long musical career, his work in laughter meditation, and the role that music can play in very difficult times. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was quite a lot of laughter and equal amount of contemplation as we spoke about things that can’t easily be put into words. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You started on the piano, but you’ve made a long detour into other instruments and other kinds of music. What made it time to come back to the piano?

Laraaji: I’ve always loved the piano and always played when I got a chance to. I’ve done so much music the last few years that was released by Warp Records, and I thought, well, maybe here’s a chance. Why don’t I get back to the piano?

The producer at Warp, Matthew Jones, suggested that I do an album [in this style] because he’d heard something I had done in San Francisco at the Lab two years ago with piano. Whenever I have an opportunity to play a piano, I do. The particular performance there was a piano available so I included it in my performance, and it got recorded and Matt heard it and said, hmmm, I think there’s something we can do with the piano.

AD: Do you have a piano at your house? Have you been playing all along?

Laraaji: Just recently, the last six months I’ve had a digital piano. In other words, it’s got an acoustic sound, but I can play it in the middle of the night with headphones on.

AD: I was wondering if you had had to get back up to speed on the piano, but it sounds like you were at full strength when you started working on this.

Laraaji: I didn’t have a piano at the time. That was in 2018, I believe, that this album was recorded. And at the time I didn’t have a piano in my life. I had synthesizers, but I usually stay pretty up to speed. It’s like a bicyclist jumping on a bike.

AD: It’s a wonderful instrument. I love the sound of the piano. It can sound like so many different things.

Laraaji: Is there one up there near you, a piano?

AD: We do have one. I don’t play it anymore. It’s a really old piano and it’s out of tune, and it’s so old that it would be hard to tune it without breaking it, so I kind of stopped playing it. But I played all the time I was growing up.

I wanted to talk about your history with the piano, because it seems like it is very bound up with your development as a musician. That was your first instrument when you were a young man, and as I understand it you started out playing popular music like R&B and gospel.

Laraaji: Yes.

AD: Can you tell me how you connected to that music early on and is it still there in the way you play now?

Laraaji: There’s little bits of influence when I go into spontaneous piano improvisation. I go through old influences, and then it acts as a doorway into experimental new directions. But I still like pounding on the piano like Little Richard or Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s good for release, plus it’s good to go to the piano without an agenda and just let what’s on the surface come out so you can get to some new strains. So, I don’t disregard those early styles. I still play with them. They don’t generally show up in concert work though. I mean, I could say Motown shows up a little bit in what I’m doing now.

AD: Then you had a great deal of formal music training at Howard University. What was that like for you? What do you remember about that period?

Laraaji: I remember being immersed in a community of people of color. It blew my mind just to see people from around the world with different bone structures, different eye shapes, different hair textures and different ways of talking. The school itself was quite well accredited. And it was comfortable for me to both study classical music and to hang out with musicians and jam. So, jazz and R&B still showed up in my practice time there. There were musicians that I knew that went on to make a name for themselves in the R&B and in the pop world.

AD: Like who?

Laraaji: Donny Hathaway for one. Another one became an opera singer, Jessye Norman.

AD: That’s quite a span of styles there.

Laraaji: Yes, we were in the same choir together at Howard.

AD: That must have been a heck of a choir.

Laraaji: Yes, we sang small and large works and worked with an orchestra at times.

AD: I remember reading in The Rest is Noise about how some of the great jazz musicians like Duke Ellington really aspired to work in classical music, but because the academies were closed to them because they were black, they went into jazz instead. Did you feel that way in the 1960s, that this was not something you could do?

Laraaji: I didn’t think in terms of making it as a classical pianist. But I did like the discipline. I wanted to have the discipline. I knew I’d never forsake soul, free-form improvisation. I didn’t try to make it as a classical musician to experience what you just described. It wasn’t big on my radar. It may have been going on. I didn’t get to experience it, or maybe I just was too naïve to notice it.

AD: And then I guess at the same time, you were developing your piano skills, you were also working as a stand-up comic. Can you tell me about that?

Laraaji: Yes. 1969 to mid-1970s, I came to New York from Howard with the intention of finding some income as a stand-up comic, inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor and a few other artists. I thought I could make some good money fast, and I could set myself up in a nice apartment with a grand piano and get back to writing serious music.

