When Larry Gordon, AKA Laraaji, met Brian Eno for the first time in New York in 1979, he was in a transformative period in his life – musically and spiritually. Immersed in the eastern philosophies that were then arriving in the US, Gordon had been experimenting with a mixture of yoga and various styles of meditation.
Even if you were silent, you could
become aware of this internal sound
The meeting with Eno (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 12) happened when Gordon was busking with his autoharp (chorded zither) in Washington Square Park. Having moved to New York from his hometown in Philadelphia, Gordon acquired the instrument in a pawnshop in the mid-1970s.
His decision to buy the autoharp was impulsive. Or, rather, it was led by a cosmic experience that he had in the shop; one that guided him to swap his guitar for the instrument, rather than selling the guitar as he had intended to do when he walked in.
This experimental period in Gordon’s life was a long way off from his more formal childhood. He has grown up listening to gospel at his local baptist church, before studying composition at Howard University in Washington DC.
In Washington Square Park, Gordon was busking with his eyes closed. He was sitting on his blanket, playing his autoharp through a small amplifier. Eno, who happened to be walking past, heard Gordon’s celestial sounds echoing through the park. He wrote a note on a torn-off piece of paper and left it in Gordon’s busking case.
“Dear Sir,” wrote Eno, “please pardon this scraggly piece of paper, but I wonder if you would consider participating in a recording project I’m launching.”
Gordon went on to record Ambient: Day of Radiance with Eno. The album, released in 1980, was the third in Eno’s four-part Ambient series and brought international recognition to Laraaji’s ambient and new age sound. In October 2015, the album was reissued by Glitterbeat Records on CD/LP.
You once said that playing music was the only way you could escape the tyranny of adults as a child. At 72-years-old, do you feel that music has allowed you to do the same?
After becoming an adult, after college, you are on your own. You can buy as many jelly beans as you want. Music was a way to travel, to time shift.
Music allows me to become aware of
my internal space – being timeless
It was a way of transferring my sense of self from a physical, dense, human body into the weightlessness and timelessness of sound.
It is difficult to avoid the system that everyone has to live through – call it contemporary life or everyday life.
It could be difficult but it seems like everyone has a way. I get how cultures and individuals use music. Subway riders have earphones; they're using music to escape the confines of the subway system.
It seems your spiritual practice is connected with your music. Is music a spiritual practice?
Definitely. It's a survival practice. To forget how to use it, I can forget how to be in joy, how to be in bliss, how to see the sun. It is a practice, meaning that I can make it a discipline to include in my day.
Music allows me to become aware of my internal space – being timeless, in bliss. Through music, bliss can become a practical experience.
In more recent years, I'm experiencing an all-pervading, pulsational experience that works through our cerebral cortex. Teachers call it cosmic music or the inner nadum, which is a sanskrit word. It's a music that has no ending or beginning; it's something that yogis and yoginis use to enter a higher sense of environment – called eternity or infinity, or the universal now.
To tune into this sound current. It helps me to not get overwhelmed by what's going on in the the local world. Music is a tool for surviving and thriving on a psychological and emotional level.
Through that premise, have you been able to experience a connection with what eastern philosophies call true or innate nature?
Even if you were silent, you could become aware of this internal sound. It's everywhere all the time. I don't know if you can avoid it, even if you become deaf.
When we make an ohm sound, we're pointing to this non-beginning, non-ending ocean of sound
People who have been clinically diagnosed as deaf can still be aware of this cosmic sound current. It's called the word or the mystical sound stream, the default audio of the universe
I asked you about nature, but you referred back to sound. Could you call it true nature?
I know that I've heard it as a cosmic orchestra of brass instruments. That's what triggered my shift in music in the mid-1970s. I was so impressed with this experience that I did research and discovered that this is not new. Cultures relate to this experience by their own name. It's in the Bible as "the word". "In the beginning was the word", [John 1:1]. I grew up with the Bible and it never occurred to me what they were talking about. Translating it back to its original intention refers it to this sound vibration.
It is the ohm, it is what we're talking about when we make an ohm sound. We're pointing to this non-beginning, non-ending ocean of sound.
Somehow I was indoctrinated with the sense that there is this invisible force behind the universe
That is my primary discipline now. Identifying with that sound.
I mentioned childhood earlier. When you were a child did you ever have any spiritual experiences?
It's fun to answer this, because it does take me back into the childhood years and spiritual experiences from church.
At gospel church, I’d watch the sermons get heated up and women in white clothing go into what's called catching the Holy Ghost. Of course, as a child, that would just startle me. But the teacher would ram home the message of Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Somehow I was indoctrinated with the sense that there is this invisible force behind the universe that is animated and really making things happen.
