Songs for the Tibetan dead: A Performance Unlike Any Other

Tenzin Choegyal with Jesse Paris Smith, Laurie Anderson and band.

Tenzin Choegyal with Jesse Paris Smith, Laurie Anderson and band at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo: © Raymond Haddad

Composer and musician Tenzin Choegyal is well known for his haunting melodies, soaring vocals and an addiction to experimentation. So when I took a seat last night in the Rubin Museum’s acoustic theater for a sold-out show by Choegyal alongside Laurie Anderson and Jesse Paris Smith, I expected to be surprised. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to come: an hour-long journey into the great unknown, filled with visualizations of death, rebirth and the great mystery of awakening.

Choegyal and friends performed a breathtaking and sublime musical adaptation of Bardo Thodrol (The Great Liberation Through Hearing), a Tibetan Buddhist text usually read for the dead or dying by a Tibetan lama. In the process of dying, Buddhists believe, a person’s consciousness goes through several different stages, where the dying person begins to see different kinds of colors, sharp lights, and terrifying images. The consciousness, blinded by the lights and terrified by the images of wrathful deities, is often lured into the more inviting paths of softer shades that lead to lower realms of rebirth. But if the dying person can face the blinding lights squarely, unafraid of the wrathful images and sounds, she can use this ‘moment of clear light’ to attain instantaneous enlightenment. The Bardo Thodrol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is read to the dead with the intention of guiding them through this in-between state following one’s death and before entering rebirth.

With his trademark vocals accompanied by the unmistakable twang of his dranyen, Choegyal rendered the Bardo Thodrol, magically, into a multidimensional journey for the lay audience, an awe-inspiring rehearsal for the ultimate moment of clear light that awaits us all. Laurie Anderson’s intimate and powerful narration of the book was an artwork of the highest order, holding the audience enraptured, imprisoned, and eventually released. Jesse Paris Smith and her friends, with their panoply of futuristic instruments and the perfectly timed clanking of cymbals, created a cosmic soundtrack that was by turns apocalyptic, spellbinding and liberating.

At the end of the show, when Choegyal explained that this particular performance of Bardo Thodrol was dedicated to the more than 140 Tibetans who have self-immolated in the last four years for the cause of Tibetan freedom, the audience broke into a collective gasp, followed by rapturous and emotional applause. For many, it was as if the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into its place, revealing a profound and devastating truth that had been brewing for an hour, in fact, for four years. No one left the concert hall without being moved – or transformed – by the unforgettable experience.

– by Tendor

Learn more about Tenzin Choegyal

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