Willie Reviews Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, and Jesse Paris Smith’s “Songs from the Bardo”

Willie Reviews Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, and Jesse Paris Smith’s “Songs from the Bardo”


Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, Jesse Paris Smith come together on Songs from the Bardo not to guide a dead soul through the in-between, but to reveal the processes of death to the still living. Here’s RPM’s review:

At some point in the 14th century, an unknown Tibetan source composed the Bardo Thodol, a Buddhist text intended to guide the deceased through death to rebirth. During this 49-day process, the consciousness passes through three bardos, or intermediate states. To avoid the perilous distractions along the way, a lama recites the text and the consciousness goes on its way.

A long time after the 14th century, avant-garde icon Laurie Anderson was born. She, Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Choegyal, and composer Jesse Paris Smith got together and set out to create a guided tour through a guided tour of death. In an odd sort of simulation, the trio educates, counsels, and delights throughout the course of Songs from the Bardo. It’s the kind of entirely new release that finds its way onto Smithsonian Folkways. Again and again on the album, Anderson repeats “Do not be distracted.” The music and the spoken word demand deep concentration on the part of the listener, which is asking a whole lot. The artists commit to this angle and educate only up to a point, knowingly tossing you deep into the murky waters of the bardo.

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The first, most fundamental question you’re likely to raise upon hearing the album is “Are these really songs?” After all, “Homage to the Gurus,” the first track, introduces itself with a series of bell strikes and the structure proceeds less like a song and more like a continuous passage that spans the entire album. There’s the additional wrinkle that our Western conception of “song” doesn’t match up one-to-one with the sounds used in Tibetan religious practices. Of course, the artists know this, and it gets to the inner conflict of the album. As a release to the public, it approaches actual death and rebirth rites in a knowingly altered way. By calling the sections songs, they create distance between their art object and the real thing.

As the narrator of the work, Laurie Anderson could hardly be more prepared. Having built her body of work on unconventional, slightly unnerving monologue, her tone carries both a threatening edge and a constant reassurance. The text of the Bardo Thodol repeats abstract phrases as old religious texts are wont to do, but it marries them with colorful imagery. Anderson’s reading of “Dancing with the Crescent Knife” sounds eerily similar to something she would write: “Red in color, with a radiant, smiling face” and “dancing with a crescent knife and a skull full of blood, gesturing and gazing at the sky.” These visions of the bardo sit heavily in the silence, which is filled otherwise by creaking strings and a low, constant growl. In invoking the feeling of what it means to be dead, Anderson’s mannerisms work effectively. And the future tense, anticipatory and exciting, promises “now you will move on” and “you will see your home and family as though you were meeting them in a dream.”

The artists: Tenzin Choegyal, Jesse Paris Smith, and Laurie Anderson. Photo from Smithsonian Folkways.

But these frightening assessments of life after death are punctured by a few meditative instrumental passages featuring Choegyal’s singing. By presenting the religious text, the artists are already assessing it, and they choose to bring joy. “Heart Sutra Song – Gone Beyond,” is the most song-y of the album—it pounds out a triple meter and uses unrestrained voice in an incredibly cathartic way. Where everywhere else the album stays reserved, here it trades Anderson’s whispering for full-throated belting. The sustained stringed instruments fill all the empty space that the soul floats in for the rest of the time. The momentary instrumental flowering comes back on “Lotus Born, No Need to Fear.” There, Anderson speaks over it, her tone pushed toward encouragement by the simply positive backing instrumentals.

As a guide for the individual, Songs from the Bardo does not lend itself well to sharing with friends and family. You should expect it to sit in your library for a long time between listens—just long enough to pick it back up and enter a revived headspace clear of living, breathing thought.

Score: Last night, I dreamed I was alive!