Imagine Yoko Ono. The internationally known artist, who has worked across a wide range of genres and media, celebrated her 83rd birthday about two weeks ago. Early last month she was in Mexico City to open Tierra de Esperanza (Land of Hope), an exhibition of her work with an anti-violence theme, at the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. Next week, Lumière de l’Aube (Light of the Dawn), the artist’s first-ever retrospective in France, will open at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon.
These latest presentations come on the heels of last year’s high-profile Museum of Modern Art exhibition Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971, which focused on the development of Ono’s art and ideas during one of her most formative decades — including her forays into both experimental and rock music-making.
While preparing this roster of large exhibitions, in recent months Ono and her collaborators have also been cooking up the new album Yes, I’m A Witch, Too (Manimal Records), which was released on the artist’s recent birthday. Like Yes, I’m A Witch (Astralwerks, 2007), its predecessor from several years ago, this new batch of remixes features an assorted line-up of musicians and producers who have dipped into Ono’s songbook, a wide-ranging collection that includes everything from avant-garde sound collages and feminist anthems to driving rockers and haunting ballads.
Yes, I’m A Witch, Too finds such producers as Moby, Penguin Prison and tUnE-YarDs, among others, reworking material from Ono’s catalog of past recordings. For those coming to Ono’s music for the first time, the most inventive of these new remixes may point intriguingly to the original recordings they cleverly revisit and rework.
By now, in contrast to the naysayers who have routinely dismissed Ono’s music for years, time has shown that some of this body of work’s essential characteristics (including its unassumingly audacious attitude) either anticipated or directly influenced numerous other performers and movements: think punk, post-punk, dance rock, new wave, no wave, noise rock and that big catch-all category, “alternative,” which has been kicking around since the 1980s.
Ono’s earliest recordings — among them such albums as Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions (1968 and 1969, respectively, both co-billed with John Lennon), followed by Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970), Fly (1971), Approximately Infinite Universe (1973) and Feeling the Space (1973) — have been described as “avant-rock” or “proto-punk.” A lot of the music on these records certainly was very personal. After all, the 1970s, an especially fecund period for her music-making, was the era of the confessional singer-songwriter, when records by Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jim Croce, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne prevailed.
Just as those artists mined their personal experiences or relationships — sweet, sour or everlasting — for material, Ono produced such from-the-heart (and from-the-gut) songs as the ethereal ballad “Mrs. Lennon” (from Fly), the plaintive “What A Bastard the World Is,” the soulful-seductive “I Have A Woman Inside My Soul,” and the unabashedly candid “Looking Over From My Hotel Window” (the last three from Approximately Infinite Universe), with its vocal line floating above a crisp, simple chord sequence. (In that song she sings, “If I ever die, please go to my daughter/Tell her that she used to haunt me in my dreams/That’s saying a lot for a neurotic like me.” At the time, Ono’s former husband, the American filmmaker Tony Cox, had absconded with their daughter; like any mother, the artist anguished over her child’s whereabouts and well-being.)
In Japan, Ono had grown up in a musical household; her father, a banker, was a pianist who played the classics and believed that serious music composition (meaning for orchestras and classical-style ensembles) was no field for a young woman. Still, that was exactly what his daughter focused on when she later studied at Sarah Lawrence College before gravitating toward Manhattan’s avant-garde scene in the late 1950s. A decade later, in London, Ono collaborated with the experimental-jazz composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, using her voice as an impulsive, expressionistic instrument, whose raspy, sensuous, guttural, excited sounds seamlessly integrated with the sputtering, sighing and explosions of the band. One of those performances, “AOS,” appears on the 1970 album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, which was issued simultaneously with and as a companion to Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
It’s well known that Ono and Lennon’s personal partnership fostered a multifaceted artistic collaboration. Their union also bridged contrasting social-class and educational backgrounds, the differing sensibilities of rock’n’roll and avant-garde art, and the cultural-aesthetic mindsets of East and West. Their relationship brought Ono into contact with modern recording studios, whose resources she explored with gusto. “I didn’t think I [was] going to get to number one on the chart or something, because I didn’t even know what a chart was,” Ono recently told the British newspaper The Guardian. Nevertheless, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band sounds like a template for much of today’s on-the-fringe rock, what with its opening barnstormer, “Why,” in which Ono yelps, shrieks and coughs up the song’s title over Klaus Voorman’s pounding bass and Lennon’s slash-and-burn guitar, or the atmospheric chant-collage “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City.”
