Laurie Anderson, Tenzin Choegyal, & Jess - Songs From the Bardo [ Smithsonian Folkways - 2019]
Famed composer Laurie Anderson has enlisted collaborators Tenzin Choegyal (a Tibetan traditional musician), Jesse Paris Smith (piano) and Rubin Kodheli (cello) to create a new work in 2019, titled Songs From the Bardo. It is an album of instrumental ambience and explicit Buddhist subject matter, driven by Anderson's spoken narration from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
This is by no means the first time I have heard these words used on an album of meditative ambience, central as these ideas have been to the New Age culture and the re-integration of Eastern spirituality into the West, but I am left feeling this is perhaps the clearest, the most lucid attempt to bring this poetry to music. Laurie speaks with a candid, expressive sincerity which indicates a world of thought poured into these ideas. Even if you are the sort of cynic to roll your eyes at these or any spiritual texts, I think it would be difficult to dispute that each word is carefully inflected with a specific meaning.
I greatly enjoy the interludes in which Anderson falls silent and the other instrumentalists take the fore, particularly Tenzin Choegyal's beautiful wordless vocals, astonishing in its painful earnestness, with piercing volume and natural, elegant vibrato in his strong tenor. This may be the first time I have heard Tibetan singing that was not focused around overtones and growling lower registers, and it is a pleasure. There is a marvelous folk flavor to these sections.
Certain phrases recur throughout the album: "Do not be afraid, do not be bewildered" and "Awakened one - do not let your thoughts wander". This makes the album feel very tight, thematically and creates the sense of alternate paths taken from the same starting point, as time goes on. Some of the words could be described as advice, while others are surreal dream visions, stories of the interactions of celestial entities, and descriptions of the inherent divinity of humanity, the often unacknowledged true nature of the mental dimension.
During Anderson's words, the instruments take softer tones, Tenzin and Smith utilizing singing bowls and gongs. From the strings, we hear soft murmuring drones.
It is a long album, at nearly 80 minutes, but its length is welcome, as it is a wondrously comfortable place to dwell for extended periods.
I am not familiar enough with Laurie Anderson's work to know whether this music typifies her career, but regardless it is a soothing recording rich with emotive melodic fragments and linguistic food for thought. Its sense of remarkable lucidity and clarity does a service to the intent of the ancient words. This recording is highly recommended to any fan of zen or meditative music.Josh Landry