Laurie Anderson / Tenzin Choegyal / Jesse Paris Smith

Songs from the Bardo

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The Bardo Thodol is referred to in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's part of a larger body of sacred texts in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Written in Sanskrit by Padma Sambhava during the eighth century CE, then hidden; it was discovered during the 14th century by Karma Lingpa. It was first translated into English in 1927. The book is a spiritual instruction manual designed for being read aloud to one who has entered the intermediate (bardo) state after death, so the being's consciousness escapes the endless cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara. It is often represented in Anglo literature, music, philosophy, and art.

Songs from the Bardo is a gorgeously articulated, 80-minute recording project. It was conceived in 2008 by Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and American composer and instrumentalist Jesse Paris Smith after a joint performance at the Annual Tibet House U.S. Benefit Concert. Choegyal suggested they collaborate on a new approach to the work to promote understanding of its concepts. They recruited Laurie Anderson to read the excerpts and later, cellist Rubin Kodheli. In 2014, they met at the Rubin Museum of Art and improvised a performance. The following year, the group performed a shorter version at the Tibet House event. The recording, from the Smithsonian Folkways label, features Anderson reading and playing violin, Choegyal singing, chanting, and playing various Tibetan reed, string, and percussion instruments, Smith on piano, crystal bowls, and gongs, Kodheli's cello, and Shazad Ismaily on percussion. The package includes copious notes from the three performers and the writer Khamo.

This presentation is a sustained, evolving meditation, delivered in Anderson's calm, compassionate speaking voice; her deliberative reading offers directions and cautions to the one traveling the various states and stages of consciousness after death (according to Tibetan religion, the bardo states last 49 days), and describes visions, spiritual beings, entities, and obstacles one encounters in this disembodied state. The improvising musicians surround her with empathy and a (mostly) gentle spaciousness. This instinctive approach to the material is striking and moving, artful and lovely, even when the root text vividly describes what are potentially fearful episodes along the soul's journey. Piano, bowed, strummed, and plucked cello, droning violin, modal chanting, and Tibetan lingbu (flute) and dranyen (lute), percussion, and a floating piano commingle, interact, and slip by as quickly as they appear, forming a fluid narrative as profound as it is unassuming. Track selections such as "Heart Sutra - Song," Jigten," and "Lotus Born, No Need to Fear" contrast with others, including the long "Brilliant Lights," which are far more abstract. The closing selection, "Awakened Heart," is sung in falsetto by Choegyal; it's freed from the rest of the text by a melody representing the clarity of consciousness needed to attain freedom from the samsaric cycle. Songs from the Bardo adds immeasurably to the body of art inspired by The Bardo Thodol; it is presented without sensation, artificial drama, or tension. It is not only lovely and moving, but profoundly instructive, as only the best art can be.

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