In this examination of Yoko Ono’s musical life, I hope to observe the development of a unique vision and a criminally underrepresented voice in the avant-garde community. Ono’s musical output has been ignored by both the popular media and a popular culture which has deemed her music unlistenable and alien. It is my argument that the factors of Ono’s gender and ethnicity play a large role in her maligned state within the minds of music fans. Various other avant-garde composers and musicians have been lauded for their forward looking musical and theoretical achievements and may have undergone critical reevaluations over time. Ono, to a certain extent, has undergone the same with her figurative and conceptual artistic ventures, yielding a recent retrospective of her artwork entitled Yes Yoko Ono. She is still not regarded as an important figure within the avant-garde musical community, however. My paper attempts to highlight the fact that Ono participated in this community, but was alternately oppressed within and forced out of this group of musicians, and therefore is unfairly not regarded as an important figure within this scene.
1. Dragon Lady
Dragon lady. A name given to the last Empress of China Tzu Hsi and countless other Asian women. While Sir Edmund Backhouse’s description of the Asian ruler as a bloodthirsty and sexually carnivorous temptress has since been taken to task, the stereotype remains. (01) One of the most highly publicized dragon ladies of the 20th century is Yoko Ono. Her supposed crime? Breaking up the legendary pop group, the Beatles. While the relative truth of this claim is in question to this day- and will probably never be answered fully- the union of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was a shocking one. Ono was a well-known avant-garde art figure involved in the Fluxus art movement and Lennon was the embodiment of the “commodity industry,” selling pop music records to millions of adoring, yet fickle, fans. (02)
The racism and hatred directed toward Ono, though, hurt deeply. When asked by a record label to release a six disc retrospective in 1992, Ono stated “the whole world hated me and my music....Let's bury it and leave it alone.” (03) By 2001, it seemed as though she had at least come to terms with the fact that these lingering prejudices may never cease to inform the judgment of her work. In that year Ono drew attention to the stereotype once again by subverting this vision of herself as dragon lady on the cover of her Blueprint for a Sunrise album. Ono appropriated a picture of the original, Tzu Hsi, and grafted her face onto the picture of the maligned empress. Able to poke fun and subtly detourn the Dragon Lady label, Ono has overcome the narrow-mindedness of both the public and academic worlds and shown her work to be enduring and thought-provoking. (04) This situationist inspired piece of art is unlike the pieces that she has done throughout her life. However, as her career in the art world has shown, Ono has never been one to conform to expectations.
2. “My father was pretty disappointed to be a banker.” (05)
Still clinging to dreams of musical glory, the failed pianist turned wealthy banker, Eisuke Ono, vowed that his first born child- son or daughter- would pursue an education heavily steeped in music. Born on February 18, 1933; it soon became clear that if Yoko Ono, the first child to Eisuke and his wife Isoko, were to end up pursuing a career as an artist, she would do so on her own terms: “I can remember going to concerts and then walking out after a few minutes and I kept wondering, ��Why am I doing this?’” (06) It was the wealth of the Ono family that economically answered Yoko’s rhetorical question. Eisuke was a successful banker that was transferred to San Francisco six weeks before his daughters’ birth. Yoko’s first clear memory of her father is recounted in a 1997 interview with Jody Denberg:
And the first thing he did was like, "Well, let's see your hand." And looking at my fingers and saying, "Oh, this part I hope that this part is going to be wide because otherwise you can't reach the octave"(07)
As anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States rose in reaction to the Imperial Japanese’s full invasion of China in 1938, Eisuke sent his family back to Japan during that year. Her childhood in Japan was one of isolation. Little personal attention was paid to Yoko by her mother. Isoko embraced the lifestyle of the Japanese aristocracy. Yoko, on the other hand, did not take to the life of the privileged. The importance of her childhood within an extremely well-off family, however, can not be overstated. It opened a number of doors that would have been closed otherwise, in Japan and America, because of Ono’s gender and ethnicity. As a result, however, Ono had to endure the pain of always being the outsider: in Western world- the Oriental, in Japan- the daughter of the elite that knew little of the reality of modern Japan.