On a drive to my grandfolks in Virginia, I looked out the window and saw something blinking and twinkling in the sky. This was before there were neon billboard signs. I was in the backseat and my excitement just overwhelmed everybody in the car. I remember my parents chastising me because it probably could have thrown the driver into a serious situation. They weren't interested in seeing what it was that was exciting me, they were shushing me up.
I sort of shoved that experience into the background, until I have conversations like this. I don't know what it meant, but at some point in my life, when I started reaching for celestial or cosmic music, it seemed to be where I got this inspiration. It was somewhere in the mid-1970s that I did contact a cosmic hearing experience of the brass orchestra. The emotional experience was simultaneous with an experience of falling in love with the universe.
Where were you when this happened?
I was living in Queens, New York. I was married at the time and had just gone out for a walk near JFK Airport. I was coming back into the house around midnight because that's when the house was quietest and I could do meditation. I was practicing long hours of meditation at that time. Also, studying mind science and exploring alternative states.
Transcendental meditation simply meant
to transcend my personal identity
The meditation was a very deep form of meditation. It was where I would enter meditation through deep breathing and mentally taking off all titles and names that had ever been used for me. It's about a five-minute process of deconstructing my linear identity, breathing and sitting with what was left. Which was this pure state of effortless nowness.
Was this transcendental meditation?
I used transcendental meditation as a guide. A teacher named Richard Hittleman had written a book on Bantam Press. I read the book and he demystified what I thought was an Indian monopoly on meditation. I couldn't figure out what meditation was. Transcendental meditation simply meant to me to transcend my personal identity. That's how I took it. I played with that approach and it brought me to this place of sitting for long hours, effortlessly, and just savouring the timeless now, the simultaneity of all things in the universe.
It was during that period of these kind of meditations that I attracted this sound hearing experience and discovered a new model for what I wanted to do as a musician. I wanted to share this experience and take myself and others into this kind of emotional splendour.
I wore orange to articulate that something profound had shifted in me
From that moment on, with my explorations and investigations into that experience, my music shifted and I attracted the experience of being in a pawnshop two months after that. I thought I was in a pawnshop to pawn a guitar for money, but strong guidance said, "Don't take the money, swap it for the zither in the window."
That began my explorations of tuning my favourite guitar chords into the zither and eventually playing on the sidewalks of Brooklyn and New York. That allowed me to channel my meditation experience into sound, wafting sounds, currents of sound. Ambient or spacial sound. Later, I started wearing orange to articulate that something profound had shifted in myself.
You don't wear orange because you have been initiated into Hinduism?
I have not been initiated. Some people go to a teacher to get initiated. This teacher [Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati] said I had already been initiated and it was surfacing. The initiation was the sound current experience. So, he offered an outer, special initiation to honour the inner initiation.
What is the orange symbolic of?
Several things. It is a uniform of service; the colour of fire; transformation, some say transformation of sexual energy into creativity and self-exploration; the colour of good cheer; the colour of fast food; the colour of the second chakra, which is creativity. Those are the common ones.
The collective emergence of eastern philosophies in the US ties in with the term "new age". Could you speak about your experiences with this?
My first contact with the word new age was somewhere in the late 1970s. I lived in Park Slope, New York, and was working in a coffee house. Someone was playing music over a loud speaker system and I listened to the music. It seemed to reflect or represent some unspoken part of myself, that spiritual part that had been liberated by those experiences. This music seemed to not be a container but a sort of door opening into a fluidity of spirit. For me, that was new age music and it represented something that I'd not heard in sound before. It was Steven Halpern and Iasos – out of California. I started to go in that direction with my music. This music said, hey try something new.
Could you speak about how you were introduced to the New York ashram and your experiences there?
I was first introduced to the New York ashram, Ananda Ashram, by someone who heard me playing outside the Hayden Planetarium. They suggested that I go play for the opening of a yoga centre somewhere in New Jersey.
Trance represents the doorway
into alternative states
I went to the Ashram on a very snowy day. I took the bus up to New York and took a cab from there. The cab let me off at this country yoga centre. Everywhere was filled with snow. As the cab drove off into the distance, the sound faded and I was left engulfed in this still silence. That was my introduction to Ananda Ashram.
During winter times, the teacher was in Florida or California. Dr Ramamurti Mishra was his earlier name. Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati was his latter name. His teachings impressed me because they didn't have a lot of fat on them. They were lean and about being in the present moment. Coming into meditation, knowing who you are – concentration meditation and self-analysis.
He talked about trance, which was the term that made me feel comfortable around him. Trance represents the doorway into alternative states or getting going into some other place than this dimension. He listened to my music and I played for his meditation classes. I'd sit at satsang [group sitting with a teacher] and ask questions.
Over the years my questions subsided. I practiced meditation deeper and deeper. Eventually he said, you've been half-sannyasin. It's time to go full sannyasin. It meant I was wearing partial orange. I was experimenting with orange without realising why. He was pointing out that I was owning my inner-initiation. So instead of half-stepping, let's take it to a full step.