Writer Luke Ryan explores the intersection of music and meditation through the work of ambient music master Laraaji.
Music is, at a fundamental level, a medium of escape. In its infinite variations music can offer listeners transcendence or annihilation, distraction or focus, profound intimacy or wild abandon. To put it another way, music, in all its forms, brings with it the promise that we can be temporarily freed from the shackles of necessary thinking.
However, we're only now beginning to understand exactly why music taps into such a core aspect of our being. Thanks to advances in neuroimaging, we can see in greater detail than ever before exactly how music activates different parts of our brain – and how similar those effects are to the neurological shifts seen in meditation.
Research has shown that when we listen to music we love, activity in the default mode network, the section of our brain that deals with past and future events and helps to channel our sense of self, is rerouted towards areas that deal with our sense of connectedness instead. The brains of experienced meditators show a similar effect: the default mode network dulls, making the meditator less prone to wandering thoughts and idle anxiety loops, and producing an inimitable sense of oneness and being present. Together they can help curb the excess of order imposed by what we call the "I".
Not that any of this is news to the musician known as Laraaji, who has spent the past four decades exploring the places where music intersects with the altered states afforded to us by meditation. A one-time stand-up comedian who turned his attention to transcendental music practice after a spiritual awakening at a Harlem poetry reading, Laraaji (which means "divine sun being") was discovered by Brian Eno in 1979 while playing his Autoharp in Washington Square Park. This led to a collaboration on Eno's seminal Ambient 3: Day of Radiance album, a showcase for Laraaji's exquisite arpeggios and sense for enveloping melody that shifted the boundaries of what was considered "ambient" music.
A brain-melting fifty-two albums later, Laraaji, now 75, still talks of making music in meditative terms, as a process of "openness and spontaneity and alignment". His most recent work, Arrive Without Leaving, a collaboration with Arji OceAnanda and Dallas Acid, shows these tendencies in full flight, a slow-building ambient whorl of synths, voice, zither and New Age tones that seems simple until you actually listen to what's happening. And then the shackles just fall away.
Dressed in orange robes and wielding an intimidating array of synthesisers, percussive instruments and, of course, his faithful Autoharp, Laraaji's live show is a chamelonic blend of tightly wound loops, hypnotic melody and guided laughter meditation, an off-shoot of yogic practice that Laraaji has been instrumental in spreading to the world.
The result is both transcendental and thrilling, a musical experience that denies your brain's best laid defences and invites you to discover in the slowness and the stillness your own quiet moment of escape.
See Laraaji live in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Friday 15 March. Laraaji is joined by celebrated new-age composer Ariel Kalma in this exclusive double-bill performance. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Luke Ryan is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and comedian. He is the editor of the Best Australian Comedy Writing series and author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo, a comedy memoir about having had cancer a couple of times, out through Affirm Press. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Best Australian Essays, The Guardian, Quartz, Smith Journal, The Lifted Brow, Junkee, Crikey, Kill Your Darlings and many more.