Yoko Ono has spent nearly 50 years on the front lines as a challenging, provocative artist, from her early-’60s work as a visual artist on the New York avant-garde scene to her legendary work with third husband John Lennon up through 21st century collaborations with everyone from Cat Power to DJ Spooky. Now, for the 39th anniversary of Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” Ono has released a series of remixes based on her re-recording of this classic tune. Here, the veteran world-shaker talks about her undying idealism, her peace-promoting web presence, and how it all fits into her multifarious musical activities.
How do you view the artist’s role as a catalyst for sociopolitical change?
I think all the people who are participating in the art world have a very good chance of doing a lot for the world. And of course scientists, they have a very good chance of changing the world for us in a good way, and they’re doing that. They found the stem cells; they found out about DNA. Where are we going? It seems like we’re gonna be in a place where nobody has to die unless they want to, and we’ll just be young forever. We don’t have to be scared about that, it’s a beautiful world we’re stepping into.
What do you think our prospects for peace are now, compared to 1969?
At that time, all of us expressed our feelings for peace and the war did stop. This time, I don’t know. Of course there’s a lot more people in the world, and things are on a larger scale. It’s not a time when you can just walk around the block with flags and say “peace.” You have to think about so many angles about how to deal with this thing, and that’s what we’re doing. Click into Imaginepeace.com and you’ll see what we’re doing.
Why did you decide to release the “Give Peace a Chance” remixes on the song’s 39th anniversary rather than the 40th?
Well, we can start now and really celebrate on the 40th. A lot of things are going to happen on the 40th. But whether it’s 39th or 40th, this is the time that we need to give peace a chance. That’s how I feel about it. And I’m still on the peace side, so I’m gonna keep on promoting it. I’m really promoting Imaginepeace.com, and people are really clicking in there — incredible numbers of people.
You’re making the remixes available as downloads. Do you believe digital media is the future of music?
Well, I don’t know if it’s the future of music. Everything keeps on changing, so I can’t say exactly, but it seems like it’s going that way. Of course it’s easy to say, “This is just free music.” But you don’t say that about somebody making a car in a factory. This is something that we really put all our efforts into — making good music. So music is also a commodity in that sense. You can’t just say, “Let’s get it free.” But one day maybe everything’s gonna be free. That’s understandable, because civilization would get to the point where we share everything together. We didn’t get to that point yet. It’s good if music is going to keep on communicating, and I think people are starting to see that we have to have control over it. I think that wherever it’s going is going to be a healthier direction.
You started out on the avant-garde art scene. How does that inform your musical methods?
I was always avant-garde, even when I was a little girl. My mother took me to a kind of early education in music when I was 4 or 5 in Japan — a very special school. And the first thing I was doing was learning music, harmony, and writing songs. This was in the ’30s. The homework we had was to listen to different sounds and noises of that day and transpose them into musical notes. Isn’t that amazing? In the 1930s! Japan had a very advanced avant-garde scene, from the 1920s I think — the Russian influence. So the first art that I was into was music. I think most people think of me as an artist before a composer. Of course, I’m one of those people you might think jack of all trades: Whenever I’m inspired I just do it. So sometimes it comes in the form of a painting or sculpture, or classical music, or whatever it is. But I don’t stick to one thing so much.
What made you choose dance remixes as your medium for a political message?
I chose that instead of being confrontational. Being confrontational, there’s a backlash each time. And of course, I’m a very confrontational person. People say, “What is she talking about?" But I’d like to think that we can keep on dancing, and dance through life. It’s very important, the rhythm of it: Even if there’s no music, there’s music in your head. That doesn’t mean just physical; there’s conceptual dance as well. Even when you’re doing business or trying to make a deal or something, there’s a certain rhythmic dance in your mind that makes it easier.
Did having other artists remix your songs for your Open Your Box project point you toward ideas like this one?
Of course, Open Your Box did it. I used to criticize myself for being so rigid about things in terms of other people remixing things. Most of them wanted to remix “Walking on Thin Ice,” and I felt very protective about that song, because John and I did it together. There’s an incredible memory of that, and I didn’t want people to touch it and remix it and all that, so each time I’d say “No, no.” And then somebody came and said “Well how about ‘Open Your Box’?” And I was making my next album at the time, and I was very busy in the studio, thinking about music and concentrating on this thing called Blueprint for a Sunrise. And I just kind of said “Okay, do it, do it.” But then, just around the time that I had forgotten totally about it, people said “You want to listen to it?” And it was incredible. I was starting to cry; I couldn’t believe it. For the first time people were starting to understand my music — that’s how I felt. It was so beautiful. And then I realized that the songs — most of the songs were originally like three-minute statements — the remixers were trying to put air in it — air and wind, beautiful spring air, beautiful summer air, that kind of thing, into the song by elongating it into dance music. I’d just like to say, “Let’s dance, and let’s keep dancing. Don’t stop, we’ll just keep dancing.”