Hearing Yoko Ono All Over Again
By JASON FARAGO
JUNE 25, 2015
In the spring of 1962, Yoko Ono sat down at a piano onstage at the Sogetsu Art Center, then a hub of experimentation in the thriving Tokyo arts and music scene. She gently, almost imperceptibly, touched the keys. Soon she started breathing heavily, as if the all-but-inaudible playing had exhausted her. She smoked a cigarette, in slow motion.
Seven performers sat at a table, microphones in front of them, and started solving math problems: Each time an equation was solved, they emitted a sound of their choosing. A tape of birdsong played, and a telephone rang. Other performers started asking one another questions, in French. The emperor’s voice blasted from a loudspeaker. Performers sat in chairs reading newspapers, then sawed off the chairs’ legs. At last, sometime around 1 in the morning, the performers stood up and stared out, locking eyes with spectators so intently that one came onstage and pinched the performers’ noses.
A fight broke out. It would not be the last about Ms. Ono’s music.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon in their first public appearance as the Plastic Ono Band, at Varsity Stadium in Toronto on Sept. 14, 1969. Credit Associated Press
In recent years, Ms. Ono — the subject of “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 7 — has won renewed critical consideration for her artworks of the 1960s, such as “Cut Piece,” a 1964 performance in which she sat impassively while others sliced her clothes off. Her status as a musician has changed, too, though here the reassessment has been less complete.
A small but vocal fan club has rediscovered her records from the 1970s and found in “Fly” or “Sisters O Sisters” forgotten feminist anthems or anticipations of punk. Her recent fifth act as a neo-disco queen has resulted in a dozen — yes, 12 — No. 1 records on the Billboard Dance Club Chart, including “Hold Me,” and lately she’s collaborated with younger admirers like the Flaming Lips, Antony Hegarty, Lady Gaga and the Beastie Boys alumnus Adam Horovitz. Few of her new admirers, however, have paid much attention to her music before 1968, solidifying the falsehood that Ms. Ono was a fine artist who turned to music only upon her marriage to John Lennon.
On the contrary, as the curators Christophe Cherix and Klaus Biesenbach affirm in “One Woman Show,” Ms. Ono was a musician and composer from the start of her career. Many of her artistic innovations now celebrated, such as her proto-Conceptualist use of instructions and scores, have roots in the musical avant-garde of New York and Tokyo. And the artificial division of her output into an early artistic career and a later musical one has obscured the enduring connections between the two.
The album cover of “Fly,” by the Plastic Ono Band. Credit John Lennon, via Lenono Photo Archive/Yoko Ono
Ms. Ono, born in 1933, was the eldest child of merchant aristocrats devoted to both Japanese and Western music. Her mother played the samisen (a string instrument similar to a lute) and sang. Her father had an early career as a concert pianist before going into banking, and he was determined that his daughter would fulfill his own musical dreams — going so far as to measure her hands at night to assess her future as a pianist. The family sent her to the Jiyu Gakuen, a progressive kindergarten housed in a Frank Lloyd Wright building, which taught girls piano, composition and music theory.
“We received homework in which you were supposed to listen to the sound of the day, and translate each sound into musical notes,” Ms. Ono recalled in 2002. “I realized that since the singing of many, many birds was so complex, I could not possibly translate it into musical notations. I didn’t have the ability to, is how I first thought. But I immediately realized that it was not a question of my ability, but what was wrong with the way we scored music.”
The Onos moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., when Yoko was 18; she attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied composition. Her initial college works leaned heavily on the 12-tone technique of Schoenberg and Webern, but soon her early frustration with the limits of musical notation returned. Her first instruction piece, dating to the summer of 1953 and later published in her breakthrough book, “Grapefruit,” takes the form of a musical score: “Decide on one note that you want to play. Play it with the following accompaniment: The woods from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. in summer.” Beneath that, on the bass staff, is a held F note, while just above the treble staff she writes, “With the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn.”
Ms. Ono during a performance in the Chambers Street Loft Series, held in 1960 and 1961. Credit Minoru Niizuma, via Lenono Photo Archive, New York
Ms. Ono dropped out of Sarah Lawrence, moved to New York and soon eloped with Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young composer then studying at Juilliard. The New York musical vanguard at the time was under the spell of D. T. Suzuki, who taught Zen Buddhism at Columbia, and the composer John Cage. Mr. Ichiyanagi enrolled in Cage’s renowned course at the New School and became a favorite student (and a rehearsal pianist for Merce Cunningham’s troupe). Ms. Ono audited the courses, too, and Cage’s influence pervades the early work of both these Japanese students. In 1961, the two played their music at the Village Gate, the noted downtown club best known as a jazz venue.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ms. Ono’s closest relationships were with musicians. With the Minimalism pioneer La Monte Young and the electronic composer Richard Maxfield, she presented a series of musical performances in her studio, a cold-water walk-up in a neighborhood that would not be called TriBeCa for decades to come. “THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT,” read the program announcements for the Chambers Street Loft Series, which ran from December 1960 to June 1961 and featured music by Mr. Young and Mr. Ichiyanagi; dance works by Simone Forti; and a spatial environment by Forti’s husband at the time, Robert Morris. Cage and David Tudor came; so did Marcel Duchamp and Peggy Guggenheim.