3. “(I wanted to) tune into the emotion of the expression, the voice.” (08)
By 1952, Yoko’s primary schooling was complete and upon her graduation from Jiyu-gakuen Music School she moved to Scarsdale, New York to join her family. This same year saw the passage of the McCarran-Walters Act by the United States government. The law allowed, for the first time in the nation’s history, Asian-American immigrants to become naturalized citizens. In no interview, however, is the act mentioned as a reason for Ono’s move to the United States. It can be attributed to the wealthy status of her family that precluded the legal restrictions from having an effect upon her family’s movements across continents. While in New York, Yoko continued her schooling in music at Sarah Lawrence College. It was during this time period that Ono came into contact, through her father, with the work of Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg- key composers of the early twentieth century. (09) She was particularly interested in the operas of Berg, composed in the 12 tone method that Schönberg had pioneered. This technique was a highly mathematical one; little is left to chance in the composition, while the composer only has a minimal amount of freedom to compose out of set constraints- introduced in the initial moments of the piece. Berg offered interesting options within this restrictive framework, most notably in Lulu and Wozzeck, his two famous operatic works. Berg composed singing parts that stretched the reaches of the vocal range, but remained defiantly lyrical, while maintaining a connection to the mathematical compositional technique in which he operated. (10)
It was in the simultaneous revolution and constraints offered by the 12 tone movement that Ono felt trapped. Berg’s solution appealed greatly to Ono and became a major influence upon her early compositions. But the uncomfortable feeling of being ensnared within someone else’s artistic solution to a specific problem did not appeal to Ono. And this feeling of being unable to break free of constraints spread to a variety of disciplines in which Ono worked: "I felt that I was a misfit in every medium," she has been quoted in a 1996 The Wire interview as stating. "I thought that there might be some people who needed something more than painting, poetry and music, something I called an 'additional act'." (11)
Yoko’s belief in interdisciplinary art that transcended the boundaries between mediums was fueled also, in large part, by her exposure to John Cage. In 1958, Yoko and her first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young Japanese musician, attended Cage's experimental music composition class in New York City. The class featured a large amount of the emerging avant-garde of the 1960s. In the class, Cage stressed the role of chance and indeterminancy in composition- whether they be visual, musical, or written.
This indeterminancy makes itself readily apparent in her later work. A common conceit that is present in almost every song she ever recorded is a type of animalistic scream- one that had no clear connection to what could be considered normal singing technique practiced by popular or, for that matter, most avant-garde musicians. Vowels, phonemes- were certainly present, but they were not linked to anything that approached coherence. Specifically, on her largest popular success “Walking on Thin Ice,” Ono is heard yelping, distracting from the almost narcotic groove created by the post-punk/disco pulse of the song. (12) Ono attempted on many of her songs to imitate the sub-vocalizations of speech before it is coded in the mind- the stutter of the most verbose and coherent person. Inside of the framework of a pop song, Ono can not help herself but to let forth what are generally termed as mistakes- subverting the popular song format to include Ono’s own unique style.At this same time her interest in chance began to emerge, Ono began to explore her cultural heritage to see what it could offer her in compositional ideas.
And I was getting to making notations that are kind of different from the usual Western musical notation that you can -- that you know. It's like something between Oriental and Western notations, because I also got an influence -- an Oriental musical influence from my mother. And she was showing me these Oriental scores. They had nothing to do with the kind of scores that you're used to in Western music. (13)
4. “John (Cage) only loved people who were imitators of his work, and I was into something that he though was a bit too sexy or erotic.” (14)
This conceptual breakthrough led Yoko Ono to other like-minded artists and together they created a scene within New York City. At the time, Ono was known as the “High Priestess of Happenings” and was able to hold a number of exhibitions of her work. (15) By the beginning of the 1960s, Ono had hit her stride within the avant-garde world, divorcing Toshi and marrying Tony Cox- a jazz musician/film director that helped Ono fund some of her larger scale events and spread her name to the modern art world. This notoriety led to problems, however. By the mid to late 1960s, Ono had nearly become too popular for her own good: “I was not in the avant-garde world but I was not as big as the [mainstream] world....1967 was a very lonely passage, it was like I was in nowhereland." (16) Ono found herself in a tough position because of this- and for other reasons. Despite the avant-garde’s being populated by some of the most enlightened and liberal people in the world, old stereotypes about Asian women surfaced in contact that Ono had with members of this circle. Most notably, Ono was told by John Cage that she might find better success as a singer because of her training within that field. This played directly into the frequent stereotype of women as unable to control the complete art process- both composition and performance. Cage and others, instead, saw Ono as a sort of novelty and as an aside to the progression of musical composition that was occurring within the 12 tone tradition. Ono, while speaking about the development of her musical style with Jody Denberg in 1997, recounts that “somebody commented that, this is too theatrical or dramatic....(but) I was more interested in the kind of -- the sound of turmoil.” (17) Ono defied the odds of a cloistered and prejudiced avant-garde art world in London- and found the solution to breaking free of these problems, in the meantime.
In 1966, Ono hosted her first one woman exhibition in London. John Lennon attended the preview to the show and the two subsequently began their contact with one another. Throughout ��67 and ’68 they remained friends- Lennon financed another Ono exhibition in London, while Ono continued her bohemian lifestyle- appearing onstage at the Royal Albert Hall with notable free jazz musician Ornette Coleman.
5. “When I heard the rock beat, I thought, oh this is what I was looking for! And I never looked back.” (18)
By 1969, both Lennon and Ono’s marriages had deteriorated. With their relationships falling apart around them, the two took solace in one another. During their first night together as a couple they made their first album, entitled Two Virgins. The document is a collection of “musique concrete” pieces that defy explanation. (19) Nothing approaching conventional notions of musicianship can be found on the record. It is, instead, the sound of two virgins naively exploring the limits of music and art.
