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Exile makes unlikely comrades of Ono and Wolpe

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This Thursday, New York University musicologist Brigid Cohen lectures at Harvard on early works by Yoko Ono, the performance-art happenings Ono produced in the late 1950s and early ’60s, culminating with her November 1961 Carnegie Hall debut. Ono, having dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, arrived in New York City in 1956, moving in the same circles as many artists later associated with the resolutely experimental and conceptual Fluxus movement. But her path was her own; long before her Beatles-fueled celebrity, she was already going her unique, determined way.

Cohen is best-known for scholarship on another, seemingly different composer: Stefan Wolpe. A German Jew who fled the Nazi regime, an atonal modernist with an unusually individual bent, Wolpe had a restless curiosity that made him a mentor to an astonishingly wide range of musicians, and he became one of Ono’s first and closest friends after her move to New York. There was some musical connection: Ono’s fascination with the avant-garde was sparked by her love of the 12-tone techniques that Wolpe made so idiosyncratically expressive. But Cohen has argued (in “Limits of National History: Yoko Ono, Stefan Wolpe, and Dilemmas of Cosmopolitanism,” published in the summer 2014 issue of Musical Quarterly) that their friendship was based on something deeper — their shared status as exiles.


Ono, too, was a refugee, twice over. Born into one of Japan’s most distinguished families, Ono was exiled first at the end of World War II, when her home was destroyed in the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. The family, in straitened circumstances, relocated to a village in the mountains surrounding Nagano. The second exile was a result of Ono’s art: After she decided to pursue the radical nature of her ambitions in New York, Ono’s family disowned her.

Cohen, in her 2014 paper, dives deep into two crucial works — Wolpe’s 1954 “Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano,” crystalline modernism laced with marks of Middle Eastern music, hints of tango, quasi-dadaist found objects (a jar of nails makes percussive appearances), even specified choreography for the players; and Ono’s 1961 “AOS — to David Tudor”: actors reading newspapers by match-light, recordings of Hitler and Hirohito, dancers’ limbs thrust through a curtain of gauze, a fragmented but thoroughgoing vision.


In Cohen’s reading, both works don’t so much describe the exile experience as channel its distinctive sensations of both freedom and rootlessness — a modernism eschewing the movement’s tendency to aesthetic dogma for a deliberate crossing of boundaries.

Matthew Guerrieri

Brigid Cohen lectures on “Ono in Opera, 1961” on Thursday at 5 p.m. in the Davison Room at Harvard University’s Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library (admission is free; www.music.fas.harvard.edu).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.