Photo illustration by Renee Klahr / NPR; False images; Courtesy of Apple Records
NPR Music is turning the tables is a project conceived to challenge sexist and exclusive conversations about musical greatness. So far we have focused on reversing the traditional and patriarchal lists and stories of the best in popular music. But this time, it’s personal. By 2021, we are investigating our own relationships with the records we love and asking: How do we as listeners know when a piece of music is important to us? How do we free ourselves from institutional pressures on our taste while still taking into account the lessons of history? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from impeccable classics by big stars to subcultural revolutionaries and personal revelations. Because how certain music comes to occupy a central place in our lives is not just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective of the world.
The first time I heard Yoko Ono Ono plastic band, I was intimidated. The 1970 release, a counterpart to John Lennon’s celebrated solo debut of the same name, doesn’t lend itself to easy listening. The album opens with an immediate impact of energy: an insistent bass line, a dull thump, a screeching guitar. Then you hear Ono’s voice crying out the song title, “Why,” over and over: frenetic, intense, and often almost indistinguishable in guitar tone. On the five cutting edge rock tracks that follow, all centered around Ono’s unique and powerful voice, he doesn’t give up.
Not only was I intimidated by the music, but also by Ono herself. I came to the record without much knowledge that would have contextualized his music beyond a rudimentary sketch of pop culture (his relationship with The Beatles; his groundbreaking performance art) and a vague sense that decades of sexist and racist reaction to his work la they had impacted. legacy. Hearing that first time, I was intrigued and surprised, but also overwhelmed and a little alienated, not completely sure what to take from the music, a little worried, maybe, because I wasn’t to get it and never would.
That pressure came, in part, because I had been assigned to write about the record on the Turning the Tables list of the 150 best albums made by women. I agreed to accept the task even though I thought it deserved to give it to someone else, someone qualified, to write about it. And even though I didn’t feel worthy, I had a clear idea of how I thought worthy would feel. It would be a sense of legitimate authority, granted by experience; as if the record felt readable and understandable to me in a way that I could easily explain. But I didn’t feel any of those things – legitimate, authoritative, knowledgeable – the first time I heard the record. Either the second, or the third.
So I made an effort to legitimize myself and went to work researching. I looked for context where I could: in the descriptions of his most famous performance pieces; in excerpts from reviews of his music over several decades; on artist charts, from The B-52s to Sonic Youth and RZA, who cited her as an influence. As I read, I heard Ono plastic band on repeat, from its electrifying opening to Ono’s sweet command – “don’t worry” – at the close of the album. Learning about Ono’s place in the cosmos from avant-garde artists, and within a lineage of musicians whose work I knew well and admired, helped me hone the incredible range of expression in Ono’s voice, the way the songs they feel confrontational and intimate. , the magic in the relationship between his voice and the rest of the instrumentation. (I noticed the band was phenomenal: John Lennon on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, Ringo Starr on drums; on “AOS,” she plays with the Ornette Coleman Quartet). Over time, my intimidation began to give way to amazement. for the courage I heard on each track and for how edgy the record still sounded, decades after its release.
After all that, I wrote my blurb. Later, as I read the final list, my fear of the assignment began to seem silly to me. In context, my article was more or less indistinguishable from many of the others. I realized that some of the other writers had probably been involved in the exact same process as me in recent weeks (and, if not, at some point – probably multiple times! – in their careers). Something that in hindsight seems obvious caught my attention then: Of course, my article resembled other people’s; everyone, at some point, has to do their homework.
Months later, I found myself at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, watching Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon alone on an outdoor stage, yelling into a microphone. I was impressed. He was performing a piece called “Voice Piece for Soprano” included in Ono’s concept art book. Grapefruit.
The performance was part of the museum’s “Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington and the World,” a “one-night celebration of the artist’s pioneering experimental sound and performing arts.” Joining Gordon on the lineup were Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzi Bougatsos, whose wild and forceful singing, even on a cover of Plastic Ono Band’s “Why,” majestically channeled Ono’s music, and Moor Mother, whose electronic soundscapes and performances Ono’s work felt visceral and dazzling. . But it was Gordon’s performance, and that piece in particular, that caught my attention the most.
