Graded on a Curve: Laurie Anderson,
Tenzin Choegyal,
Jesse Paris Smith,
Songs from the Bardo

Eastern spirituality has inspired a lot of music, with only a small percentage aptly assessed as substantial. An even tinier amount rises to the level of artistry found on Songs from the Bardo, the new release from NYC avant-garde cornerstone Laurie Anderson, multi-instrumentalist, composer and musical director Tenzin Choegyal, and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and climate activist Jesse Paris Smith. Described as a collaborative composition featuring Anderson’s readings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the results are contemplative and exploratory without ever meandering into facile formlessness. A major work, it’s out now on 2LP, CD, and digital from Smithsonian Folkways.

It might read as if I’m being unnecessarily hard on music that’s infused with Eastern spiritual-philosophical qualities. Twenty years ago, that would’ve been true, and I’d probably have expressed matters much more harshly (and with less maturity), but in the ever-loving now I’m merely riffing on Sturgeon’s Law (and that’s not to suggest Ted’s maxim is the gospel truth).

I’ll add here that the term Eastern spirituality is a rather severe generalization, so let me highlight the specific; Songs from the Bardo is described by the label as a “guided journey through the visionary text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” the enduring masterwork of Nyingma Buddhism, with the intention to open up the philosophy’s traditions to current and future generations as both pure listening and a store of insightfulness.

Accompanying downloads are certainly useful, but for those buyers with working turntables, they are generally inessential. In the case of Songs from the Bardo, which does offer the card with the code, this observation is somewhat arguable, as listening to the music in one uninterrupted stream, having done so now numerous times, feels optimal.

And yet, absorbing the sounds on vinyl, which I’ve also done numerous times, still satisfies, and soaking up a side of wax in isolation doesn’t frustrate, instead offering an abbreviated serving of the record’s essence. I haven’t listened to any of the tracks individually however, and therefore I won’t be examining the record in that manner here; to do so strikes me as antithetical to Songs from the Bardo’s intent, in a way that parsing the individual songs on a pop or rock record does not.

Instead, I’ll make a few broader observations as to the undertaking’s overall success. The first is that the whole manages to fuse contemporary compositional elements with ancient aspects, both thematic-textual and also musical, e.g. the bells that open the recording, in a way that’s quite seamless. While one might assume that the aged qualities would derive from Tenzin Choegyal, he of Tibetan descent, this is only true to a degree.

To make it plain, all three of the billed participants (plus cellist Rubin Kodheli and percussionist Shahzad Ismaily) register in total synch with the Buddhist ideas expressed, but especially Anderson as she’s reading the text. And she does so with tremendous appeal. You know that line about paying to hear a vocalist sing the phone book? Well, I’d throw down cash to listen to Anderson read from a tall stack of takeout menus.

This isn’t a new conclusion I’ve come to, as the allure of Anderson’s speaking voice is extant in her prior work, and notably in her 2015 film Heart of a Dog, in which she narrates remembrances of her dog Lolabelle and imagines her passing through the bardo. And so, in case you were wondering, Anderson’s no dilettante when it comes to Buddhism. Her intonation is surely soothing but simultaneously exudes utter conviction.

Conviction is at the core of Choegyal’s singing; he’s intense but also varied, with side three’s “Jigten” offering a prettiness that’s, dare I say it, almost pop-like (yes, I know I said I wouldn’t deal with any of these tracks alone, but this one does stand out). And the instrumentation, including Choegyal’s dranyen, a Tibetan string instrument that sounds a lot like a banjo, is a crucial component in the lifeblood of the piece, and indeed the record overall.

The same is true for Anderson’s violin, which lends some welcome avant spark to the proceedings. And I don’t want to short-shrift Smith, as her piano is a consistent boon to the record, as are her crystal bowls and gong. Those last two instruments likely reinforce influences and intent, but Songs from the Bardo’s strongest attribute is that Anderson, Choegyal and Smith are true to their sources and inspirations without ever succumbing to cliché. That is, the record is very often what I expected, but just as frequently surprising, and ultimately life-affirming. This is no small thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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