The stand-up was fun, but the prospects of it becoming a career became disenchanting. At that time, we were performing in smoke filled rooms late at night and you’d be sandwiched in between other acts. So, my enthusiasm for becoming a famous, well-paid comic subsided.

Then I got in touch with a meditation teacher who suggested laughing as a meditation. Eventually, I was able to develop it into a workshop, and so here I am now in a world of laughter. I love laughter. It was different hours — workshop hours— and a different relationship with the people. I’m no longer on a stage, and the audience is down there. I’m in a circle, and we’re all on the same level. And I’m exploring the health benefits of laughter, meaning that I’m mindful not to use laughter to polarize but to strengthen our immune system and to open up the spirit to joy.

AD: Tell me about the workshops you lead.

Laraaji: Depending on the population, if it’s a New Age conference or meditation community, I will open it up with some call and response chanting. Familiar and non-typical chants and mantras. From there, we go into playful exercises. This gets the participants into the play zone, so they feel comfortable about being spontaneous and playful. We approach the subject of laughter with a very playful spirit. We get the body open, get the breath open, and get the imagination loosened up. And that could be about another ten minutes.

By that time, people have gotten into the space where they’re less self-conscious about looking silly. They’re in touch with the joy of being spontaneous and playful even in their adult bodies. After those playful exercises, then we go into exploring the sound and the physical force of our laughter. It’s directed inwardly into the brain to stimulate the release of hormones, into the throat to stimulate the thyroid gland, into the chest to stimulate the thymus which is claimed to be the seat of our immune system, then into our heart in a very warm, soft peaceful way, and then into the abdominal organs to allow a wonderful massage for all the abdominal organs, then into the lungs to clear the lungs and to use laughter as a way of really release stagnant or stale air and opening up the lungs permanently.

Also, we explore something called a “therapeutic smile.” A Duchenne smile. Which was researched by a French doctor in the last century who discovered the link between intentional smiling and stimulating the happiness center at the base of the brain. A smile that involves intentional crinkles on the sides of the eyes and the sides of the mouth.

AD: Interesting.

Laraaji: So, when we get through those exercises people are pretty much into the laughter zone, because the exercises can be silly and hilarious. The armor comes down. People become available and vulnerable, and we get into our nice, yummy laughter space. Then, participants are invited to lie down and to model a laughter release the way they would practice in the morning with these exercises. It’s suggested that you try them in the morning before getting out of bed. It’s about 15 minutes. The idea is to go for the heavy laughter, getting all the areas of the body involved, the breasts, the chest, the legs, the arms, and following the laughter release is an opportunity for deep yogic level relaxation. We use the Srivastava corpse pose, where the participants are just lying on the floor like a corpse, noticing the powerful release that heavy laughter can afford our nervous system, our breath, and our mental process.

In that deep relaxation place, natural meditation can come forward into the foreground of the awareness. The participants can either notice themselves in a deeply relaxed meditative state, either a place they’ve never really been before, or they’ll be noticing inner sounds in between the ears, the cosmic sound current, or they will have drifted out, way out of the body and done crazy things like travel around the planet, see planetary systems, I’ve heard some very stimulating reports from people who have given themselves to laughter very deeply and gone into that relaxed state. But usually in that relaxed place, I or I and a partner are moving around the space with gongs or zithers or voice or soft instruments to complement the deeply relaxed state to which most of the participants return from a heavy laughter experience.

AD: It sounds like there are some parallels to music.

Laraaji: Yes. The laughter workshops are very musical. We open up with music. Music happens throughout the workshop. During the deep relaxation, gongs, mounted gongs or hand-held gongs, are used to punctuate the journey inward and to support listeners’ detaching from a formal sense of their body in order to float into a more ethereal presence.

AD: That sounds really cool. Going back to your history, I was reading this story about how you were discovered by Brian Eno in Washington Square Park. Can you tell me about that?

Laraaji: Yes, my mommy and daddy discovered me in my mommy’s womb first.

AD: [Laughs]

Laraaji: [Laughs] When I had been guided to develop a new sound using the electric autoharp, I had developed enough vocabulary to play on the sidewalks of Brooklyn and New York. It was not only a source of income and social life, but also an experiment to observe the relationship between performing in mindful meditative states and how participants or listeners received the music. The experiment showed me that the intention of the performer at the time of performing really translates into a corresponding experience for the listener. People from around the world would report on experiences that were compatible with their own backgrounds. For example, someone from a Muslim country would say the music sounded like the Peace of Islam. Or in India, they would talk about how the music sounded like classical Indian improvisational music. Or somebody from Bali would say that it sounded like gamelan music. So, I got to hear that people were having rather inwardly mobile, alternative, transcendental experiences through the listening process. That was confirmed by the number of yoga teachers and conference leaders who would invite me to participate in their projects. Whether they were expos or yoga school openings or meditation retreats.

