film studies

Ep. 24: Voice of Yoko (Amy Skjerseth on Yoko Ono)

Phantom Power‘s Amy Skjerseth brings us the story of perhaps the most famous vocal performance artist and avant-garde musician whose actual work doesn’t get the attention it deserves: Yoko Ono. Collaborator with the Fluxus group in the early 60s, creator of performances such as Cut Piece and her Bed In with John Lennon in the late 1960s, director of experimental films such as 1970’s Fly, and recording artist of experimental pop albums such as that Fly’s soundtrack… Despite this large body of work, her most famous role was that of wife to that guy in that band—a performance that made her the target of misogynous and racist criticism that persists to this day.

As Amy points out, much of this criticism centered on the sound of Yoko Ono’s voice. Of course, as we’ve explored on this show before, listening to the other with a racist or sexist ear is nothing new. But in Ono’s case, this prejudicial listening is compounded by the fact that, years before the emergence of punk rock, she was pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable vocal expression for anyone, let alone a woman—moaning, wailing, chortling, and screaming.

The vast majority of listeners immediately dismissed these sounds as a punchline. On today’s show, we’re going to actually listen. What is the purpose and meaning and effect of Ono’s vocal artistry? We’re exploring it in her recorded work, in her feminist and pacifist political agenda, and most of all, in her film Fly, in which she uses her voice to destroy boundaries between sound and touch, human and animal, self and other.

This episode includes elements from an audio essay Amy published at [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies.

Music by Yoko Ono, John Lennon, John Cage, Tanya Tagaq, and Graeme Gibson, as well as “Crickets, Birds, Summer Ambient” by Nikodemus Christian.

You can hear most of the music again on this Phantom Power Spotify Playlist.

Yoko Ono’s film Fly is available on MUBI. The soundtrack has been reissued by Secretly Canadian.

You can hear Yoko Ono’s Twitter response to Trump (November 11, 2016) here.