Music from between heaven and hell
Why is the between so underrated? We live in a binary age which is defined by 0 or 1, and anything in between is dead meat. So we think only in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, masterpiece or minorpiece, and black or white. One of the main drivers of this dualism is social media where narratives are defined by like or dislike, friend or unfriend, and the ultimate sanction of follow or block. But life is not defined by absolutes. We actually live in an infinitely nuanced analogue world which digital technologies compress to just two binary options. Which obliterates the priceless legacy of the between created in the millennia before we became addicted to the digital opiate. Algorithms do not guide: they decide. Such is the power of binary thinking that consumer markets and political franchises have migrated to dualist extremes; as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Brexit.
These vital intermediate, transitional, or liminal states between two polarities are central to the great Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Bardo is the leitmotif of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which became a best seller in translations by Sogyal Rinpoche and others, including a celebrated misinterpretation by Timothy Leary. In Tibetan Buddhism bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth. But the term bardo also refers more generally to the fleeting moments when gaps appear in the quotidian dualist continuity we project onto our lives. Buddhism is an oral tradition so sound has always been central to it; from the poetry of Milarepa, through chanted pujas, to the music of dungchen - the Tibetan long horns. In fact what is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a translation of the Bardo Thödol, which in Tibetan means 'Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing'.
This liminal state of bardo can be heard in Philip Glass' Fifth Symphony, Éliane Radigue's Trilogie de la Mort, Jonathan Harvey's Fourth Quartet, and Steve Roach's Mercurius. Now has come a new CD on the Smithsonian Folkways label of Songs from the Bardo from iconoclast Laurie Anderson, Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Choegyal, and composer, daughter of Patti Smith and climate activist Jesse Paris Smith; the photo below (credit Tibetan Art Council/Raymond Haddad) was taken at the 2015 inaugural performance at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Songs from the Bardo is a guided journey through the transcendent text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But it shines a penetrating light on both the mysteries of both living and dying, with a Pitchfork review describing how it "is very much an album about life; a salve as much as a guide". In a thoughtful sleeve note Laurie Anderson describes how Songs from the Bardo is "not about a perfect performance; it's about leaving enough air for people to step in and look around a bit... and experience it for themselves". This sublime album is a sharp reminder of how our binary mindset erodes that vital experiential cultural space which is the between. Very worryingly, in the process it also erodes what Lama Govinda described in The Way of the White Clouds as "the readiness to cross the horizons of the known and the familiar, the readiness to accept people and new environments as parts of our destiny".
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