Outside of those who encountered his music in New Age shops and meditation centers, Laraaji is probably best known for his Brian Eno produced Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980). After Laraaji played some shows with the Sun Araw Band on a European tour last year (video of their St. John’s session here) I was inspired to revisit Day of Radiance, finding an album rich with evocative textures and deep meditative possibility. Along with the much darker Eno solo LP Ambient 4: On Land, Laraaji’s contribution to the Ambient series tends to get overshadowed by Music for Airports and the Harold Budd collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror. Laraaji’s expansive and open compositions, utilizing a hammered dulcimer and 36-stringed open-tuned zither combined with electronic amplification and processing techniques, sound remarkably fresh and expressive, and left me, and hopefully many others, clamoring to hear more.
Laraaji has produced many records since, primarily but not exclusively aimed at the New Age meditation crowd, a kind of parallel music distribution system. Though he has released the occasional album through more traditional labels, including a 1993 album on ambient indie All Saints Records and a collaboration with the bass legend Bill Laswell (1998’s Sacrifice), most of Laraaji’s prolific output seems to have been self-released and aimed at the aforementioned meditation crowd. Especially in the early years, collected here by Leaving Records, these self-dubbed tapes were exceedingly rare, and though occasionally excerpts would appear on compilations, they’ve never been re-issued in full since their original release.
A new appreciation for often maligned New Age music has been cultivated by the rise of bedroom synth jams and the tape scene of aughts, of course in combination with p2p file-sharing. Listeners were now able to sift through the excesses of the genre and discover precursors and kindred spirits. Sun Araw‘s Cameron Stallones has already shown his love and support for the genre through re-issuing releases from the likes of synth wizard J.D. Emmanuel and Randall McClellan on his own Sun Ark tapes label. Perhaps it was Laraaji’s collaboration with Blues Control for RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS Vol. 8 that set him on a collision course with Stallones, who collaborated with M. Geddes Gengras and reggae legends with The Congos for FRKWYS Vol. 9. In any case, the time was ripe to re-present Laraaji’s music to this young listening public, and the always excellent always eclectic LA imprint Leaving Records does us a great service in presenting All in One Peace, a triple-cassette and digital collection of self-released cassettes from the years immediately before and after Laraaji was “discovered” by Eno.
These three tapes really contain four separate and unique works. I find Lotus Collage, the earliest and rawest of the work collected here, to be rather surprisingly the most contemporary sounding, or parts of it anyway. The opening minutes of the A-side begin slowly, introducing the few techniques that Laraaji will employ throughout: a percussive tap on the zither, rhythmic strumming, resonant arpeggio flourishes, bending the strings, melodic plucking, and metallic plucking. The percussive elements of the string strumming is almost abrasive at times, but just enough that to accentuate the textures produced by Laraaji’s zither. The composition oscillates between calm moments and mid-tempo rhythmic passages, linked by vibrato freak outs and chiming bells. The effect of this movement has a rhythmic effect of its own, lulling the mind. The liner notes report that this tape was made during a live performance in (pre-gentrified) Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1978. Perhaps that contributes to a more restrained pallet than some of his other work, but aspects of the tape, especially the B-side, almost sound sped-up or electronically treated post-recording. I’m willing to believe that this is not the case, but it is amazing to think how the same effects can be created through other means. These techniques remain tied to instruments and to human gesture, and as such can retain a much more expressive quality. At the same time, Laraaji isn’t necessarily after individual expression, but creating a blanket under which we can all come together and share our experiences.
Unicorn in Paradise, from 1981, is comprised of two 40+ minute compositions, utilizing a simple Casio keyboard to produce a more drone like undercurrent. It is softer and more atmospheric, recalling Eno but while maintaining a free roaming structure. The B-side occasionally utilizes different sororities, almost brassy keyboard tones to contrast the metallic runs of the zither. At 88 minutes total, that’s a lot of time to play with, but Laraaji establishes a consistent sense of place and mood over creating any sense of narrative movement. That’s not to say that it is a work of near stasis; on the contrary, it is comprised of a variety of shapes and forms, they just drift along without intention or direction, perfect accompaniment for meditation, housework, cooking dinner, sleeping or just plain relaxation.
Connecting With the Inner Healer Through Music brings together two rather different aspects of Laraaji’s work, both recorded in 1983. The first side features the multi-movement Trance Celestial, a rich experience that is dense and droning while maintaining characteristic melodic flourishes. More than anywhere else, I can hear the echoes of its influence on Sun Araw, and one can easily imagine what may have attracted these artists to one another . This is perhaps Laraaji’s most fully realized composition of the collection, often pulsing with energy and singing with joy. Some aspects of this work might appear darker than what we’ve already heard, but the music always remains unflappably calm even in the face of discordant drones. It seems to me it is here that Laraaji pushes the exploration of electronic treatments furthest.
The textures and movements of his music exudes peace and contemplation, and that is no where more literal than on the contrasting flip-side, a guided meditation through light and airy bursts of sound. Connecting With the Inner Healer Through Music (A Transmission of Musical Verbal Information) is sparse and rhythmically consistent, hammered and reverberant melodies dance slowly in the background while Laraaji’s carefully controlled voice leads the listener on a guided meditation. The addition of vocals really drives home the “New Age” utility of this music, but it also foregrounds what is unspoken in rest of his music, and acts as a kind of invitation to re-listen to rest of the collection again with fresh ears.
The tape format recalls the medium that originally allowed this music to be recorded and shared, yet it also suits the material, lending a warm mid-section and without abrasive high-frequency tones that might tire a listener out after hours of play. Still, the advent of digital music will help Laraaji’s lovely music reach a greater audience. Praise be. (Joseph Sannicandro)
LR070 runtime: 88min
LR071 runtime: 59min
LR072 runtime: 64min
*Gold-embossed Orange Gratitude Sleeve, written by Laraaji
*JCard art recreated from Laraaji self-released cassettes 1978-1983