So the story goes: Brian Eno happened upon ambient music maker LARAAJI while the latter was playing in Washington Square Park in the late '70s and they recorded an album together, Day of Radiance, Eno's third Ambient series release. But the story of a former comedian's emergence as LARAAJI really started a year or so before that, when LARAAJI heard a voice inside a pawn shop, encouraging him to pick up his now-signature autoharp (zither), which he then modded out and electrified. Or maybe it started when he was studying the piano, and realized that he played in an altered, trance-like state, and found it difficult to communicate with the outside world while in that trance.
I guess it doesn't really matter how you trace the path of a musician realizing his instrument's "connectiveness to an infinite cosmos," as LARAAJI calls it. But it's a crucial part of LARAAJI's performances and recordings - and you can see it live at the IMA this Saturday as part of a free, all-ages closing reception for the Robert Indiana exhibit.
NUVO: I know you haven't played here before; have you ever visited Indianapolis?
LARAAJI: I've never been to Indiana.
NUVO: Ah! Well, we look forward to welcoming you. I wanted to know how you get to know a new city you're playing in, or how you become settled into a new place before you perform.
LARAAJI: There are two ways. One, walking in a park. Another way, walking along a body of water.
NUVO: Well, you can certainly do both of those. Our art museum has beautiful grounds and a lake right along it. It's going to be perfect for you I think.
LARAAJI: A good question! I've never been asked that. It is an issue when I travel abroad. I look for green and look for a part. a
NUVO: I was wondering if you still had that autoharp that you purchased in the pawn shop so many years ago.
LARAAJI: No, I think I passed it on to a student in the early '80s.
NUVO: How many of those instruments have passed through your hands? How many have you constructed and played with, and then passed along?
LARAAJI: Gosh, great question. Maybe [begins counting] one, two, three, four, five, six, at least six that I played a lot on and passed it on to upgrade. My early years of playing outside on the sidewalks on the streets of New York, the instrument got rather weather-beaten, dust and all that. About six or seven instruments that I've passed on to other students, or people who wanted to explore and wanted something to start exploring on.
NUVO: Could you speak about how the philosophy you teach at your laughter workshops [LARAAJI conducts the workshops internationally] plays into your live performance?
LARAAJI: Laughter is breath management, for one thing. Opens up the breath, relaxes the energy system. Peps up the voice, so really contributes to my singing voice. It loosens me up from any tension or any inhibition or stage fright or whatever. It keeps my body loose and fluid. It also gives me an understanding of people; when I'm performing in an audience I can just imagine the people just a click away from laughter, so I can relax just imaging anyone's laughter, being in their presence.
Laughter has given me a double career now. I'm used to traveling, doing music in the evening and a laughter workshop in the afternoon. It's given me another venue to do music as well; I do music during the meditative section of the laughter workshops. So now I get to do music in daylight and eye level with the people I'm working with, and I get to interact with the people that I'm otherwise performing for.
NUVO: In an ideal performance situation, at the conclusion of an ideal show, where everything goes right, how do you want the audience to leave your shows? In what frame of mind?
LARAAJI: A little awestruck [laughs] at the level of insight at our cosmic opening. Having a beatific experience, or an epiphany. Having a deep, inner connection. Music can act as an ambient background to facilitate or suggest that the listener is in a very deep, connected place. An very contemplative place, or a very celebratory place. Leaving with less tension, leaving with an expanded sense of their connectiveness to an infinite cosmos. Leaving with an inspiration to experiment or explore or improvise in their own lives, whether its with music, or any other area of their life. Openness to explore or experiment.
NUVO: Do you find at the end of your performance that you're drained by the energy you've put out, or that you've gained energy from the audience and other energies in the room?
LARAAJI: I've never felt drained, because when I'm at the zither or the keyboard, or singing, I drop into a deeper sense of chi, life force. I practice a conscious awareness of a field that is much larger than the place that I'm playing, much larger than the venue, the country, the planet. So, it's an opportunity for me to affirm my connectiveness to source, to the deeper soul stream. I've never felt drained.
That's interesting, though. When I go shopping for music or electronics, when I come out, even if I've purchased something I really wanted, I feel a little unusual. I feel like when I go shopping in electronic stores, I feel like my energy has been compromised. But performing, never. Always uplifting, always affirming. In fact, I don't usually like to talk about my performances after I've performed. I like to stay in the present moment, and not talk about it in past tense.
NUVO: Do you then have an issue with music reviewers, when they plunge you back into your past performances?
LARAAJI: No, I mean just directly after a performance. The best scenario is for me to be walking in a park, or walking along a body of water. Talking can drain, if I'm really in the presence. I noticed early in life, when I played the piano, improvised, when someone would come up to me and try and have a conversation, I found it awkward to switch. Obviously I'm playing either in a light trance or altered state. Having to talk takes me out of that state.
NUVO: It's like shifting languages as well, from the language of music to actual spoken language.
LARAAJI: Yes, exactly.
NUVO: Last year, All Saints Records released that collection of your work. How did that feel, to see and hold your work collected in tangible form?
LARAAJI: I must say, I thought, "How interesting! Let's see where this goes." I'm familiar with people emailing me frequently, asking for a way to get my inaccessible music. And this has given me a way to answer those questions. It lightened up my anxiety that I had about not being able to get my music to people, and now here it is in little packet form, in three albums.
I feel a little relieved, I'd say. Content. But I am also ready to release very current music. Exploring that question a little further, I am a little concerned that people who dive into that music might be a little surprised at some of my development since that time. If someone comes to a concert and says, "You didn't play any of that!"