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Laraaji – Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

June 29, 2008

Sometime in 1979, Brian Eno met a man in Washington DC named Edward Gordon performing in a park on a zither, an eastern stringed instrument. Eno liked what he heard so much that he decided to utilize Gordon’s talents in his Ambient series. It almost seems too perfect to be true, but Eno did record with Gordon who then became known as Laraaji. The result of their collaboration was Gordon/Laraaji’s first internationally distributed release, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. It could be said that Eno discovered Laraaji and was the spark to ignite his long, prolific career in new wave music, particularly through the use of eastern stringed instruments.

What is unique about Ambient 3 is that it is the only member of the Ambient series to not be recorded under Brian Eno’s name. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror was penned under the names of both Brian Eno and ambient guru Harold Budd, while Ambient 1 and Ambient 4 are both credited solely to Eno. However, Ambient 3 is treated in much the same way as Ambient 2. Both Harold Budd and Laraaji are the sole performers on Ambient 2 and Ambient 3 respectively, while Brian Eno produced both albums with great care. Eno may have had some more input on Ambient 2, because the production on said album is much more present, and sometimes the lush production and sound effects cannot be attributed to a piano. Although Eno produced Ambient 3, it is still credited soley to Laraaji. The fact that Ambient 3 is the odd duck suggests that its music will be different, and it is.

It was Brian Eno’s theory from the start that ambient music should be as ignorable as it is listenable. This was the idea that he laid out in Ambient 1, what many consider to be Eno’s ambient manifesto. Out of the Ambient series, Ambient 3’s first piece, The Dance, segmented into three parts, is the only piece that simply cannot melt into the back of your mind, with the possible exception of a single track on Ambient 4. The beginning of The Dance #1 foreshadows an ambient experience. Beautiful chords cascade down Laraaji’s fingerboard like water, and if this continued on for a half hour, it could be quite an ambient track. Instead, Laraaji takes a different approach utilizing the utmost of his talents with his instruments.

At 0:53, the downward flourishes stop, and loud, fast arpeggiations on the hammered dulcimer start. The far eastern instrument is as ethereal as it is muscular, and strong melodies unearth themselves between the multiple parts upon each listen. Brian Eno’s production only does the already breathtaking sound more good. He echoes each strum and pluck carefully, and yet the notes keep on coming through the river of sound with the same quickened intensity. The effect is downright hypnotic in its complexity. The movements of The Dance descend in tone, in that the first movement is the fastest with the highest tones, the second is slightly lower with more string parts to support the solo dulcimer and create even more intertwining melodies, and the third is the lowest, slowest, and densest of three. All three are excellent on their own terms as variations of the same melodic structure.

This is not and cannot be the ambient music that Eno describes, as it demands and will inevitably receive full attention. This is not music you can fall asleep to. Yes, perhaps dance to. Daydream to. Live to. The life force that spirals outward from The Dance is simply wonderful and the piece is one that will stick in the listeners mind for a long time and will likely never be forgotten. This still says something for Eno’s ability to arrange such a wonderful musical occurrence…This music evokes images and creates an atmosphere, but is not the same kind of ambient music found elsewhere in the series, and thus feels out of place. Make no mistake, The Dance is an extremely accomplished work. Laraaji has complete command over his instruments, the hammered dulcimer and the zither. This will be a compelling work, especially for Eno fans who most likely already have extremely open minds and would enjoy world music like this in the first place. But this is not Ambient music in the sense that we might know it as. Whether we need to change our definition of ambient music for it to fit in is completely up to us.

The second piece, Meditation, is also titled to fit its intention perfectly. Its two movements are different in form, but could both be considered ambient music in the classical sense of the word. Meditation #1 is the albums longest song, and moves continuously, at a snails pace to keep the music relaxing. The high notes in the repeated phrase can be somewhat distracting when subtlety is the goal, however. Meditation #2 is similarly slow and, well, meditative, this time with the strings moving almost exclusively in glissandos that range from extremely quiet to very loud, which may also work against ambient sensibilities. Eno’s production shines here moreso than anywhere else. Even after a particular flourish has stopped, it echoes into the silence, making every moment feel complete. This is the piece that is worthy of Day of Radiance being included in the Ambient series. It can be listened to passively despite its compelling nature, but it is so interesting that it becomes hard to be discreet.

Ambient 3: Day of Radiance is the most lively album in the Ambient series, and is probably the hardest to treat as ambient music, thus causing it to stick out like a sore thumb. Although it is questionable whether or not Day of Radiance should have ever been in the Ambient series, it is a glowing piece of world music from an extremely talented musician treated by an equally talented producer, and is a timeless classic of its genre. It should also be noted that the album gave Laraaji his true start as a professional musician. This fact along with the music’s sheer quality justifies the release, but even if you feel like it doesn’t belong, Ambient 3 raises even more important questions about the nature of ambient music.

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