“Voice Piece for Soprano” has these instructions:
1. against the wind
2. against the wall
3. against the sky
Gordon followed the checklist, moving purposefully across the stage and howling into the microphone, and the crowd watched in silence, rapt. I remembered my first listens Ono plastic band, the way Ono’s wordless chant had at first seemed indecipherable to me but, upon hearing it repeatedly, how his joints of pain, fear and despair had become unmistakable. Here, too, Gordon’s cry felt deeply moving, even without any particular meaning stated. It seemed like he was pushing the limits of his physical body, as if it came from both years of practice and instinct at the same time (a binary that, as any improv artist will tell you, is actually not that binary at all). And it also pushed us, as listeners, into a situation that felt intense but delicate. Perhaps in a different crowd, where everyone was not so willing to follow Gordon, an awkward laugh might have broken out. I couldn’t help wondering what passersby within earshot must have been thinking on the National Mall. But those of us in that audience trusted her, and she trusted us, and the distance between the performer and the listener collapsed into an experience. shared. (It also fell further apart, when Gordon, performing an Ono-inspired piece of his own, walked up to the crowd and brushed his guitar against the crowd members.) The instructions may have been simple, but as Ono knew, they were sufficient. . The scream alone made something powerful and unique happen for anyone who witnessed it.
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Somehow watching that performance felt like the opposite of my intensive weekend session. That experience, of trying to know Ono plastic bandHe had asked me to be open to work, promising to feel better equipped to understand the album, its impact and its legacy on the other side. I got there with simple questions, the same ones I could have asked in any research project: What do I need to know to understand this? What is the best way to bridge the gap between ignorance and experience (or, put another way, between intimidation and trust)? My nervousness about the task made me feel isolated, and perhaps it would suffice to say Ono plastic band changed my life with the confidence-building reminder that everyone has to start somewhere; no one is born an expert.
But then the experience at the Hirshhorn called for a different kind of opening: listening to unfamiliar things, being the audience the artist was looking for, following to an unexpected place. In return, he also offered me a different kind of knowledge, not just about the music itself, but about how to approach it. After that performance, I was not intimidated by Ono’s music, nor was I an expert on it; my relationship with him didn’t really fit on that axis. I felt like I deserved to be in that crowd simply because I was there with everyone else, and I was able to attribute meaning to that experience because I had been open to it. He changed the questions he wanted to ask. Maybe it would be better for me, that concert suggested, to approach something that seemed overwhelming, strange or intriguing by asking myself: What kinds of experiences can I have with this? What kind of knowledge could it turn out? What are you asking me for?
Revisiting Ono plastic band Since then it has given me the opportunity to ask those questions about this album again. Listening now, I recognize the aspects of this record that initially intimidated me, and those that I came to love with time and study, and the parts of Ono’s music that came to life in that performance. The album has started to feel familiar to me, and that is also a kind of knowledge. Familiarity might even have been what I was looking for when I was first asked to write about Ono plastic bandBut spending so much time thinking about this album has changed the meaning of that concept for me, or maybe it just took it out of the center of my definition of legitimate knowledge. Actually, it is a reminder that all these different ways of knowing a record can depend on each other; Doing your homework is a form of experience, and so is a practiced willingness to be open to something new and unexpected. Rather than trying to assign a fixed meaning to a record, it seems truer to me to admit that meaning can grow, expand, and change depending on the context. Next time I visit again, I hope I have a new set of questions to ask. I don’t think I’m an expert on that then; I don’t think that’s really my goal. It’s good to note that the answers you get depend on the questions you ask.
Of course, it is possible that I would have realized all this much earlier, when reading the original review of the 1971 Lester Bangs album. “You will like this one,” he wrote in Rolling Stone. “Give it a try, and at least a handful of taps before your verdict. Something’s going on here.”