Laraaji ‘Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance’

American musician Laraaji recalls the making of 1980’s mesmeric new age classic ‘Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance’, produced by Brian Eno

Photo: Nathan Perkel

“In 1966, I left Howard University in Washington DC after majoring in piano and moved to Harlem in New York City. I’d been strongly advised to explore my comedy acting potential on the Greenwich Village coffee house hootenanny circuit. The Bitter End and The Champagne Gallery were two of the popular talent night spots.

“By 1968, I had a manager and a booking agent. After that, I toured the Job Corp camps of America doing stand-up in a trio road tour. I also did a few comedy MC engagements at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem – announcing acts like BB King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lou Rawls, Carla Thomas, Barry White… acting was intended to be a strategy for getting financially stable enough to devote my time to serious piano composition.

“After appearing in the 1969 film ‘Putney Swope’, however, I felt a personal responsibility for the film’s impact on the sensibilities of the black community. I questioned my intentions and role in the mass media as an actor, and that’s when things like yoga, meditation, mind science and mindfulness began to interest me as vehicles for sharpening my sense of personal identity and purpose in the world.

“Then, while attempting to pawn an acoustic guitar in Queens in 1974, an inner soul-level guide indicated to me that the zither in the window would be a better exchange than asking for money for the guitar. This voice was so clear, so present and so loving that it was my scientific duty to explore where it was taking me. I accepted the guidance and left the pawnshop with this new zither/auto harp instrument – and $5 – and began experimenting, exploring, co-inventing new music.

“The well-known inspirational acting premise of ‘what if’ was my approach to modifying the zither. Creative curiosity. What if I amplified the zither? What if I played the zither like a string drum? What if I tuned my favourite guitar open tunings onto the zither? What if I performed the zither while in deep meditative contemplation?

“Before I connected with Brian Eno at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, I had already recorded one solo zither vinyl LP called ‘Celestial Vibration’ as Edward Larry Gordon, which is still circulating under the name Laraaji. I had also recorded many cassettes, which were distributed through local boutiques and specialist record stores that handled new age, experimental recordings. I’d performed at various New York outdoor street festivals, yoga centres and new age conferences before meeting Brian, and I had an original innovative zither performance style in place by the time he offered to produce ‘Day Of Radiance’.

“The north-east corner of Washington Square Park was my favourite place for performing meditative, free-flow, immersive, zither music. On the day that I met Brian, I set up my gear as usual on a mat on the ground with my back against a tree that was situated in this cobblestone circular sitting area. There were benches around it, creating a cosy intimate space. I performed electric zither – plugged into a small Panasonic tape recorder I’d repurposed as an amplifier and maybe I was using an MXR Phase 90 – seated in a cross-legged yogic lotus position, eyes closed, freely improvising while in a deep contemplative trance.

“After about two hours of continuous performance I finished with a bow, unplugged my zither and started counting the donations left in the open case.Among the donations was a page ripped from an expensive notebook. The message was brief, to the effect, ‘Dear Sir, please excuse this spontaneous note. I’m interested in talking to you about participating in a recording project. Could you please call me at this phone number’, signed Brian Eno. The next day we had a meeting at Brian’s loft in the Village to discuss his interest in producing an ambient music album, featuring my innovative zither style.

“My only prior exposure to the name Brian Eno was a month earlier, when a couple of new fans – at the same area of Washington Square Park – approached me after my evening performance and politely enquired if I was familiar with Fripp and Eno. They suggested that I investigate their music and that I might find a resonance there.

“At our first meeting in the Greenwich Village loft, Brian presented his ideas around ambient recording. The concept was clearer to him than to me, but I was totally confident that our studio collaboration would result in something interesting.

“The first studio location was Greene Street in Soho. There, we recorded the first session tracks. After listening back to all of them we felt that the ‘Dance’ tracks were good but that the ‘Meditation’ ones had picked up a foreign, low-frequency noise from other areas of the Greene Street building. Six months later, we recorded fresh ‘Meditation’ tracks in a different, and quieter, New York studio.

“No other artists were involved in these recordings. Rudy Hui, I believe, was the name of the recording engineer. The album is me performing solo, with Brian as producer. Brian prepared the studio with mics and also applied subtle electronic treatments, both during and after the session, using Lexicon and Eventide effects.

“He suggested ways to explore the zither in keeping with the direction of his ambient series project. I won’t say that I grasped his first efforts at explaining ambient music, but in the studio Brian produced a comfortable space for me to explore and to experiment. The name, ‘Day Of Radiance’, came through a conversation with my former wife and friend, Georgina.

“The two recording sessions were each one full day. I seem to recall doing the first session in autumn 1979, the second session in the spring of 1980 and then the release came in autumn of that year through EG Records. Any acclaim, though, was not immediate. It wasn’t until 1986 or ’87 that I began touring abroad with Opal Evening – a collection of artists who had worked with Brian’s label. From then on though, global bookings and engagements flowed more and more.

“I did do a few further low-profile studio projects with Brian, but so far we have not entertained doing another album. Such a project might be a very interesting one. We are still in contact, emailing every now and then. Whenever my touring takes me into London, we consider any convenience to hook up with each other. Our meetings are guaranteed opportunities for laughter.”

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