AD: So, you’ve always had that spiritual component in your music?

Laraaji: Yes. It became very pronounced in the early 1970 when I deliberately investigated the practice of meditation to find my own way into the meditation experience. I was very drawn to reading metaphysical and mind-science and interesting spiritual writings in that period of the early 1970s. What inspired me to go that way was having mild success in my acting career, I was met with the challenge of having to own my impact in the mass media. I felt at a loss. I didn’t have an artist’s statement ready. What am I trying to do in the mass media? Am I trying to make money? Or to become famous? People like Shirley MacLaine at the time, her story inspired me to get into some kind of spiritual exploration so that I could bring a clearer sense of my purpose and sense of service into my art.

And so, the investigation into meditation and altered states expanded my musical creativity so big that I decided to put my life on hold and said, “Wow, how much more of my life would benefit if I were to make meditation the center of it?” That’s what I did in the early 1970s. I went into an intense period of meditative sitting, from 12 at night to five in the morning and really grasped the hidden world. I prepared myself to actually attract a musical visionary experience in the mid-1970s that inspired my going toward a more new age experimental music.

AD: There was a real flowering of that sort of New Age spirituality in the early 1970s, and then we head into the 1980s and everybody wants to make as much money as possible. The amount of attention that the culture pays to that ebbs and flows. Where do you think we are now with it?

Laraaji: I’m not clear what the New Age market is. However, I’m noticing through Spotify which lets the artist know the activity, and I’ve noticed a very sharp increase of activity in my peaceful, blissful music the last few months. So, I’m noticing people are gravitating toward that or the people have gravitated toward a serene peaceful music of mind. I would imagine also buying into rock and roll and jazz. Whatever music helps them to cope with the times we’ve gone through and the times we’ve come out of.

The term “New Age” is tricky. I still own the term because generically, it means new, now, always now. New music. When I sit at the piano or any instrument, I’m in the moment. Improvisation and channeling. I’m bringing forth new music for me. That’s the real meaning of “new” in New Age, continuously now. The focus on being in the now. Being in present time. I would think that the way of the world in the last few months or years has caused people to be drawn to or overwhelmed about the present moment. Being in the present moment, the lockdown around the planet gave people an opportunity to be by themselves and to discover themselves and to be in distancing from others. I think that set the stage for mass introspection, reflection, reconsidering one’s directions in life and also resetting one’s sense of purpose. I’m suspecting that people are welcoming music that’s aligned with silence, stillness, peace, and tranquility. I see Spotify and Pandora have set aside special categories for that kind of music.

AD: Why Sun Piano? How does the sun figure into it?

Laraaji: I had a very intimate, warm, loving, insightful experience in the mid-1970s when I, for about two weeks, experienced what was as close as I’ve ever come to being homeless. I chose not to actually rush out of it. I had options of staying with friends, but I stayed on the subway. I lived on the subway maybe for about four or five days before switching to a YMCA.

During those five days, I noticed the difference between my pace and the pace of New York.I felt isolation. On one particular day, I remember coming up above ground and sitting in Grand Army Plaza, which is a place in Brooklyn, New York. Maybe it was a spring day or early spring, and just sitting there about noontime and the sun was overhead and I felt in the midst of all the isolation and separation that the sun was there holding space for me. I had this intimate connection with the sun as a divine being. My heart embraced the idea of the sun, just impartially, impersonally, energizing and supporting life not only on the earth plane but wherever else its rays touched. So, eventually while looking for a spiritual name later on, I felt like I would want a three-syllable name that somehow honored the sun. Eventually, by a magical fate, some people, a spiritual community, suggested a name for me without knowing of my affinity for the sun. And the name Laraaji is just that, a name that honors the divine energy of the sun.

Aquarium Drunkard: What language does it come from?

Laraaji: It’s partly Hindu or Sanskrit. Ji. And Egyptian, Ra, for the sun god, and also, it’s a soft transition from my legal birth name, Edward Larry Gordon. Larry Gordon, Larry G.

