Exploring sound and space: In conversation with Laraaji


Laraaji’s musical practice offers more than just sonic stimulation; the ambient multi-instrumentalist and laughter meditation practitioner crafts improvised compositions that free and expand the listener’s mind, empowering them to be present in the moment. 

Having become synonymous with the electric zither throughout his long and fruitful career, his new album, which marks the first of three releases recorded in the same session, is a departure from these FX-soaked celestial sounds, instead seeing him return to his first love: the piano. 

Both space and spirituality, and Laraaji’s relationship with each, play a key role in the album, aptly titled Sun Piano. Recorded at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, the LP is presented as a “live” session captured vérité style with the sounds of school children, visiting parties and distant sirens naturally entering the soundscape and reacting with the acoustics of the church.  

Following the release, and ahead of the second instalment Moon Piano, we chat to him about the enriching creativity lockdown has given him, the exploration of space and sound and his pre-improvisation rituals…

Hi Laraaji, how have the last few months in lockdown been for you? Have you found the time and space to be a gift or a hindrance creatively?

The last few months I’ve been in isolation alone but with a wonderful creative home situation for sound. I’ve been approached by different projects to submit tracks which I’ve been able to do. Some of them have been professional paid gigs. I have found lots of time to be in silence and in nurturing stillness. My creativity has been aided a lot by this time. It has limited my access to other recreational outlets like dancing, going to movies and traveling. These last few months have been a significant benefit to my creativity exploration-experiments and spiritual practice, walking in parks, yoga meditation, surfing YouTube and listening to my own music. This period has been for me an enriching gift towards rest, relaxed life pace and a deeper friendship with myself.

Improvisation and spontaneity is at the core of your practice, what does this approach offer you that prior preparation can’t? Is it the quality of being present in each moment? 

There is some preparation in order to be spontaneous and to give myself fully to improvisation. I don’t prepare complete sketched out music. I do prepare my physical body with exercises for greater control, freedom and mastery at the keyboard. Yoga, dance meditation, breath work, laughter and spiritual intention setting, as well as my creative imagination by visualizing the higher space-time environment in which the improvisation will unfold.

Congratulations on your new release Sun Piano, it’s as though you’ve come full circle; revisiting your first ever instrument. Did it feel natural returning to these musical roots after so long?

Thanks for the congratulations. Yes indeed it feels natural to return to these roots, actually I never left these roots, it’s just that I have not really recorded them over the last 40 or so years, but I’ve been enjoying the keyboard informally and casually over the years whenever the opportunity presented itself for recreational fun and social leisure. This solo piano improvisation recording session felt like a vision onto which I was holding from my youth, the vision of channeling radiant uplifting pianistic joy at a concert grand piano in a acoustically responsive church sanctuary for a major recording release.

What freedoms does the piano give you that other instruments might not?

The piano usually remains in stable tuning through a rigorous performance unlike the electric zither, whose tuning can slip out during intense percussive performances. This allows me the freedom of exploring intense and gentle feelings at the piano without concern for its impact on the instruments tuning. The tonal range (88 keys) on the piano allow me a freedom of exploring the rich bass string register as well as the freedom of exploring multiple chord progressions, tonalities, and musical key shifts.

Before you begin the process of recording an album, are there any rituals or certain methods you go through?

Before I begin the process of recording an album I go through the ritual of inner centring, feeling my intention which usually involves conscious communion with eternal present time, cosmic field unity. I also run some yogic stretch, breathing and body movement exercises. Running success performance affirmations are a good part of my ritual i.e “all that I need in order to deliver a wonderful transportive, uplifting and healing music performance is now present and active in mind, body and emotion for the good of all”

The album was recorded in a church in Brooklyn, what did these surroundings bring to the process both spiritually and acoustically?

The environment of the Brooklyn, NY church sanctuary gave me a stimulating acoustic space with which and in which to interact; space reverberation has always fascinated me, even as a child when I found myself in a tunnel or large space with interesting acoustics I would put the rest of my life on hold and vocalize with that space. Spiritually speaking the Brooklyn church environment connected me to the sacred sanctuary experiences I’ve had in life: the internal quietude of prayer and meditation, the exhilaration of higher field contemplation and the exuberance of gospel choir and church music to which I’ve been exposed. The church space was a catalyst for dreaming the highest of benevolent music and positive worlds.

What did you want the listener to achieve when listening to the album? Generally is that something you envision before starting the process of recording an album?

Those listeners are invited to feel super positivity, uncompromised joy, and an uncontrollable urge to interact with their body movement or with their own instrument of free association-improvisation, especially during the extended groove like music passages. Supporting the listener’s expanded present time awareness is always my agenda. I also allow that the listener will find this album’s music to support their own creative writing, fantasizing and leisure space time.

Sun Piano is the first of three releases recorded in the same session, what can we expect from the other two?

Following ‘Sun Piano’ release will be ‘Moon Piano’ a compliment to Sun energy with a more tranquil, restful introspective listening and then followed by ‘THROUGH LUMINOUS EYES’, an improvisation with both Grand concert piano and Celestial Zither this release blends the two instruments into a lusciously elegant contemplative sound immersion.

Follow Laraaji. Buy Sun Piano. Photo credit: Daniel Oduntan.