YOKO AND JOHN…CAGE
By Madeline Bocaro ©
Yoko Ono met John Cage early in her career in the 1950s. They mutually influenced each other’s work. In many ways, they were ‘silent’ partners. Their commonalities were a great appreciation of Japanese tradition and culture, and strong disregard for the concept of ‘high art’.
The Avant-garde American composer, a student of Schoenberg, pioneered non-conventional use of musical instruments, theorized about and experimented with silence and the possibilities of sound. Cage also influenced the development of Modern Dance.
It took a little while to cement Yoko and John’s friendship.
“I did not immediately take to someone who was considered an authority of some kind. I mean John Cage was already an authority in some ways, you know; people respected him. I was just being a bit cynical.”
– Yoko Ono, Forever a Force for Peace by David F. Hoenigman, The Japan Times
John Cage was a colleague of Yoko’s first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi whom she married at age 23 in 1956. Toshi was then a student at Juilliard (he is now a well renowned composer in Japan). All three attended D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism class at Columbia University. Toshi was a student at Cage’s New School course.
Here is a profile on Toshi from 2015:
A dean of Japanese music talks boundaries, John Cage and life with Yoko Ono
In 1961, Cage and Ichiyanagi performed at the downtown New York City jazz venue, The Village Gate.
Along with the progenitor of Minimalism, La Monte Young and electronic composer Richard Maxfield, Yoko presented a series of concerts in her studio loft, a walk-up in a neighborhood which would be known as TriBeCa decades later. The concert programs read, “THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT.” Yoko’s ‘Chambers Street Loft Series’ ran from December 1960 to June 1961.
“…Because at the time there was only Town Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall and Carnegie Hall. Only three places for concerts…” – Yoko to Arthur Magazine 2007
Many performers included La Monte Young, Toshi Ichiyanagi. John Cage. Peggy Guggenheim, George Maciunas, David Tudor and members of the Fluxus art movement and Marcel Duchamp were all attendees. Yoko also performed some of her art pieces at the loft.
“It was snowing and people from Stony Point, which was David Tudor, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, those people came down. They were the first ones. Bundled up, because it was a cold water flat.”
– Yoko to Arthur Magazine 2007
Returning to Tokyo in 1962, Yoko performed Works of Yoko Ono at Sogetsu Art Center. This was the prelude to a six-performance series by John Cage, whom Toshi had invited to Japan. In Cage’s piece Piano Walk, Yoko lay on the strings of an open grand piano with her long hair hanging off the side, while John Cage, Toshiro Mayuzumi* and David Tudor hit the strings with various objects. It was a media sensation eliciting the bold headline, “Keji shokku” (Cage Shock) .
*Yoko designed the album cover for Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphonie.
Yoko’s 1962 performance with Cage was released as part of a three-disc set in September 2012 called Shock! – a recap of Cage’s Japan tour. On disc 2, Yoko vocalizes on the track “26’55.988”, a piece with two pianists and a string player.
In 1966, as part of a project collecting manuscripts from popular musicians for John Cage, Yoko approached Paul McCartney for some Beatles lyrics. As Paul was unwilling to part with any, he suggested that she ask John Lennon, whom she happened to meet weeks later at her exhibition at Indica gallery, Yoko Ono: Unfinished Paintings and Objects… and the rest is history!
When Two Clouds Meet
Cage premiered his composition 0’00” in Tokyo in 1962. This piece, which he dedicated to Yoko and Toshi is also known as ‘4:33’ No. 2’.
“I was creating similar work to John Cage, but I felt slightly different to him, too. We had arguments when we toured Japan together in 1962. He did a piece called 4’ 33” (a conceptual work consisting of purely ambient sounds with no contribution from musicians at all) and I didn’t know why it had to last a specific period of time. Why did it have to be four minutes and 33 seconds? He talked about how in the West you had to have a frame, so he dedicated a work to me called “0’ 00”. – Yoko
His famous work ‘4:33’ is actually an experiment in silence, the findings of which conclude that there is no such thing as complete silence. He staged the work in Woodstock, New York in 1952. David Tudor sat at a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, without playing a single note. He opened and closed the keyboard lid 3 times to signify distinct periods of silence. Ambient noises in became the actual music.
Cage’s written or suggested scores paralleled Yoko’s way of ‘transcribing’ sounds. He was also greatly inspired by Asian culture, especially the I Ching, Buddhism and Haiku.
The original score of Cage’s 0’00” (4’ 33” No. 2) consists of only one sentence: “In a situation having maximum amplification, or none (or both), perform a disciplined action.”
(See photo of the score below).
The next day, he added further instructions, allowing interruptions of the action, not repeating the same action in another performance, and that the action should not be the performance of a musical composition. This was his third and final work in his series corresponding to the 3 lines of Haiku poetry.
Audio from a John Cage performance of 0’00” (a series of banging noises) is echoed in Yoko’s ‘I’m Alive’ (Between My Head and the Sky, 2009).
Yoko, John Lennon & John Cage discuss vocalizing on Bank Street:
The greatest mash-up ever!
Cage “Silence” & John & Yoko’s “Two Minutes of Silence” – WITH LYRICS!
Cage’s pieces were “to be performed in any way, by anyone”. This was a crucial aspect of Yoko’s work as well, as were her instructional scores. The score for 0’00” is dedicated to Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi. Yoko reciprocated by dedicating some of her own works to Cage, referring to him as ‘Jesus Christ’ (as he was so highly revered in the music world, and his initials were J.C.)
Yoko felt unimportant as merely a participant in Cage and Ichiyanagi’s performances. This led to a period of severe depression in 1962, a suicide attempt and hospitalization, and to divorcing Toshi. She did not make music again for many years.
In Yoko’s Sky Piece to Jesus Christ, members of an orchestra are wrapped in gauze bandages during a concert rendering them unable to play their instruments. The title is not a reference to Christ, but to John Cage, who was celebrated in the avant-garde music world “like Jesus.” In this piece, the sky represents freedom, contrasting with the bondage of the musicians. This was first performed at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. It has become a popular piece, performed by other artists worldwide.
Yoko performs Wrap Piece on the Jonathan Ross Show in May 2013.
Also see: Yoko: Wrapping Event
In 1987 Yoko was invited to participate in a John Cage 75th birthday tribute along with several other artists. She created a bronze version of her all-white chess set, ‘Play It by Trust’. This led to Yoko’s ‘comeback’ to the art world with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1989 – Yoko Ono: Objects, Films which travelled to many cities as The Bronze Age. It had been 15 years since Yoko’s 1972 This Is Not Here retrospective at Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY. She had not exhibited her art since then. As part of Yoko’s return to the art scene. Original transparent works from the 1960s were presented side-by-side with bronzed versions of the same pieces.
Yoko Ono and John Cage remained close friends until his passing on August 12, 1992 at age 79.
John Cage, Yoko Ono and Peggy Guggenheim in Japan
Piano Walk 1962
John Cage 0’00” For Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi 1962
Performing Sky Piece for Jesus Christ
John Cage (and Merce Cunningham’s) letter to Yoko on December 9, 1980 – the day after John Lennon’s death: