Yoko Ono on being involved in the avant-garde and using art and music for social change
Charlotte Muhl and Sean Lennon
Before Yoko Ono even met John Lennon, she was an active and influential figure in international avant-garde art and music. In the 1950s, she went to school at Sarah Lawrence College, during which time she rubbed shoulders with the likes of La Monte Young. Her mentor was the godfather of minimalism, composer John Cage, and she also traveled in the same circles as Ornette Coleman.
Ono was one of the early exemplars of the Fluxus movement and her conceptual and performance art pieces made her a bit of a star in the art world in the '60s. By the time she met Lennon, she was already an established and significant artist in her own right and her powerful creative vision challenged Lennon to push his own art in truly interesting directions.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ono created artwork and music both challenging and cutting edge without prejudice against its accessibility. In 1985, she had her first dance music hit with "Hell in Paradise." For most of the rest of that decade, Ono wasn't as active with music, but by the mid-'90s, especially after the release of her 1992 boxed set, Onobox, there was renewed interest in Ono's music, and she has since released music in various realms of that endeavor.
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Ono recently collaborated with David Audé on a remix for her single "Hold Me," ushering in another era of interest in her work. We recently had the chance to ask Ono some questions via email about getting involved in the avant-garde, dance music, her collaboration with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon and creating a better world through art by leading by example.
Westword: How did you become connected with the avant-garde community in New York in the '50s? What attracted you to that world?
Yoko Ono: The fact that I was avant-garde before I met them had a lot to do with it. You know. Mountain attracts mountains. River attracts River. That sort of thing.
You had a dance hit single with "Hell in Paradise" in 1985. What got you interested in making music in that style at that time?
I was always interested in experimenting in new modes of music. Dance stuff was new to me at the time. But also, John and I thought dance music was very important. So we tolled on the floor and try to create new dances for our songs, but couldn't find one we could say, "This is it!"
For the Rising Mixes EP, you had some high profile guests doing the remixes. Why did you choose those artists in particular, and how would you characterize the nature of your collaboration with them?
You must know that Cibo Matto, Thurston Moore, were not so high profile at the time. Of course, I was used to very, very high profile people as you know. But I kind a liked how Cibo Matto and Thurston were cutting edge. So I asked. They did great!
In 2002, you joined the B-52s on stage for their 25th anniversary concerts. John had heard that band and Lene Lovich and heard the influence of your own music in theirs. What do you particularly enjoy about that band?
Their music is infinitely enjoyable. Fun, not stiff.
For your new single, "Hold Me," you worked with David Audé. Why did you want to work with him particularly? What is it about the style of music for which he is known that fascinates you?
He is the biggest in dance music. I was honored that he wanted to do something with me.
You were part of a 2012 album called YOKOKIMTHURSTON. How did that come about? What made that project interesting for you as an idea and then as a reality as you were making it?
It was another new world experience for me. It's not easy to work with two people who are close to each other in a big way. I thought of that. But I went ahead. I have something in my brain that is always revolting. This time, I was revolting against my concern. Now you know why I never climbed up the ladder to the end. With one eye, I check the ladder, but one, it looks wobbly, and two, I start [fiercely] with myself once I even think of climbing!
In what ways do you feel that art and music can foster peace, human dignity and social change?
Depends on where you stand. In my case, I have no other option but to try to assemble some dignity for myself by making good music/art/et al. But it's a good way to keep peace, human dignity and make social change for you, too. [It's] simpler than delivering a baby!
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