Reflections: East Forest x Ram Dass

Jeff Tamarkin on September 4, 2019
Reflections: East Forest x Ram Dass

A psychedelic pioneer and an esteemed electronic-music composer team up for a whole new trip.

In 1963, two Harvard psychologists who had been conducting research into the effects of psilocybin, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, were fired from their jobs after the university learned that Alpert had been giving the hallucinogenic drug to students off campus, and Leary failed to uphold his teaching responsibilities. Leary famously continued his work with psychedelics, most notably LSD, becoming a countercultural hero later in the decade. Alpert also advocated for the drug, until an encounter with the guru Neem Karoli Baba during a 1967 visit to India profoundly altered his path. Taking the new name Ram Dass, Alpert returned to America and wrote the best-selling spiritual guide Be Here Now. And, he has dedicated the rest of his life to spreading the teachings that he absorbed in India, growing into a respected spiritual leader in his own right.

One of the millions who has since taken those teachings to heart is a Portland, Ore.-born composer who also underwent a name change, from Trevor Oswalt to East Forest. Beginning around a decade ago, East Forest started releasing recordings, and performing in live settings, focusing on music that, according to his official bio, “[builds] bridges between the digital and natural world.” It has been used for meditation and “sound-healing ceremonies,” and has attracted a sizable audience over the years.

Not long ago, East Forest had an idea for a new project. “I wanted to do an album with multiple spiritual teachers, each having a track,” he says. “Then, my manager suggested maybe just doing it with Ram Dass. I reached out to his foundation, Love Serve Remember, and pitched the idea; and as fate would have it, it was good timing.” The result, just recently completed, is a four-part series, simply titled Ram Dass, that matches new spoken-word recordings from the 88-year-old teacher and author, with music created by East Forest.

It wasn’t accomplished easily. Ram Dass suffered a stroke in 1997, leaving him with aphasia, a condition that causes a partial loss of speech. Although his mind is still sharp, Ram Dass is unable to articulate his thoughts verbally at the pace one normally would. “He can talk,” says East Forest, “but it’s so hard for him.”

Upon meeting Ram Dass for the first time at his Maui home—“It felt like being in the spiritual White House,” the 41-year-old East Forest says—the musician found that the most effective way to proceed was to allow Ram Dass to speak his thoughts at his own rate, and edit them later, at which time he also created the music that would accompany Ram Dass’ words. “It was definitely a process of letting go and having to be OK with however it unfolded.” East Forest says.

While he could have resorted to using previous speeches and lectures by Ram Dass—there are 15,000 hours in the archives—East Forest decided to cut fresh content, composing new music to accompany the pieces his Utah studio. “I just wanted to paint with the colors that I had, so to speak,” he says. “I like the energy of ‘what you’re given is what you work with,’ and, in this instance, that worked out really well, because I didn’t know what I would get from him, if anything.”

Those now-ornamented recordings, released between January and August of this year, comprise the basis of the Ram Dass series. In the various pieces, Ram Dass expounds on any number of topics, some recounting his own journey, others delving into spirituality or more worldly concerns.

East Forest’s personal favorite is called “Dark Thoughts,” which, he says, “speaks to the idea of loving your dark thoughts, as opposed to pushing them away. The music of that one feels really singular and interesting. A lot of people have been resonating with ‘I Am Loving Awareness,’ which features [devotional singer] Krishna Das. The song is like a little tool; you get the experience of what it means to feel loving awareness, which is really cool.”

Ram Dass is quite pleased with the final result. “East Forest has a very substantial musical vocabulary, which allowed for the different themes in my talks with him to be fleshed out in a way that very much enhanced the possibility of the listener absorbing the concepts that I presented,” he wrote in an email. “These themes are central to the teachings I have been sharing, most especially in recent years since I have been teaching in Maui. Making this collaboration available to the next generation is very important to me.”

When the Ram Dass collaboration wrapped up, East Forest turned his attention to another project he’s been working on for some time: Music for Mushrooms: A Soundtrack for the Psychedelic Practitioner. Released this spring, this recording, he says, is “from a similar house in my own brain” as the Ram Dass project, “but it definitely is its own work.” A five-hour improvisation, recorded live, Music for Mushrooms is intended to accompany a psychedelic journey.

“It feels like a sister record that was there to support the Ram Dass record,” East Forest says. “It’s got a completely different feeling and flow; it’s consistently slower and more patient. A lot of people do yoga and put it on in the background. Some people have been sleeping to it. My stepkid is seven and his teacher put it on in art class, not knowing what it was. People are finding all sorts of uses for it.”

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.