Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice

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Religion is what you do with your aloneness, a philosopher once said. Or with your pain and desperation, one could add. Yoko's music pushes pain into a kind of invigorating and liberated energy, just as a stutterer finally gives birth to a difficult word, since it existed orginally at the fine edge between inaudibility and the sound waves of dreams. About her music for The Fly, she says, "It's nice to go into that very very fine intricate mixture of sounds and rhythm. It's almost like going into a dream, getting something that doesn't exist in the physical world, unutterable sounds – a kind of metaphysical rhythm."

What Yoko calls "metaphysical sound" seems at first to be the true opposition of her recent unblocked music. Yet it is less an opposition than the idea of the dream of sound from which her new art emerges, a music which Max Picard tells us is "silence, which in dreaming begins to sound."

Yoko's "Music of the Mind" – e.g., "Peel. Peek. Take off." ("Pieces for Orchestra," 1962) – came to fruition in the winter of 1960. She rented a loft on Chambers Street in New York. "All the windows were smoked glass so that you couldn't really see outside, but there was the skylight, and when you were in the loft you almost felt more connected to the sky than to the city outside. It was a cold water flat, $50.50, and it was great. I didn't have chairs or beds, and so people downstairs gave me orange crates and I put all the crates together to make a large table, crates for the chairs, and at night I just collected them and made a bed out of them. And I started to live there.

"A friend of mine told me that there was a group of artists who were thinking of putting on their works and would I mind if they joined me and did things together. And I said, no, I wouldn't mind, and perhaps they wouldn't mind painting my loft for free. But everyone was lazy and didn't get around to painting it white, but I got used to the grey."

The famous Chambers Street loft concerts featured artists, musicians, poets, a list of whose names reads like a roster of the avant garde hall of fame: Ray Johnson, Walter De Maria, Joseph Byrd, Al Hansen, LaMonte Young, Jackson MacLow, Iris Levak, George Maciunas, Phillip Corner, George Brecht, Diane Wakoski, Simone Morris, Yvonne Rainer, Terry Jennings, Bob Morris, Henry Flynt, David Tudor, and Richard Maxfield.

"But there was no mention that I should have a concert there, and I wasn't going to be the one to mention it," Yoko says. "Somehow my work was still suffering. The idea had been to stop my suffering by getting a place to present my work and at last letting everybody know what I was doing. But it just went on like that. Many people thought that I was a very rich girl who was just 'playing avant-garde.' And some others thought that I was a mistress of some very rich man, which wasn't true either. I think that the reason that some people thought the whole thing was organized by some Chinese man was because La Monte's name is Young. And meanwhile I was just surviving by teaching Japanese folk art."

Within the next couple of years, Yoko had concerts featuring her own work at the Village Gate, the Bridge Theater, and Carnegie Recital Hall. Her first art exhibition took place at the Agnus Gallery, owned by Fluxus originator George Maciunas. And among the instruction paintings there were: "Painting for the Wind," which featured a bag full of seeds hanging in front of a blank canvas, and when the wind blew, seeds would fall out through the bag's small holes; "Smoke Painting," where you lit a match and watched the smoke against the canvas; and "Painting to Be Stepped On," where you stepped on the canvas and made a mark until many marks made up the painting. It was this element of participation, of adding things, of watching things grow and change that enabled you to see Yoko's instructions as a way of "getting together, as in a chain letter." And following this exhibition, Yoko's lecture-concert at Wesleyan College, events in Japan, exhibitions in London like the one on 1966 at the Indica Gallery where she met John, all created a growing interest in her work and an equal amount of incomprehension.

And it was Yoko's and John's extensions of the idea of participating, the "additional act" that would suggest to others how reciprocally to involve themselves, that led to the famous Peace events, filmed and reported on many times – the Bed-Ins, the "War is Over" poster that appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and the sending of acorns to world leaders, who were invited by John and Yoko to plant them and watch them grow.

Yoko's first important concert took place at the end of 1961 at Carnegie Recital Hall. "It was a big moment for me," Yoko recalls. "George Brecht, Jonas Mekas, LaMonte Young, Jackson MacLow, just about everyone performed in it. And Richard Maxfield helped me on the electronic side. I set up everything and then made the stage very dim, so you had to strain your eyes – because life is like that. You always have to strain to read other people's minds. And then it went into complete darkness. The week before I had given instructions to everyone as to what they should do, so that there would be a feeling of togetherness but a togetherness based on alienation, since no one knew the other person's instructions.

"So everybody was moving without making any sounds on stage. There was a point where two men were tied up together with lots of empty cans and bottles around them, and they had to move from one end of the stage to the other very quietly and slowly without making any sounds. What I was trying to attain was a sound that almost doesn't come out. I told you about stuttering. Actually I don't really stutter, but before I speak I stutter in my mind, and then my cultured self tries to correct that stutter into a clean sentence. And then it comes out like 'Oh, and how are you today?' instead of 'O-O-Oh-h-how are you?' But before it comes out like that you have this stuttering in you. And I wanted to deal with those sounds of people's fears and stutterings.

"So I thought that if everything was set up in a lighted room and suddenly the light was turned off, you might start to see things beyond the shapes. Or the kind of sounds that you hear in silence. You would start to feel the environment and tension and people's vibrations. Those were the sounds that I wanted to deal with, the sound of fear and of darkness, like a child's fear that someone is behind him, but he can't speak and communicate this. And so I asked one guy to stand behind the audience for the duration of the concert.

"I wanted the sound of people perspiring to be in it, too, so I had all the dancers wear contact microphones, and the instructions were to bring out very heavy boxes and take them back across stage, and while they were doing that they were perspiring a little. There was one guy who was asthmatic and it was fantastic. And in the toilet there was somebody standing throughout the evening. Whenever I go to a toilet in a film theater, I always feel very scared. If nobody's there I'm scared, but if somebody is there it's even more scary. So I wanted people to have this experience of fear. There are unknown areas of sound and experience that people can't really mention in words. Like the stuttering in your mind. I was interested not in the noise you make but the noise that happens when you try not to make it, just that tension going back and forth.

"I think I would never want to go back again to where I was, doing things like that, even though few people have touched this area. Where I'd be so lonely and miserable that nobody understood. And the kind of thing I'm doing now is more understandable. I'm not saying it's better or worse. But now I just want to feel sort of playful sometimes. And when I feel playful, to do something. That's when people seem to understand more or at least accept more.

"I'm starting to think that maybe I can live. Before it seemed impossible. I was just about at the vanishing point, and all my things were too conceptual. But John came in and said, 'All right, I understand you.' And just by saying that all those things which were supposed to vanish stayed.

"Around the time that I met John, I went to a palmist – John would probably laugh at this – and he said: 'You're like a very very fast wind that goes speeding around the world.' And I had a line that signified astral projection. The only thing I didn't have was a root. But, the palmist said, you've met a person who's fixed like a mountain, and if you get connected with that mountain you might get materialized. And John is like a frail wind, too, so he understands all of these aspects."

Instead of Yoko's self disappearing, she now disappears more into her self. "Everybody wants to be invisible," John says. "Yoko just expresses it."

"When the mouth speaks it is as if not the mouth itself but the silence behind it were pressing it into speech," writes Max Picard. "The silence is so full that it would drive the face upwards if it could not relax and relase itself in language. It is as though silence itself were whispering words to the mouth . . . In silence the lines of the mouth are like the closed wings of a butterfly. When the word starts moving, the wings open and the butterfly flies away."

This story is from the March 18th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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