Laraaji, Sonic Preacher, Performs a Sermon Like No Other

photo by me

Ambient Church has always been an aspirational ticket that I hoped to one day purchase. Its price point is high and the venues are not typical—real-life, grandiose houses of worship. I also couldn’t be sure what kind of event it really was, though of course it varies by the guest of honor. Or so I’d imagine, this was my first time after all. And I may have had the perfect introduction to the whole shebang: an evening with Laraaji. 

The house in question was a presbyterian church in Pasadena. I have no idea if Ambient Church uses the same venues, but I’ll share a parking tip nonetheless: there’s a cheap, ungated parking lot across the street that was underutilized by the time that I pulled in on the night of the show. I scanned and paid for my parking then scurried across Colorado to eventually find a seat. 

The space felt more vast on the inside than it looked from the street, and the spiraling void of the ceiling was awe-inspiring. I took a seat to the right of the altar, or where I assume another table had been set up and prepped with machines and cables and a set of unique percussion instruments. There was an organ built into the wall across from where I sat, left of center, which overlapped itself to make an undulating landscape out of the smooth, gleaming pipes. I knew it wouldn’t be used tonight, but just the presence of the organ made me begin to feel the weight of the night. 

The crowd seemed, ahem, familiar to me. In the sense that we are all posers and I both felt like I didn’t belong and also that I was the only one who took any of it seriously. People arrived late, and a group sought refuge at the end of a row I had been comfortably holding down for some time. I wasn’t saving the seats for anyone but I had found my angle, the perfect hole in the heads of the people sitting in the next row to still see the stage. If Larry David were here he’d agree with me. 

With a reverent introduction, Laraaji stepped out to massive applause. The man’s aura is immediately visible, coming through in his smile then his laughter then his genuine guffaw. He performed two sets that night (plus a whole lot more but we’ll get there) and began at the piano. A stream murmured in the background while he played wandering melodies that lapped along its banks. It never paused even when Laraaji would himself pause to stand and move to the front of the piano to play its strings directly. He wailed and giggled into the swirling structure above. 

All the sounds you may expect from works such as Ambient 3 and Celestial Vibration were in Pasadena Presbyterian that night. For his second set, he brought out Arji Oceananda to accompany him on the many additional instruments at the table. Laraaji took to the mixer, spinning tunes out of and back into nothing, having themselves contributed a full life prior to their melodic rest. His voice was not being picked up properly by the mic so I felt further away from him than before. Or maybe there was so much extra saturation that I couldn’t focus only on him any longer. Enraptured as I was by his command over the keys, I found myself immersed in the latter part of the show by the mess of stimuli, including organic and manufactured sounds as well as the colors morphing on the walls. (The lights couldn’t do much for the pipes, which remain a spiritual mystery to me, having absorbed more than just the orbs of color lighting up the background of Laraaji’s show.) 

There were many memorable moments, as there usually are in slow-paced performances. The hesitance to applaud was fairly humorous, as was my reaction to the sudden clash of a gong. I saw it was there but must have looked away when Laraaji finally approached it, and therefore was so surprised that I definitely jolted a little. People who whispered during parts of the set or got numerous drinks during the intermission or even the people that put their feet up on the pews: all different levels of annoying and I experienced them all. Won’t soon forget. *eye twitch* 

Laraaji signaled the end of his second set with absolute silence; the mixer went quiet and he let the last echo from Oceananda’s tools fade out. Then he put his hands up and she clasped hers together and into her chest gratefully. He turned to leave but spun right back around and gave us another song or two. He thanked us and let us applaud harder than we had before—and let me tell you, there was love for Laraaji since the very beginning. And he then decided to grant us another encore. Oceananda was still up there with him, and coordinated another groove with his lead. They finished playing and took a step in front of the altar. They waved and soaked in the love once again. I’m sure he was thinking, going home now. But another thought slipped in his mind right before he officially stepped offstage and convinced him otherwise because he went in for yet another encore. There were audible cues from the crowd; I was one of many glad whoops but my neighbors groaned. They survived the next song and stood as soon as the applause started—a chunk of the crowd had already begun their departure. But of course, Laraaji was not one to let us leave on a predictable high. He approached the altar for his final performance for the night, and then came out front for his bow. 

When I finally got back to the parking lot, I was surprised to see it just barely full, as it had been when I arrived. But I also sat through all four encores and stayed for the extra few moments to be sure he wasn’t going to give us a fifth. Perhaps I was one of the few. 

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