The album was released with a shocking album cover- the couple posing naked on the front, and the outrage began in earnest. While Lennon represented, arguably, the greatest rock ��n roll rebel of his time period, rebellion carries with it a high price. (20) As Lennon could not get away with the scandal of saying that the Beatles were larger than Jesus Christ in England, at the time, he also could not escape derision from the general public for leaving his wife for another so quickly after their split- let alone for an Asian American woman (Ono has been described both as a "simian” and as “John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie”). (21) It may have been the most rebellious thing that Lennon could have done in the situation, but it was seen as an act of betrayal by the public. When the Beatles broke up soon thereafter, in 1970, many people blamed the relationship between Ono and Lennon as one of the main issues that plagued the band’s ability to play together any longer.
Soon after Two Virgins and another similarly natured album entitled The Wedding Album, the duo released complementary solo albums, both entitled Plastic Ono Band. The albums were both more conventional than previous outings. John’s album was a collection of four to six minute of stripped down pop songs with simplistic lyrics that echoed some of his work with the Beatles. Yoko’s album, however, continued her trend of unpredictability. Ono coaxed some of the strangest sounds out of musicians that had been playing in traditionally pop contexts for their entire lives (Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, etc.). The album has been hailed as a masterpiece by most rock critics, but it has been largely ignored by the general public because of its inaccessibility, compared to Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Noted critic Gillian Gear writes that one of the reasons that the work is so maligned may be that “curious listeners had no context in which to place this riveting work, which brilliantly fuses the avant-garde with rock 'n' roll.” (22)
Whatever the reason, Plastic Ono Band, and later albums like avant-garde masterpiece Fly and the proto-feminism of Feeling the Space, is largely ignored by the public in canonical “Top Albums of All Time” lists that frequently appear in music magazines. Some of this can obviously be attributed to the type of music that Ono was making. As Robert Hughes states in his book The Shock of the New, “the essence of the avant-garde myth is that the artists is a precursor; the truly significant work of art is the one that prepares the future.” (23) If this can be taken to be true, Ono can be seen as an obvious forerunner to a variety of different genres. Her unique vocal style was copied by countless punk bands in the late 1970s, while her appropriation of a disparate amount of styles prefigured the post-punk movement of the early 80s. With the inherent feminist undertone of a woman who could just as easily rock as hard as men, Ono also predated the riot grrl movement that gained momentum in the early 1990s with groups such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. However, Ono is rarely, if at all, listed as a major influence on the work of artists.
As it has been hinted at earlier, the main reasons behind this lie in the fact that Ono is both Asian and a woman. In her interview with Joy Press, Ono talks about the disparity between her historical legacy and other composers that engaged in the same sorts of advancements that she undertook:
I admit LaMonte Young's talent but there should be equal respect, you know....There is always an ego problem amongst artists. I suppose with the kind of work that he's doing, it is very important that he have an incredible pride to carry him along. We were all like that. (24)
Ono’s concerns are realistic. Her additions to the avant-garde history of music have been largely ignored by both music critics, who tend to focus only on her more rock-based albums and the general public. It is the essential problem that has plagued most women artists, though. It is the same problem that Simon Reynolds and Joy Press pose in their book The Sex Revolts: “Is it better to sacrifice aesthetic power for the sake of political explicitness, or to opt for purity of artistic expression, at the expense of being understood?” (25) Ono has opted for a purity of artistic expression and has been misunderstood time and time again. Instead of being regarded as a revolutionary, Ono has been relegated to the position of “crazy or downright annoying.” (26) Because as Joy Press points out “when male artists go out on a limb they are considered brilliant and daring” and when women engage in this activities they are regarded with suspicion. (27) It has been a common conceit to regard women’s contributions in music, however, as a binary opposition to men’s. Women have been relegated to a set amount of vocal sounds available within their compositions, while men have been allowed to veer from guttural groaning to effeminate falsettos. Ono was one of the first to break free from the female constraint with her unique vocal style and has endured the consequences of presenting the “visceral expression of female, pain, rage, and frustration.” (28) Her reception critically and publicly has been a harsh one, but judging by Ono’s uncompromising artistic output, however, she would not have it any other way.
In the future, a more in depth reading of the issues of race and the element of the scream would be useful topics of discussion for critical entries into the work of Yoko Ono. Their schematic reading here allows for far greater evaluation than the constraints of this paper allow. The essential problem with attempting to place Ono within a racial setting in the New York City is the simple fact that she had few Asian American counterparts besides her first husband, who moved back to Japan after their divorce, and Nam June Paik, who was both male, Korean, and a visual artist specifically. These counterparts offer little to contrast Ono against. On the topic of the scream, Simon Reynolds and Joy Press have examined the effect of women’s rebellion in rock music in their book The Sex Revolts. Their study, however, relatively disregards the wordless rebellion that Ono tends to engage in. It is this inability to voice the inner turmoil that plagues women that could be adaptable for future study and examination. In the end, however, any element that critically reevaluates Ono is a worthwhile venture, as her reputation has been tarnished time and time again due to the strange circumstances in which she came to prominence.