April 30, 2014  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Yoko Ono’s Secret Piece
Yoko Ono Grapefruit

Yoko Ono. Grapefruit. 1964. Artist’s book (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press). Offset on paper, 5 1/2 x 5 1/16″ (13.9 x 13.8 x 3.1 cm) (overall, closed)

Many of the works featured in the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33” were created around 1960, as a generation of artists and students of John Cage reacted to the radical possibilities opened up by his 4’33”. The score had finally been published eight years after its first performance at Woodstock in 1952. La Monte Young, George Brecht, and Jackson Mac Low were among those who attended Cage’s classes in experimental music at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan between 1956 and 1961, and they began collectively to interrogate the poetic relationship between the moment of composition and the future action that a score implied.

Yoko Ono was at the forefront of this experimentation (although she didn’t attend Cage’s classes), creating unique and subtly subversive instruction pieces for private contemplation or public performance. She was also a catalytic figure in bringing together colleagues who were interested in the avant-garde music and “event scores,” hosting a series of concerts in her downtown Manhattan loft between December 1960 and June 1961 at which many of her peers premiered their works. When Ono did meet Cage, at a lecture by D. T. Suzuki in the late 1950s, she evidently recognized a kindred spirit “in the things he opened up, in emphasizing that it was alright to be unique,” and they became close friends and collaborators.

Ono’s book Grapefruit (1964) appears in There Will Never Be Silence and is available to read in the accompanying study area. Assembled over a period of 11 years, the book contains 150 instruction pieces and poems that emerged from her diverse activities in different contexts and geographical locations. One of Ono’s Grapefruit works, Secret Piece (written a year after 4’33”), is emblematic of how the artists’ independent activities intersected with Cage’s ideas about the significance of everyday sounds.

Yoko Ono. Secret Piece, in Grapefruit. 1964

Yoko Ono. Secret Piece, in Grapefruit. 1964. Artist’s book (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press). Offset on paper, 5 1/2 x 5 1/16″ (13.9 x 13.8 x 3.1 cm) (overall, closed)

Secret Piece was written in private in 1953 (and published in Grapefruit in 1964), when Ono was just 19 and about to move to New York. She had previously been the first female student in the prestigious philosophy course at Gakushūin University in Japan. Before that, she received classical music training, and one of her composition exercises involved listening to sounds in nature and translating them into musical notation. The first version of Secret Piece (printed on the lower portion of the page) shows the essential impossibility of such tasks. It has one held F note in the bass clef and, where performance directions would usually be written, the inscription, “with the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn.” The simplicity of the gesture belied radical redrawing of the hierarchies between composer, performer, and listener. Ono’s haiku-like text version of the score was written a short while afterwards (on the upper portion of the page) and removed the musical stave altogether. Instead, it offered a verbal instruction that could be realized in reality or in the mind. It was a drastically different approach to birdsong than, for example, that of Olivier Messiaen, who debuted his awe-inspiring but intricately complex Réveil des oiseaux for piano and orchestra that same year. The simplicity of Ono’s composition suggested, on the other hand, that any person could be a composer or performer, just as long as they paid enough attention to the beauty of the everyday sounds around them. There was no need for a conventional orchestra or an elite musical education.

“Art is not a special thing. Anyone can do it. Making art does not have to be so unusual. What I mean is that middle-aged men and housewives, your neighbors can also do it…. If everybody were to become an artist, what we call “Art” would disappear. I think it would be fine if this were to happen and [what I have envisioned] becomes a reality.” (Yoko Ono in 1964, in Midori Yoshimoto (transcribed and translated) “Some Young People – From Nonfiction Theater,” Review of Japanese Culture and Society, December 2005)