“When all this started, I felt I was prepared,” he says over the phone in mid-June. “I was guided to have certain things in place so that isolation and lockdown was more about forcing me to be in my own mental playground, or state of recreation.”
Talking to Laraaji it is clear that he has spent years cultivating an internal life that revolves around stillness but is teeming with activity, much like the music he has been producing since the late ’70s. There’s a remarkable stability to his career, on which he has pursued a singular path that thrives on that duality of peace and play, and has largely existed on the fringes of New Age. But in the past decade the zeitgeist has come to meet Laraaji. Mindfulness has become a billion-dollar industry, and Spotify has repackaged ambient music and New Age as auditory wellness and productivity supplements to be taken daily, or better yet, as a constant drip.
This commodification has brought into the mainstream the philosophies that have been woven into Laraaji’s music since he bought his first zither. In the same period as the New Age boom, Laraaji has become canonized. Many of his albums that were initially released in limited quantities have been reissued on hip underground labels, and he has been invited to perform his improvised meditations for zither and voice all around the world, including last year at the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current series.
As the world seems to become increasingly ravaged by tumult, more people are turning to Laraaji’s music to achieve a sense of balance. He’s paying attention, too. He monitors those ever-increasing Spotify plays. “That activity seems to have gone up quite a bit during lockdown,” he says, chuckling.
With the external world thrust into the contradictory duality of chaos and stagnation, he is drawing on his practice of looking inward at an existence he sees as eternal, imbued with joy and playfulness. One which he feels can also be transformational.
Laraaji’s own transformation was gradual. His earliest musical experiences were playing piano in the basement of the New Jersey church his mother brought him to after Sunday school, where he would imitate his favorite rock-and-roll and R&B records. Though he experimented with other instruments, when he moved to Washington in 1962 to study composition at Howard University, it was the piano that again became his primary focus.
“My teachers didn’t really dictate the direction of the music I would eventually learn to play,” he explains, “but they were a great help in getting me to assume the attitude of the serious piano student. That set up my understanding of how to take any new practice seriously in your life: to devote five hours a day if you want to consider yourself moving toward being a committed artist.”
After he graduated from Howard, Laraaji moved to New York to become an actor and comedian while immersing himself in Eastern religion and New Age thought. He began to understand different levels of spiritual awakening as “vibratory planes,” and as he established a dedicated meditation practice, it reawakened in him a desire to re-engage with music-making. After what he describes as a “sound vision,” a moment during meditation in which he was able to hear and experience those vast, universal reverberations, he bought his first zither. He soon customized it, modifying the instrument with electronics to replicate the sounds he had received during his revelatory moment. In 1980, he was playing this instrument in a corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village when he was overheard by Brian Eno, the United Kingdom musician and producer who had recently worked with the likes of Devo and Talking Heads. Eno invited him into the studio to record what would become Laraaji’s most well-known record, “Day of Radiance,” the third installment in Eno’s historic “Ambient” series.
“Day of Radiance” is a masterwork of timbral unity. Laraaji relies entirely on the augmented zither, each stroke of the hammer on the strings evoking brilliant, overlapping points of light, like a setting sun hitting tiny waves on a gently rolling ocean. The album is made up of three “Dances,” pieces of crystalline clarity that leap and twist around a central chord, and two “Meditations,” ruminative expanses that drift in and out of different moods and tonalities. While its association with Eno ensured that adventurous diggers would perennially rediscover the album, for the several decades after “Day of Radiance” Laraaji largely continued to self-release cassettes and CD-Rs with names like “Vision Songs” and “Zither Bliss,” with a few scattered releases on small New Age labels, each oscillating between those established modes of playfulness and calm.
It is in the context of a late-career revitalization buoyed by accelerating external discord that Laraaji released his newest album, “Sun Piano,” on Friday. In the most obvious sense, it is a return to his origins.
It was recorded with the musician sitting at a piano in a Brooklyn church, by himself except for producer Jeff Zeigler, improvising themes that are inspired nearly as much by the R&B and soul music of his youth as they are New Age. Returning to the instrument he first learned to play allowed him to access those formative moments and filter them through an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences with contemplative practice.
Though it sounds different from many albums he’s released, “Sun Piano” draws on a metaphor he has used as a guiding principle for other recent albums: that of the sun as a source of spiritual guidance and renewal. It isn’t coincidental that his first experiences playing the piano were also some of his earliest encounters with religion. They seem to have become fused in his mind.
“The piano is an instrument that gives voice to how I hold space for light,” he says. “If you were sitting in the church, you’d look and see that there’s a man at the piano, someone playing a physical instrument. However, were you to close your eyes and let the piano coax, guide and escort the emotional imagination, there is a good chance that you would feel a lightness. A luminosity.” It is a very personal connection, but one in which he sees the potential for a wider understanding of how he perceives spiritual growth and enlightenment. The familiarity of the piano makes its sound an ideal gateway.
For Laraaji, that gateway leads to a place of peace, but also of playfulness. Much of “Sun Piano” easily floats from one harmonic center to another, nimble and whimsical. The light of the sun also means levity. For years he has led laughter workshops, and recently has continued to host them online. In these sessions he describes play as “the spontaneous exploration of sensation,” and encourages participants to engage with the physical sensations of laughing, tracing the vibrations that begin in the gut and travel through the vocal cords and into the skull, to better understand how it affects the body and mind.
The projection of unity between serenity and playfulness, present in Laraaji’s music from the beginning, has helped draw new fans to these sounds. It is an inherently hopeful ideology in a time where hope feels more and more distant as each new wave of the news cycle seems to pull the public consciousness toward ever more dangerous riptides. It is why he fits so neatly into a world where meditation has become popularized and secularized; there’s less resistance to the work of spiritual practice if it feels fun. In a sign of the times, he is producing a laughter workshop video for Nike.
It is also how Laraaji himself is meeting the present moment: by retreating into his own imagination. He speaks of the shutdowns enacted due to the coronavirus as “a chill-down period to fantasize, to open, and to let a vision come through” while encouraging people to embrace the experience as an opportunity. While he says he understands the impetus behind the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, he fears any impact will only be temporary, saying, “the cleanest way to make change is to go into deep silence, know what it is you want to bring forth into the universe, start visualizing it coming forth, and start affirming that it’s here.” For Laraaji, the solutions to the world’s problems come from that internal “play zone.” It is an optimistic vision that filters seamlessly into his vibrant music.
“I don’t feel that I have to bring true light or peace to anyone,” he says as we wind down our conversation. “This ocean is everywhere already. Music and sound are just ways to unlock our dormant memory that right where we are is a whole ocean of peace, perfection, oneness, eternity.”