Back then, Ono and her audio engineers had only a few recordable tracks and analog tape to work with; today’s digitally equipped producers and engineers can easily sandwich together dozens of tracks to create rich sonic textures. As with the most imaginative remixes (those for Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” 1998, come to mind), the kind that simultaneously illuminate and reinforce elements of an original recording — a beat, a melodic phrase, a vocal tick, a sticky hook — each of the tracks on Yes, I’m A Witch, Too both reinvents and honors a particular Ono composition. Fresh ideas abound. Dance-club mixmaster Danny Tenaglia offers a languid, eloquent, synth-orchestrated reading of Ono’s 1981 single “Walking on Thin Ice,” whose throbbing beat and minor chords fueled its mood of mystery and foreboding. The Swedish indie act Peter Bjorn and John rework “Mrs. Lennon” with a swelling, melodramatic intro, power guitars and furious drumming, while the glam-rock duo Sparks — remember Sparks? — transform the guitar-based, new-wave rocker “Give Me Something” (from Lennon and Ono’s 1980 album, Double Fantasy) into a stately music-recital piece, with Ono’s gutsy vocal track prominently layered over a precisely articulated piano accompaniment, a predatory bass line, and Ron and Russell Mael’s supporting chorus.
Penguin Prison (electropopster Chris Glover) boosts the bounce in “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” from Ono’s edgy-introspective Season of Glass album, which she released in 1981, several months after Lennon’s death. Similarly, the duo Cibo Matto (Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori), who have often played in recent configurations of the Plastic Ono Band, find the bop in “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” also from Double Fantasy. From Season of Glass, Sean Ono Lennon wraps the percolating verses of “Dogtown” in gentle percussion and its chorus in a bigger envelope of guitar, drums and billowing synth chords, while tUnE-yArDs nips and tucks “Warrior Woman” into a punchy version of this feminist anthem from the early 1970s.
Yes, I’m A Witch, Too offers other quirks, tweaks and surprises. Not the least of those surprises comes from the Caribbean-British musician-performer Ebony Bones!, who converts Ono’s unusual chant-recitation, “No Bed For Beatle John,” from the way-out-there Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions album, into a beat-blasting mood piece. Another remarkable track is Moby’s reworking of “Hell in Paradise,” from Starpeace (1985), in which he plucks two words (“under” and “over” from the couplet “Underqualified for love/Overqualified for life”) from this dance-worthy look at dystopia and sets them against a throbbing beat in a synth-sound bath that’s all otherworldly atmosphere. (Take a cue from the instruction printed in big letters on the label of the original 45 r.p.m. vinyl single of the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band song “Instant Karma!” from 1970: “PLAY LOUD.”)
Ono is well known for her instructional, conceptualist works, many of which consist only of short texts that invite viewers to take part in the realization of imagined works of art. Similarly, long ago, at a time when the ideas of the composer John Cage and other avant-gardists were in the air, she developed her own notion of “unfinished music,” which, simply put, not only allows but also encourages listeners or other musicians to dive into her compositions and contribute to or otherwise interpret them.
In the Guardian, Ono also recently recalled, “The first albums I made with John, Two Virgins and Life With the Lions, we called them ‘Unfinished Music,’ and I think that idea has developed into something: you have a certain artistic attempt and then you openly involve other people.” Anticipating the spirit and character of the now-common remix, that kind of open-ended, nonrestrictive, go-ahead-and-take-a-crack-at-it spirit turned out to be another uncannily prescient aspect of Ono’s oeuvre. In 2016, looking back across the decades, just imagine that.