Yoko Ono, an icon of imagination in a variety of artistic fields, declares that "inspiration, energy and elevation"are the themes that have run through all her creative activities. Her new album, YOKOKIMTHURSTON (which I reviewed for eMusic.com) is a collaboration with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore that embodies those qualities as thoroughly and provocatively as any album she's released since her classic '70s LPs.
Asked whether she finds the new album comparable to any of her previous work, Ono answers, "Maybe the first, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. But this time, the sound that came out was much darker, reflecting what's going on in the world now." Maybe it's the company she's keeping, maybe it's the times, but a big part of what makes YOKOKIMTHURSTON like Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band is how it unleashes the unabashed, undiluted avant-garde Yoko at her most spontaneous. The very first track, "I Miss You Listening," doesn't include a recognizable word until the last moment of its nearly ten-minute length; it's pure freely improvised sonic sculpture. There is less rock on the drumless YOKOKIMTHURSTON, and less overt structure (only one track has a chord progression), than on any of her previous albums.
In 1960 Ono began hosting events at her loft on Chambers St. in downtown Manhattan, working with musicians including John Cage and LaMonte Young. That space soon became a mecca for the avant-gardes of several disciplines. She was already a respected redefiner of the very meaning and fabric of art (and now, there are already five European retrospectives of her art planned for next year in connection with her turning 80) by the time most music fans got to know her work. Albums such as Fly, one of the most challenging double LPs of the era, may have left many mainstream rock fans scratching their heads in puzzlement, but other listeners were mesmerized by an approach so original, so different from what almost everyone else was doing (only Patti Waters had tread similar turf, less regularly and far more obscurely). Ono's legendary status slowly but surely grew, as did her influence – artists as varied as the B-52s, Meredith Monk, and Diamanda Galas are among her musical descendants.
Though many of her albums of the past three decades have been more arranged, and more built around songs, than her groundbreaking '70s work, Ono never abandoned making music in the moment. "I've always done one or two improvisational things on each record and concert. I also slip improvisation into the arranged music on the albums as well." One would expect nothing less of the woman who, when pressed on the topic of how her approach has changed over the years, exclaims, "I have no idea. I just do what comes to me!"
Obviously, Moore and Gorden are perfect for such a project. Not since "AOS" on her debut, where she performed with avant-garde jazz master Ornette Coleman's group, has Ono recorded with musicians so deeply grounded in free improvisation. This collaboration did not materialize out of thin air; its gestation was gradual and organic. "Thurston and I have done a few performances with Sean [Lennon], a few years back. Then Kim joined us when I did the BAM and Orpheum concerts. Her addition was interesting, so we did the album recording with the three of us. They are very intelligent and super sensitive artists, so it was a pleasure to work with them."
Ono's reference to the darkness of YOKOKIMTHURSTON "reflecting what's going on in the world now" touches on her socio-political activism. The spirit that led her to protest the Vietnam War in the '60s is still strong in her. She continues to work to achieve social changes across a broad spectrum of topics, most recently voicing her opposition to the ecologically hazardous natural gas collection technique of hydraulic fracturing, known as "fracking." She also bemoans the fate of the three members of Russian punk protest band Pussy Riot. "It's horrible. We have to all voice what we are thinking about it."
Comparing the present day with the '60s, she notes, "There are more activists now. In fact, it seems like there is no one in the universe who is not. It's a very exciting time."Though she is remarkably undogmatic -- asked "What is the role of the artist?" she responds, "Depends on the artist" – she does feel a connection between her creative work and her socio-political stances. "It comes from the same heart," she proclaims. Her advice for us all is, "Do whatever you can to better our society." - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. He has in a sense collaborated with Ms. Ono, as he composed music for "Hide and Seek Piece" from her book Grapefruit. It is part of his 50-song cycle Japanese Dedications.