Laurie Anderson collaborates on Songs from the Bardo

Laurie Anderson, musician and visual/conceptual artist, has made her bones exploring the intersection between the deep philosophical ruminations of fine art and the commercial world of popular culture, with results that are by turns fascinating, hilarious, sad, and chilling. Her latest collaboration, Songs from the Bardo, looks deeply into the Tibetan Buddhism that she has studied and whose ideas she has incorporated into previous work.

Anderson is accompanied on this project by musician/artist/activist Jesse Paris Smith and Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal. As its title suggests, the piece is comprised of musical settings that highlight Anderson’s readings of sections from the Bardo Thodol, commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Bardo Thodol is a guidebook for the recently deceased and is studied heavily in traditional Tibetan Buddhism in order for those who have passed to successfully navigate their way through the Bardo, a succession of illusory states encountered in the journey from death to eventual rebirth.

Songs from the Bardo will be released on September 27 by Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit label owned by the Smithsonian Institute. Anderson contributes spoken word and violin, Choegyal chants, plays Tibetan singing bowls, gong, a Tibetan flute, and Smith plays piano, crystal bowls, and gong. The trio is also accompanied at times by cellist Rubin Kodheli and percussionist Shazhad Ismaily. The piece was premiered in February 2019 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

This is not Anderson’s first foray into the Bardo, so to speak. Her previous works Forty-nine Days in the Bardo (2012) used paintings, drawings, and sculpture to explore themes of death and loss. Anderson’s explanation of that work also illuminates some of the ideas expressed in Songs from the Bardo:

“In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, also known as The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, the Bardo is described as the forty-nine day period between death and rebirth. The book is a detailed description of the way the mind dissolves and what the spirit experi­ences in this transition. In April 2011, Lolabelle, my small rat terrier died after a long illness. For twelve years she had been my constant and faithful companion. Counting the forty-nine days from Lolabelle’s death I realized according to The Tibetan Book of the Dead Lolabelle would be reborn on June 5, my birthday.”

Jesse Paris Smith, daughter of rock musician and poet Patti Smith, has been a constant presence on the international music, curation and activism scene. Her projects have included Everest Awakening, which concentrated on disaster relief in Nepal, the film Can’t See Sh*t about cystic fibrosis survivor and artist Brendan Patrick, and Pathway to Paris, a multifaceted project in support of the Paris climate accord. Ms. Smith has also been the curator of a number of cultural and artistic exhibits around the world.

Tenzin Choegyal is a Tibetan musician, festival director, and cultural ambassador who brings the traditional music of Tibet to the world and is a frequent collaborator with Western musicians including Phillip Glass and didgeridoo master William Barton. He is also a member of the band Tibet2Timbuk2.

Here is the track “Listen Without Distraction”

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