Echoes of 1968: Or How Steve Reich and Laraaji Changed My Life

I was 15 years old in 1968, and I delivered the News Sentinel seven days a week along Michigan Avenue in Oak Ridge. I used the money I earned to buy a KLH suitcase stereo, and then to buy LPs in earnest.

I bought Songs of Leonard Cohen, whose voice nearly drove my father insane. I bought the Band's Music From Big Pink, the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, the Beatles' White Album, and Townes Van Zandt's For the Sake of the Song. I bought Jimi Hendrix's Axis and Electric Ladyland, Janis Joplin's Cheap Thrills, and Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay. Then I bought Steve Reich's Violin Phase/It's Gonna Rain.

This is difficult to explain to anyone who has never discovered a new artist by slipping a record out of its cover and watching it spin at 33 1/3 rpm as the stylus lands on it for the first time. It's even more difficult to explain to someone who can't appreciate the fervid maelstrom of 1968—the Tet Offensive and My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the Soviets crushing the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, Richard Nixon's election, Apollo 8 orbiting the moon. But Steve Reich's hypnotic Violin Phase has proven to mean more to my idea of revolutionary music than the Beatles' "Revolution" ever did.

I bought Reich's record at the Music Box in Jackson Square, back when that part of Oak Ridge was the center of the universe. And when I ran home and threw that beautiful Columbia vinyl on the turntable in my basement bedroom, it was like …

It was like being a scuba diver, watching a shimmering silvery fish swimming in a lazy circle in piercing rays of soft light, and then another fish joins the first, and another, and another, and another, until there is a swirling tornadic cloud of silvery fish, a cloud that takes on a life of its own, an entity that expresses a completely unexpected beauty. Then the cloud dissipates, until only the first fish remains. And you realize the orchestral secret was there in its solitary simplicity all along.

Very few musical experiences have ever hit me as powerfully or stayed with me so memorably. It was a compassionate earthquake, in which every musical structure I knew was gently turned upside down. I recall everything about that moment, as Violin Phase wrapped around my head—the weight of the album cover in my hands, the smell of the vinyl, the revolving label, the emptiness of our house, the sense of finding something precious.

Reich's breakthrough was both technical and non-technical. That's the beauty of his artistic footprint. The more you know, the more knowledge you can accept. It was the audio analog of what I later knew as chaos theory.

Violin Phase was my first encounter with pure studio composition. And just as Reich's piece was made possible by the pioneering multi-track techniques of Les Paul and Chet Atkins, Reich paved the way for later milestones by artists like Brian Eno, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Laraaji.

Steve Reich doesn't know he had such an impact on me. But Laraaji does.

Laraaji's first foray in the arts was in film acting in the '60s. His name was Larry Gordon back then. He had a speaking part in one of the funniest and most audacious projects in the history of American film, the unforgettable Putney Swope.

In the '70's, Laraaji went to New York to try to make it as a stand-up comedian, a chapter in his life that now informs his unique workshops in the therapeutic wonders of laughter. Then he discovered Eastern mysticism's path to the outer regions of the known universe and a zither at a pawn shop.

One of his biggest accomplishments came in the early 1980s, when he guaranteed that the dance company MOMIX would become known worldwide as a creative powerhouse, distinct from its progenitor, Pilobolus Dance Theater.

I met Laraaji in New York not long after his 1981 discovery by Brian Eno. The renowned producer had seen Laraaji a year earlier playing his zither in Washington Square Park. Lost in a trance state, Laraaji didn't see Eno, and he wouldn't have known him if he had. But later, he found a note in his open zither case, asking if he'd be interested in making a recording. And just like that, after a single studio session, Laraaji joined the ranks of musicians like Harold Budd, David Byrne, U2, and Phil Manzanera. Eno recorded and released Laraaji's Day of Radiance as the third installment of E.G. Records' historic Ambient series.

In that summer of 1981, I licensed portions of Eno and Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Eno's Another Green World for Pilobolus' full-evening masterpiece Day Two. So the following year, when MOMIX spun off from Pilobolus, it made perfect sense to seek out Eno's protégé, Laraaji. After all, the first side of Day of Radiance consisted of the tracks "Dance 1," "Dance 2," and "Dance 3."

In the spring, 1983, MOMIX did a major experiment at Princeton University's McCarter Theater, complimenting our fledgling roster of five dancers with the Canadian dance superstar Margie Gillis and the American all-star David Parsons. We asked Laraaji to join us and improvise, live and in very real time, to accompany our brand new rear-projection, pot-brownie-fueled silhouette performance piece. In rehearsals, Laraaji said it was so far out, it was extra-celestial. Hence the name E.C.

Besides being the show where David Parsons debuted Caught, the strobe-light solo that became one of the most renowned modern dances in history, this show made E.C. the signature of MOMIX. Combined with the mind-bending split-screen technique—which imparts a hallucinogenic quality to the levitation, gender melding, and slow-motion mystery of the piece—Laraaji's meditative zither and vocals opened the top of every audience member's cranium and let pure joy pour in.

In the ensuing years, E.C. was seen and heard by thousands and thousands of theatergoers around the world and was always met with wonder, delight, and disbelief. Without it, MOMIX would have just been another run-of-the-mill modern dance group. But Laraaji's voice in E.C. made it clear that this group aspired to something universal—creativity that lasts. And it has. MOMIX is in its 34th year of touring internationally.

And Laraaji is coming to the Bijou for Big Ears. Damn, this is beautiful.

John Job has had very interesting careers as technical director of MOMIX, a concert stage engineer, and freelance writer, among other things.