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Published Aug 15, 2021

Essays

In a Troubled World, Laraaji Makes Space for Healing

The New York-based musician Laraaji has been at the forefront of experimental sound for 50 years. Having started his career playing on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, Laraaji developed a deeply introspective practice aimed towards creating immersive, transportive experiences for listeners. Incorporating vocals, piano, zither, and other instruments, his music has long been informed by his meditation practice. In 2021, Laraaji performed at Pace Gallery in New York as part of its Pace Live “Agnes Martin: Music for Healing” program. To mark the release of Pace’s film of the performance, the gallery spoke with the musician about what “music for healing” means to him, how he composes multilayered “sound paintings,” and how spaciousness and timelessness became central to his work. The following statements from Laraaji have been edited and condensed.

I practice meditative sitting and breathing in yoga postures, and I feel like I am consciously in touch with an inner foundation of lightness, of transcendental space, ease, and calm, which is not managed by world. What’s going on in the world is transcended, so my music is to suggest a comfortable breathing and also a state of psychological contentment or bliss that is divorced from the anxieties or congestion suggested by the world. Serenity, bliss, ethereal softness, lightness, and spaciousness are some of the themes that I consciously tend to bring to my music through performance technique or style and my approach to producing sound on instruments—voice and musical instruments.

In 1974, I was four years into deep meditation, spiritual exploration, studying different philosophies and experimenting with different modalities. That year, during a meditation session, I attracted a paranormal hearing experience, hearing sound of a different dimension. It was a sound that represented to me eternity and the simultaneity of the universe … That gave me a model—an emotional model and psychological model—that allowed me to shift my sense of direction from “linear music” to what I call “vertical music.” It really was my initiation. After that point, I began doing more “vertical music,” spacious music, and eventually it is called ambient or New Age music. A few artists who are still going strong were my early inspirations: Iasos, Steven Halpern, and Silvia Nakkach. These are three artists whose works are in harmony with this sense of direction in music. Steve Roach is another one, and Jonathan Goldman.

“Music for healing” means music that represents or suggests balance, equilibrium, and flow to the emotional system, the psychological system, and the imagination. So, music can suggest harmony and balance in the way that the composer and performer bring forth the sound. Also, in the imagination of the performer there can be extra information or suggestions. I believe the power of music is in its ability to suggest. In other words, gentle, soft, soothing qualities can be suggested through music, and that state of relaxation can also be suggested through music, which allows the listener to take in the suggestions at a deeper level.

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Laraaji at Pace Gallery

“Sound painting,” to me, is a looser form of composing, the same way you would go to canvas or collage and put ideas together that strike you as meaningful or have some kind of transportive content. I don’t think so much in terms of official openings and beginnings, but the idea of serene textures, patterns, breathing space, pauses, softness, and lightness, and, at times, aggressive staccato. These are some of the elements I try to incorporate as I practice them through movement meditation, so as to not have just serene, peaceful, blissful presence, but have a balance of flowing staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. So, the music will go through these kinds of rhythms to allow the listener to feel a balance rather than just to be one-sided. Some “healing music” is just about soft, serene, peaceful [sounds], and that is appropriate in specific situations, where you don’t want to jar or jolt the listener. In other situations, that kind of music would be boring and wouldn’t engage the listener on a platform that could be healing, uplifting, transportive, moving, and inspirational.

These textures and patterns provide an environment in which the listener can be immersed and therefore think differently, act differently, visualize differently, imagine differently—imagine within a space that is less congested by the world, less three-dimensional … and allow you to uplift the listener from their worldly anxiety. I believe any audience today would have subconscious stress patterns from overexposure to world news, personal life, whatever. The idea of the ethereal music, transcendental music, and “sound painting” is to provide a sense of flow and fluidity so that the listener is given the permission to open their emotional body or psychological body that might be congested or compromised by overexposure to world news and world anxiety.

As told to Claire Selvin

Essays — In a Troubled World, Laraaji Makes Space for Healing, Aug 15, 2021