The next spring, Ms. Ono returned to Tokyo after more than a decade in the United States, though in the shadow of her more famous husband — a sensation she would soon experience a thousand times over. Her two years back in Japan were momentous. By the end of them, she had divorced and remarried (twice, both times to the jazz musician Tony Cox), entered a sanitarium, unveiled “Cut Piece” and published “Grapefruit.” In Tokyo, she also pushed away from music and would not embrace it again until the late 1960s, and on a much more public platform.
A photograph from Ms. Ono’s performance piece “The Pulse.” Credit Akio Nonaka, via Shinchosha Publishing Company
“Works of Yoko Ono,” as her concert at the Sogetsu Art Center was called, was the prologue to a six-performance series by Cage, whom Mr. Ichiyanagi had invited for his first Japanese sojourn. On one evening at Sogetsu, Ms. Ono lay on the strings of the open piano, her long hair hanging off the side, while Cage and Tudor thwacked the strings with a variety of objects. It was a watershed in the history of the Tokyo music and art scenes, with numerous magazines writing about “Keji shokku”: “Cage shock.” But Ms. Ono was miserable. “Who was I,” she later said, “but Toshi’s wife and John Cage’s friend?”
Mr. Ichiyanagi remained in Japan and went on to compose symphonies, chamber works and vocal compositions, often making use of precipitous glissandos and prerecorded elements. . (He is now 82, and his most recent opera, “Legend of the Water Flame,” had its premiere in Yokohama this winter.) Ms. Ono, who moved to London and then New York, looked away from music, moving on to performances with more or less explicit Zen themes — the pokerfaced “Cut Piece,” the meditative “Evening Till Dawn” — and to the often precious objects and sculptures that take up a fair bit of the Modern retrospective.
It was probably inevitable that Ms. Ono’s return to music would not receive the consideration it deserved, not when the most famous person in the world was playing guitar on her records. Lennon and Ms. Ono’s initial musical collaborations, from the murmuring and surprisingly listenable “Two Virgins” (1968) to the more dubious, heartbeat-backed “Wedding Album” (1969), occasioned almost unreal hatred, and still do in the sewers of online commenting. Her solo recordings of the early 1970s barely had a chance, and Ms. Ono recorded nothing from 1974 until 1980, when she and Lennon released “Double Fantasy” weeks before his murder.
A cover of one of John Cage’s “Shock” albums, with Ms. Ono sprawled on the piano.
Yet Ms. Ono’s musical efforts in the first years after their marriage show the clear influence not only of Lennon, who’s often seen as the “victim” of their intertwined careers, but also of her earlier training and collaborations.
One of the Plastic Ono Band’s first records featured “AOS,” a seven-minute runabout with Ornette Coleman, who died earlier this month; Ms. Ono begins at a high-pitched keen, descends to deeper, orgasmic breathiness, then growls ferociously as Coleman’s saxophone lets loose with chaotic sixty-fourth notes. Many of the Plastic Ono Band’s early recordings in fact owe substantial debts to Coleman and other free jazz performers, to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cage, and indeed to Mr. Ichiyanagi’s early aleatory compositions.
At the Modern, Mr. Biesenbach and Mr. Cherix have devoted a room to Ms. Ono’s recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a solo artist and with the Plastic Ono Band. It’s decorated with vinyl LPs of “Give Peace a Chance” and “Who Has Seen the Wind?” and posters for “Mrs. Lennon” and “Mind Train.” The quavering “Why?” plays on a loop, but have a seat on the banquettes, put on your headphones and queue up some tunes, from her astounding “Don’t Worry Kyoko” (1971) to more traditional recordings like “Approximately Infinite Universe” (1973), which features some of Lennon’s best guitar solos.
In their time, they may have seemed incomprehensible. But people said that about “Cut Piece,” too.
A version of this article appears in print on June 28, 2015, on page AR8 of the New York edition with the headline: Hearing Her All Over Again.
Yoko Ono at the Museum of Modern Art during the installation of “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971.” Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times