Rykodisc RCD 10224/29: 1992
This six-disc box set covering conceptual artist Yoko Ono’s recorded output from the early 70’s to 1992 is also an enigma. Vilified for being the cause of the breakup of her husband’s band The Beatles, and her supposed inability to sing, Ono has weathered significant negativity in the common press, though her work as a conceptual artist has been well received in the art world. As critic Robert Palmer states in the accompanying notes to the set, the most intensively abrasive of Yoko’s vocal improvisation had as its own wider context in (1) her interest in works such as Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, (2) Kabuki techniques such as hetai, a type of narrative that involves chant and a vocal technique that involves straining the voice, and (3) the free jazz or “energy music” that was then widespread (and controversial) in the jazz world. Indeed, Yoko had initially given such performances in the company of free jazz innovators like Ornette Coleman (performing with him in London, 1968). Hostile jazz critics charged Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and the other leading innovators in free jazz with “screaming”, an accusation she soon found herself contending with as well (liner notes, 40).
Ono’s singing may have sounded extreme to mainstream listeners in the early 70’s who were unaware of the parallel directions being taken in free jazz. But today, after several decades of noise art, avant-garde rock, “post-free” jazz and so on, the astonishing variety of her vocal techniques can be more readily appreciated. In a 1970’s Rolling Stone interview she said, “the older you get, the more frustrated you feel. And it gets to a point where you don’ have time to utter a lot of intellectual bullshit. If you were drowning you wouldn’t say: “I’d like to be helped because I have just a moment to live’. You’d say, ‘Help!’ but if you were more desperate you’d say, ‘Eioghhh’, or something like that. And the desperation of life is really life itself, the core of life, what is really driving us forth…”
But as much as these statements would seem to suggest that Ono’s music from this period is avant-garde, surprisingly, the music accompaniment itself is highly listenable rock music with Ono’s avant-garde poeticism and innovative vocalesé intermingled, preceding the New Wave trends towards this very same technique by several years. Songs such as What Did I Do? conjure the sound of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s solo work and Talking Heads recordings of the early 80’s. As well, the opening stanza of the track Approximately Infinite Universe is eerily similar to the compositional structure for The Listening Wind from the Talking Heads album, Remain in Light (Wea, 1980, WPCR-2664, track 7).
With the wide availability of this box set, it is surprising that Ono’s work has not been critically engaged with in the common press or in the academic fields. It is an excellent example of improvisational techniques being used to create a personal idiom of avant-garde rock music. Perhaps this particular lacunae will have its filling in the 21st century by cultural theorists such as Deborah Wong or A. Kimi Coaldrake. But as a collection it is a valuable source of artistic information and inspiration for all improvisers.