Yoko Ono has run the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club six times in a row with her chart-topper “Move On Fast.” Though new to the music mix world, she is one of the most infamous artists in the high art world, with over half a century of avant-garde practice. Known by many as the wife of John Lennon, she was the star when they met at one of her shows. Ono was born in Japan in 1933, and trained in classical music before gaining recognition as an important member of Fluxus (meaning ‘to flow’), an international network of artists and composers in the 1960s. Ono is a conceptual artist who uses performance art, installation, and music with equal ease. Her foundation Imagine Peace is known worldwide as a force in non-violence activism. Yoko Ono will be a special guest at this year’s SXSW in Austin. The following is excerpted from a March 3 phone interview with Current Arts Writer Scott Andrews.
How are your recent pop music hits related to your early performance and installation work?
Well, you know, I’m mostly still me. Not much has changed since — what is it? — 1950 on or something? I just like to do what comes to me at the time and see.
I have noticed that your work has a strong emphasis on the transient nature of life, its preciousness.
Yeah, move on fast!
Imagine Peace recently gave out the Courage Awards. Can you tell us something about that, how the recipients were chosen?
I’ve been around for 50 years, so I know who are the very important people in the arts and music fields, important in the sense of having been so courageous. Most people don’t think that you have to be courageous to be an artist or a musician, but you do.
Speaking of courageous, I’ve always been impressed that your work, even though it is so much part of the avant-garde, has been radically different.
You seem to be making human gestures rather than simply high art.
Yes, I think that is a very interesting point. I think that in the avant-garde, too, they felt that difference, and not everybody really liked it. It is easier to ignore your self, ignore your humanness, and just sort of play around with music or whatever as form that is outside of you. I did not do that. I used my own body, my own voice, and my emotions.
I had an opportunity recently to look at a digital recording of your 1960s performance “Cut Piece” again. It still rattled me quite a bit.
Oh, really? Well, you see, I was rattled, too, but I don’t show that, do I?
No, you don’t. Your work seems to be somehow outside of the master narrative, how is that?
When you think of the art world and the music world as the center of the universe, then I am an outsider. But I think that most people are outsiders, and they give you a lot of things very important for art and music.
Why did you choose “Move on Fast,” first released in the early 1970s, to remix?
When I did “Wouldnit” to remaster, I thought that nobody is going to really want to do it because it is sort of twisted. But it seemed like it was done well. … You don’t think of dance charts as artsy, you know what I mean? But I think there is something really going on there. Especially amongst the remixers. So I thought, “Why not ‘Move on Fast’? It’s very difficult, do you mind?” And of course they did it, they took the challenge, let’s put it that way.
How did you choose your collaborators `such as Dave Aude or Richard Morel` for the last three albums?
I didn’t know them at all — I am from a different art appeal, so to say. But now I am starting to see that these are very sensitive and talented people. I didn’t go around saying, “Now, please …” I didn’t knock the doors saying, “Please come out, come out.” They were people who understood my work in the most sensitive way, and they didn’t mind doing this.
Would you tell us a bit about your musical collaborations with Sean `Lennon`, from both the creative and sentimental level?
Well, the fact that he understands my work, I was really surprised about that. Because I never explained about my work, and John didn’t explain his work to Sean. We didn’t discuss about the Beatles, we just wanted to give him a chance to be in his own space.
But Sean being what he is, he’s a very sensitive musician himself, and naturally he had to go into the Beatle catalogue and John’s catalogue and my catalogue, seems like. He knows all the intros, chords, everything. It’s amazing. So that really made me relax.
So all I had to do was, “Can we do this like ‘Give Me Something’ you know? Of course he understands that. So that’s how we did it, but he is especially sensitive about not trying to put his vibe on my stuff, you know, in the sense that he wants to respect my creative ideas. And of course, if he didn’t do that there would have been some trouble.
(Laughter) “OK, Sean, what are you doing?” But no, he was very, very sensitive about my needs and my inspiration. So it was very easy to work with him. In other words, he understood it and he made it happen for me.
This is a new generation that is hearing the music, though in a different form. How have your audience and the reception of your music changed?
I have no idea! (Laughter) When I am onstage I am just doing it, you know. That is how it was from the beginning. When we went to Toronto, the Peace Festival, I thought we did a great thing. Later, people told me there were people in the front seats who were really upset, and screaming at me, and being angry at me. I said, “Really? I didn’t notice it.” Because I am right into what I am doing, so I don’t think, “Oh, is anyone really understanding it?” but I should be … Now a lot of young people come to my show. The reason why I know this is they all tell me, “Did you know you have a young audience?” … But I think that is normal, in a way. They were always young, my audience.
Well, I think eternally so.
Is there anything you would like to tell, especially young artists?
Just be yourself.
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