Aquarium Drunkard: And I understand there’s going to be a Moon Piano album later?

Laraaji: Yes, the Moon Piano will be released in probably September, and then following that one called Through Luminous Eyes, which is a piano blended with an electric zither. All of this occurred during that recording session in Brooklyn.

Aquarium Drunkard: Did you improvise all these songs on the spot there at the church?

Laraaji: Yes, right on the spot. I’d sit down, touch the piano and through free association, also blending it with my prepared mental state, I was able to tune in and affirm my highest sense of presence. The piano became an instrument for the imagination to suggest higher or finer worlds, to suggest a joy, euphoria, bliss, also to suggest silence, minimalism, relaxation, and contemplation. So, all of that music was spontaneous but with those influences shaping and guiding it along the way.

Aquarium Drunkard: Did the setting affect what you were doing? What was it like there? Did that affect how you were playing?

Laraaji: In a sense, it was, Jennifer, in that it was a large church. I think it was a Unitarian church. A large grand piano in an empty church. Which represents a full circle since my introduction to the piano. In the Baptist church where I grew up, I would have access to this piano in the basement between the Sunday School hours and the official church service hours. There was an hour or two where the piano was untouched and there was no one else in the basement. So, I would just rock out on the piano in the church basement. That’s where my love for the piano impressed my mother. She invested in a piano in the house, and then invested in piano lessons for me. That’s how I started and here I am now doing this piano album on a concert grand piano in a very professional recording situation. And in the church, of course, there was no one [there] except the recording people. But the music reflects on the isolation period. Here I am playing piano in an empty church. It kind of reflects how concerts have been conducted for the last three months. Without audiences.

Aquarium Drunkard: “Temple of New Light” has this beautiful ascending motif to it. It really feels like it’s moving upwards. What can you tell me about performing and improvising that song?

Laraaji: I probably was just feeling very positive. Always on the edge of my awareness is the omni-spatiality of the timelessness of the universe and that a lightness and the ethers that are moving from density, moving from compression, moving from dark energy into lightness. The idea of lightness could have been one of the flowing images that came to me at the time. Those pieces were named after they were recorded, and I listened to them and felt how they inspired me. But I can just say being at the piano in general for that session was just a grand feeling of connecting with a vision to share my piano sensibilities.

AD: You also do a very beautiful, very free interpretation of the traditional song “Shenandoah.” Why did you choose that song and what does it mean to you?

Laraaji: I’ve always enjoyed “Shenandoah.” There’s a nostalgia about it. I did visit Harpers Ferry once in the Shenandoah Valley area just to see it for myself. It is beautiful there. Something about the song…we must have sung it in high school choir or college choir. There’s something warm and Americana-ish about it. Just one of my favorite songs. I like the way it flows.

The lyrics? I’ve never been quite sure what the lyrics are supposed to mean. It’s like as a kid listening to rock songs and I’m not sure what they’re supposed to mean, but there was a poetic edge in there somewhere. “Across the wide Missouri…”

AD: There’s another song too, “This Too Shall Pass” where I was hear jazzy syncopation and even some R&B energy. Were you reflecting on your youth?

Laraaji: Yes, it comes through as that way. I feel it in the moment. I’m mindful at certain moments of my music sounding too far removed from the Black cultural experience. I catch myself, and deliberately let that feeling show up, even though I’m on a classical piano in a Unitarian church. [Laughs] It’s a challenge and an invigorating experiment to let that more soulful, gutsy rhythm and blues primal, earthy feeling show up in this kind of setting.

AD: This is a really tumultuous time in America and the world with the pandemic, income inequality, police brutality, and mass protests. What do you think the role of music is in this kind of environment?

Laraaji: It helps to provide a bridge for people who need to chill, relax, release. Music, for me—when I’m playing and performing—it’s a way of transitioning out of the sense of being a very dense, physical human body into a luminous, light, weightless being. When I’m playing music, I’m really transferring myself to a sound body, which is less affected by gravity and timeless. Music can remind one of beauty through the harmonies. The rhythms can slow down the breath or quicken or raise the spirits and enthusiasm and remind the spirit of its ability to survive. Music has a power to remind the emotional imagination that it can survive, that it is surviving. It can inspire movement so far as dance, which is a way of bringing the spirit back into the present moment and to the mood of creation, honoring gratitude.

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