The Ballad of John (Cage) and Yoko

Today my “Downtown Scenes” class will be considering conceptual art and performance and the stirrings of minimalism in music, painting, and sculpture. Some analogies and overlaps with the world of poetry we’ve been talking about and will continue to talk about as we move into the Second Generation New York School later this week. The first two figures we spent intensive time with were Ginsberg and O’Hara. Today we’ll think about the vast influence of John Cage.

Here’s my favorite early Cage clip. I know I’ve posted it before, but in case you weren’t reading at that point — trust me. It’s worth the time:

Here’s a 2007 performance of the same piece at Brown University.

Our reading for today includes Calvin Tomkins’s seminal New Yorker profile of Cage, originally published in 1965 and later included in his book Bride and the Bachelors. It’s not the most academic take on Cage, but I wanted to use it in part to consider it as a product of the period itself: it’s chatty, gossipy, and works to create Tomkins’s persona almost as much as Cage’s. But it also allows us to think about Cage before the longevity of his influence could have been known.

Our primary text, though, is Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, originally published in 1964 and expanded in 1970, with a new introduction by John Lennon (“Hi! My name is John Lennon / I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono”). Grapefruit is primarily a book of instructions, what some performance scholars call “event scores.” They are conceptual pieces that present themselves variously as instructions for music, dance, painting, film, or other artistic performances. Like musical scores, they do not depend on the composer being present to perform them, often blurring the line between artist and audience. (To what degree that’s actually true will be part of our discussion.) A number of these instruction pieces are collected as part of her website; she also regularly tweets instructions that work in the same vein as these early pieces.

Ono met John Cage through her first husband, the Japanese avant-garde composer Ichiyanagi Toshi, who had taken part in Cage’s seminar on Experimental Composition at the New School (along with a host of others who would become important to the Downtown Scene). She made her loft space on Chambers Street available for early experimental performances and loosely affiliated with Fluxus artists, based more or less in SoHo, who also operated under Cage’s influence. (The MoMA blog just last week ran a feature on Yoko’s Fluxus wallpaper featuring an imagine from her famous Film No. 4.)

Here’s a fairly recent clip of Ono reading from her instruction pieces:

I can’t remember where I read it, but somewhere I’ve encountered the claim that John Lennon thought of the lyrics to “Imagine” as akin, generically, to Yoko’s instruction pieces, which I suppose makes it appropriate to wrap up this post with Yoko singing that song:


P.S. If we have time at the end of class today, we’ll take a quick field trip to SoHo to see Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room. This class is turning out to be pretty fun — at least for me!

Tags: , , , ,