July 15, 2024

Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, and Jesse Paris Smith – “Songs from the Bardo” – high concept art

SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS                 27 September 2019

At this point in their career, most artists don’t have the ability to surprise but this release shows that Laurie Anderson does. Fans of Laurie are tuned into her wry look at things, the raised eyebrow in her voice as she comments on the sub-text of the piece she is presenting, the re-interpreting of ideas, cultural icons and received beliefs. Here, she reads from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, without comment, without irony, generously and simply. It is still her voice, and I could listen to her read shopping lists for an hour, but here it is in service to the text. I don’t know what to make of this – on the face of it, it is not unlike a guided meditation, yet it is also a journey through thoughts and an opportunity to reflect. It takes the form of readings and instrumental passages and creates spaces in the listener’s mind.

Initially a mostly improvised performance in New York, the recording is an eighty-minute polished version of the experience. Laurie is joined by Jesse Paris Smith, daughter of Patti Smith, who has been involved in some fascinating left-field creations recently and Tenzin Choegyal, Tibetan singer and instrumentalist, as well as a cellist and percussionist. You’ll hear bells, some chanting, singing from deep back in the throat, crystal bowls, flute and a plucked lute. Songs Of The Bardo takes us steadily through the ante-chamber following life, the waiting room for reincarnation or Buddhahood. Whatever credence you give to that is up to you but the performance reveals it to be less a real guide and more a way of thinking about life. Personally, I find the tottering edifice of gods, buddhas, rewards and sanctions to be the opposite of the simple and beautiful teachings of Gautama Buddha. But the nonsense piled on nonsense is a human desire and reflected to the same extent in the massively extrapolated and contradictory practices built on the simple teachings of Jesus and in the legalistic frameworks and practices built far beyond the messages in the Koran. Humans are never content with the simple, they want to build and build.

We open on a struck bell, some chanting and an introductory prayer as the four elements are summoned before a journey through the Bardo of Near Death. Instruction and guidance follows, via a description of what the spirit sees. In a way, this tells of the travails of life and the struggles against turning from the right path. Bowed and grainy strings appear frequently, as does some lovely throat-singing. “What is called death” arrives with the plucked lute and singing. There are descriptions of states of mind and colours of mind that would be only be open to someone who has stilled and focussed theirs. “You are not alone”, Anderson reads,”everyone leaves this world. Do not desire or yearn to stay. Even if you do desire or yearn to stay, you cannot”. She reminds us of the three jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha (the Buddha, the teaching, the people who follow the teachings). In Tibet, they farm out the hard praying to monks (the Sangha), who developed the aforementioned abstruse add-ons and leave us with this road-map to death that they have figured out.. Ideas are embodied in characters, multiple Buddhas, gods and their consorts in seemingly endless combination. Each shines a light on what the good Buddhist should or should not have been doing in life (their Karma). As she says, “recognise it as the play of your mind, your own projection”.

This album is an opportunity to be still, to be minimally stimulated, to allow quiet to enter and to explore. It makes me want to spend time in some quiet corner of somewhere empty, letting thoughts percolate and quieten down. Ultimately, I suspect that is the purpose behind the release of this album.

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