‘Brian Eno left a note in my zither case’: how fate intervened for ambient music pioneer Laraaji | Music

Edward Larry Gordon wasn’t the only broke musician in New York City in 1974 who found himself at a pawn shop, hocking his guitar to pay rent. But who else followed a flash of divine inspiration and instead walked out carrying an obscure type of zither? It would prove a sliding doors moment that decided the course of Gordon’s life.

“This inner guidance within me – this beautiful, clear, loving guidance – said, ‘Don’t take the money, swap the guitar for the autoharp in the window’,” says Gordon from his apartment in Harlem. Now almost 80, he prefers to be called by his stage name, Laraaji. “I decided to follow that rabbit hole upward and left with the autoharp and five dollars – I did some bargaining,” he grins. “One thing led to another and soon I was playing it on the sidewalks of Brooklyn.”

It also changed the course of ambient music. Only a few years later, Gordon would find himself in the studio with Brian Eno, recording what would become the third volume of Eno’s hugely influential ambient series. In the subsequent decades, Gordon has toured the world many times, collaborated with, remixed and been remixed by artists from across the creative spectrum. He has spellbound generations with his spiritual, improvisational music, powerful early examples of which have just been unearthed and reissued on Segue to Infinity, a new box set from archival label Numero Group.

This miraculous plot twist in Gordon’s life was perhaps inevitable. “I was a churchgoer from an early age,” he says. “As a child, the choirs singing gospel and negro spirituals were very uplifting. Music helped me escape the world of adults and transported me into my imagination.”

While his first ambition had been to become a chemical engineer, another last-minute change of heart sent him to Howard University, where he studied piano and composition. “I’d grown up in the Baptist church, looking to Jesus and wanting to be like him, to help people. I wanted to compose beautiful music that was transportive, healing and uplifting, to liberate people from suffering.”

His days were spent studying Beethoven’s masses and requiems (“all western classical music – no Asian, no gamelan, no African”) while in the evenings he pursued his interests in jazz and R&B, with a sideline in comedy. He auditioned at New York nightclub the Bitter End, and relocated to the city, where he performed at the Apollo Theater and won a role in Robert Downey Sr’s Putney Swope, an infamous satire on race and advertising about a black ad-man whose avant garde campaigns drive viewers wild and win the ire of the government.

Laraaji performs All of a Sudden

A disparaging take on his performance from a local poet “sobered me up”, says Gordon. He had only detoured into comedy to earn enough cash “to buy a grand piano and get composing”, but the controversy stirred by Putney Swope had Gordon questioning his spiritual grounding. He attended seminars and read the works of Sri Chinmoy, Satchidananda, Krishnamurti, Baba Ram Dass and Osho. He “started exploring meditation to get a sense of my inner values and ambitions”. A month before his trip to the pawn shop, he heard “a brass choir in my musical imagination that turned me on to the experience of eternity and the simultaneity of everything in the universe”.

It was this mystical sound he aimed to recreate with his autoharp. In a trance-like state he would experiment for hours, developing “a vocabulary I could use in these extended improvisations. I explored different tunings, I added electric pick-ups, I hammered the strings”. He then took it to the streets, where he would sit in a lotus position and perform for hours at a time.

New York in the 1970s was a city in turmoil – grimy, violent and neglected – the ideal venue, it seems, for the kind of hypnotic enlightenment Gordon and his autoharp were offering. “The music – this wafting sea of harmonics – had a trance-inducing, spellbinding effect,” he remembers. “Yes, it went against the grain of the environment, the hustle and bustle. But it allowed people to just be, to chill and reflect.”

It proved unexpectedly lucrative, too. “In the early days I was making $6 an hour. Later, when I was also selling self-produced cassettes, I might make between $150 and $250 in an afternoon. I could sustain myself.” Performing among the people, he says, felt “like the opposite to how you feel when you think you’re getting in trouble. I always felt I was making a positive contribution”.

The sidewalk performances led to Gordon and his autoharp being booked to play meditation centres, yoga classes and spiritual conferences. At one holistic lecture, his performance lulled lawyer Stuart White into such a satisfying trance he paid for Gordon to enter the studio in 1978, cutting two 24-minute pieces that treated the autoharp’s shimmering tones with effects pedals. These meditative epics composed his debut album, Celestial Vibration, which is now being rereleased, accompanied by six further extended pieces recorded around that time.

A lack of distribution hampered the album’s reach, however. Time for fate to intervene once more. “A year later, a couple approached me after a performance and asked if I knew of Fripp and Eno, because they heard a connection,” he says. The duo of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and the former Roxy Music imp had recorded a pair of avant garde albums: No Pussyfooting and Evening Star paired tape-loops with Fripp’s innovative “Frippertronics” approach. Gordon made a vague note to investigate further.

‘It went against the grain’ … Laraaji. Photograph: PR

He still hadn’t got around to it when, a month later, he opened his eyes after a performance to find among the dollar bills in his zither case a note “ripped out of a pretty high-end journal”, signed by Eno, inviting Gordon to join a music project. “I went to see him the next day and we talked about ambient music, the first time I’d heard the term.”

Eno was obsessed with the concept, which he described as an exploration of “other ways of hearing music, and other ways of using music”. The same year Celestial Vibration was recorded, Eno had released Music for Airports, his first ambient album, and he also produced Harold Budd’s minimalist masterpiece, The Pavilion of Dreams. “Brian liked the trance-inducing, repetitive and minimalist aspect of my music,” he says. “We went to a studio and he made suggestions, but the music was still spontaneous.”

Released in 1980 as the third in Eno’s ambient series, the resulting album, Day of Radiance, refined the ideas of Celestial Vibrations and raised Gordon’s profile considerably. In the years since, he has built an eye-wateringly voluminous discography, performed for meditation groups, studied with gurus such as Swami Satchidananda and developed a lucrative sideline as a laughter therapist.

He has seen his early works anthologised by hip labels such as Stones Throw Records (and Numero Group), been the subject of remix projects that have recontextualised his sounds and collaborated with an eclectic mix of artists, including BadBadNotGood, Roger Eno, Mia Doi Todd, Merz and Sun Araw. All the while, he was still following his own path and finding new potential and new directions in the methods he pioneered almost 50 years ago. It’s the collaborations he particularly relishes now. “I did a lot of it via WeTransfer during the pandemic,” he says. “I love sitting in on any musical situation and making a meaningful contribution, adding a celestial, exotic support to it. I learn something new from every artist I work with.”

Almost 50 years on from that critical juncture in his career, Gordon has no regrets. “I chose the road less travelled,” he smiles. “I’d thought I’d become a jazz keyboardist, or a movie actor, or a chemical engineer. But this path has been deeply fulfilling.” Touring the world has, he says, enabled him to “see the noses and faces of the people who buy my albums. They tell me how they use the music. Some turn the lights out, play the records and smoke cannabis,” he laughs. “A teacher told me he plays it to quiet his class down. And some use it in the way I intended.”

He wears the mantle of new age pioneer lightly. “I can relate to people not being able to relate to new age music,” he says. “Call it what you like. Experimental music. Psychedelic experience integration music. I call it beautiful and groovy music.

“To hear people use it how they do lets me say hello to that child within me that wanted to be like Jesus and inspire people’s spirits to soar – I feel as if I’m still connecting with my childhood vision.”