A conversation with Laraaji
Laraaji is a master of improvisation and spontaneous creation.
He plays the zither, a multi-stringed instrument that looks like an Autoharp without the chord bars. By tuning the zither to an open chord, or a scale, he’s able to produce an unlimited range of sounds when he plucks or strums the strings. “I’m constantly experimenting with tunings and ways of performing that are outside the way the instrument was designed to be played,” Laraaji said. “I was guided to take it out of the box, metaphorically speaking, so I could reproduce the sounds I was hearing in my head.” His latest effort, Arriving Without Leaving, is a collaboration with his long time friend, Arji OceAnanda [kalimba, percussion, hand chimes, synthesized strings and flutes], and the ambient jazz trio Dallas Acid. [Michael Gerner and Christian Havins on Mellotron and Moog synthesizers; Linda Beecroft on steel tongue drum and gong.] It was recorded in a single, six-hour session that was totally improvised.
“We’d performed the night before at National Sawdust in Brooklyn,” Laraaji explained. “I headlined with Arji. Dallas Acid opened. We each did separate sets. The next day, our record producer, manager and promoter Clint Newsom, suggested we make an album. We arrived at Vibramonk, a sprawling recording studio, located on the top floor of a classic industrial building in Brooklyn. We improvised from one o’clock until seven. The only structure was the scale, G-major, the tuning my zither was in for the previous night’s concert.
“We set up and placed mics and earphones and just dived in. It was like pulling music from the sky. I’d set up a rhythm, then we’d drift and meander and let sounds come in without talking. I’m used to this kind of jamming from years of exploring and inventing music for the zither.”
The music on Arriving Without Leaving unfolds slowly, drawing you deeper into the sounds the ensemble is creating. The five tracks play like the movements of a symphony. It’s jazzy, ambient, spiritual and visceral, suggesting music playing in an infinite space. Everything was tracked live, in real time, with no overdubs. Gerner and Havins returned to Texas and mixed down the session to produce the songs that appear on the record.
“I made a suggestion, after listening to the first rough mix, that they should represent a balance of all the artists, rather than having my music stand out. I didn’t want it to sound like a Laraaji album. I don’t believe any sounds were added after the recording session. They were just tweaked and remixed. There were synthesizer performances that I was unaware of until I heard them mixed. The whole album was a surprise.”
The album title, Arriving Without Leaving, came from another unexpected burst of creativity. It references the years Laraaji spent developing a deep practice of meditation. “At the end of the session, I said music is a way to arrive without leaving. It’s a spontaneous reference to being in the soul body. If we travel as a fully conscious being, we never really go anywhere. I call it living in a vertical sense of reality. There’s no future or past, we’re just shifting our consciousness. When we’re fully in our bodies, we can arrive at new centuries, new days, new situations, but never really leave the present moment.”