Gayle Young Plays Yoko Ono’s Secret Piece


Yoko Ono created Secret Piece partly in response to the challenge of transcribing the sounds of bird calls into music notation. A photo of the score appears in Midori Yashimoto's book Into Performance: Japanese Women Artists in New York (Rutgers University Press, 2005). The score shows treble and bass clefs, the notation of F below middle C as tied half notes, plus a hand-written text, with the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn. The date 1953, Summer is handwritten at the bottom of the page. The following guidelines are typed at the top of the page:
Decide on one note that you want to play.
Play it with the following accompaniment:
The woods from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. in summer.

Here are the sounds. Gayle Young is playing the Amaranth, an instrument she invented ...

Secret Piece was the first composition in which Yoko Ono moved beyond the limitations of conventional music notation to include language, and is now recognized as one of the earliest examples of conceptual art. Ono calls this type of work an instruction, intended for realization by viewers either as a performance or an exercise for the imagination.

Performance, as a distinct art form, helped artists free themselves from the conventions of art. Ono, observing the hierarchical nature of the art world, wanted to reduce the status of artistic creation, connecting it to everyday life. She openly discussed arts practice as a means of survival, providing a sense of her experience at the time in a 1999 e-mail to Yoshimoto: Art and music were necessities. But they were not enough, either. We needed new rituals, in order to keep our sanity. The ritual engagement with the natural world, which is inherent in Secret Piece, speaks of the individual's integration with their immediate environment. For many years the piece was presented as a work of visual art, taking the silent role of stimulating the imaginations of its viewers. In recent years it has become known through live performances at outdoor events.
The Story Behind This Recording
In June 2009, in preparation for a concert performance of Secret Piece at Judson Church in New York City, Joel Chadabe, William Blakeney, and Gayle Young brought a group of video and audio recordists to a remote location to record the dawn in a Canadian forest at the summer solstice. An eight-channel sound recording, directed by Warren Cooper, was realized over a three-hour period from four different locations around a lake. This was meticulously edited to a surround-sound version for the concert performance at Judson Church, which was accompanied by a four-screen video of the forest lake. The F in the score was played by Esther Lamneck on clarinet, Madeleine Shapiro on cello, and Gayle Young on the Amaranth, a unique twenty-four-string instrument Young designed and built in 1980.

Go here for the Canadian forest and the concert.

Go here for Gayle Young discussing the Amaranth.

The performance heard on this CD was realized by Bob Doidge at Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton, Ontario, this time with Gayle Young playing solo on the Amaranth. All twenty-four of the instrument's strings were tuned to f and were played using a wide variety of performance techniques, ranging from bowing to percussion, in response to the forest sounds. Young gained insight for her performance from Midori Yoshimoto's writings about the importance of Secret Piece in the history of performance art. Young also listened again to Ono's voice pieces, discerning the attention Ono paid to acoustic detail and continuity of texture. Young brought this perspective, as well as her years of experience with music related to the natural soundscape, to her playing on the string instrument, often bringing out textural and noise-based timbres. This recording consists of Young's single continuous performance.

This CD can be understood as an extension of the role of Secret Piece as an instruction guiding an exercise for the imagination. The audio recording of the dawn forest has been condensed to less than half its original three-hour length, with its spatial range reduced to stereo sound. Young's Amaranth performance recorded in the studio was influenced by memories of that summer morning by the lake, played in response to the accelerated sequence of dawn sounds. We listeners are not beside that lake. For us, as for viewers of the score in a book or an art gallery, Secret Piece is an invitation to imagine the experience of actually being there.

This CD is available through Musicworks.

Produced by William Blakeney and Gayle Young.
Executive Producer: Joel Chadabe for the Electronic Music Foundation.
Sound Recordists: Warren Cooper, Terry O'Brien, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Lorne Reitzenstein.
Digital assembly by Amy King and William Blakeney, mixed by Bob Doidge.Video Editing: Rob Allen.
Special thanks to Thomas D. Galligan and the Nekabong Hunting & Fishing Club.
Secret Piece by Yoko Ono, courtesy of Universal Music Publishing Inc.
License No: 31338049.