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Another side of Yoko Ono

The scraps of an archive often speak in ways that standard histories cannot. In 2005, I spent my days at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, a leading archive for twentieth-century concert music, where I transcribed the papers of the German-Jewish émigré composer Stefan Wolpe (1902-1971). The task was alternately exhilarating and grim. Wolpe had made fruitful connections with creators and thinkers across three continents, from Paul Klee to Anton Webern to Hannah Arendt to Charlie Parker. An introspective storyteller and exuberant synthesizer of ideas, Wolpe narrated a history of modernism in migration as a messy, real-time chronicle in his correspondence and diaries. Yet, within this narrative, the composer had also reckoned with more than his share of death and loss as a multiply-displaced Nazi-era refugee. He had preserved letters from friends as symbols of the ties that had sustained him, in some cases carrying them over dozens of precarious border crossings during his 1933 flight. By the 1950s, his circumstances had calmed down, after he had settled in New York following some years in Mandatory Palestine. Amidst his mid-century papers, I was surprised to come across a cache of artfully spaced poems typewritten on thick leaves of paper, with the attribution “Yoko Ono.” The poems included familiar, stark images of death, desolation, and flight. It was only later that I realized they responded not to Wolpe’s life history, but likely to Ono’s own. The poems inspired a years-long path of research that culminated in my article, “Limits of National History: Yoko Ono, Stefan Wolpe, and Dilemmas of Cosmopolitanism,” recently published in The Musical Quarterly.

Yoko Ono befriended Stefan Wolpe and his wife the poet Hilda Morley in New York City around 1957. Although of different backgrounds and generations, Wolpe and Ono were both displaced people in a city of immigrants. Both had been wartime refugees, and both endured forms of national exile, though in different ways. Ono had survived starvation conditions as an internal refugee after the Tokyo firebombings. She was twelve when her family fled the city to the countryside outside Nagano, while her father was stranded in a POW camp. By then, she had already felt a sense of cultural apartness, since she had spent much of her early childhood shuttling back and forth between Japan and California, following her father’s banking career. When she began her own career as an artist in New York in the 1950s, Ono entered what art historian Midori Yoshimoto has called a gender-based exile from Japan. Her career and lifestyle clashed with a society where there were “few alternatives to the traditional women’s role of becoming ryōsai kenbo (good wives and wise mothers).” Though Ono eventually became known primarily as a performance and visual artist, she identified first as a composer and poet. After she moved to the city to pursue a career in the arts, Ono’s family disowned her. It was around this time that she befriended the Wolpe-Morleys, who often hosted her at their Upper West Side apartment, where she “loved the intellectual, warm, and definitely European atmosphere the two of them had created.”

In 2008, I wrote a letter to Ono, asking her about the poems in Wolpe’s collection. Given her busy schedule, I was surprised to receive a reply within a week. She confirmed that she had given the poems to Wolpe and Morley in the 1950s. She also shared other poems and prose from her early adulthood, alongside a written reminiscence of Wolpe and Morley. She later posted this reminiscence on her blog several months before her 2010 exhibit “Das Gift,” an installation in Wolpe’s hometown Berlin dedicated to addressing histories of violence. The themes of the installation trace back to the earliest phase of her career when she knew Wolpe. During their period of friendship, both creators devoted their artistic projects to questions of violent history and traumatic memory, refashioning them as a basis for rehabilitative thought, action, and community.

Guggenheim Museum, 88th St. & 5th Ave., New York City. Under construction II, 12 November 1957. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Guggenheim Museum, 88th St. & 5th Ave., New York City. Under construction II, 12 November 1957. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Virtually no historical literature acknowledges Ono’s and Wolpe’s connection, which was premised on shared experiences of displacement, exile, and state violence. Their affiliation remains virtually unintelligible to standard art and music histories of modernism and the avant-garde, which tend to segregate their narratives along stable lines of genre, medium, and nation—by categories like “French symbolist poetry,” “Austro-German Second Viennese School composition,” and “American experimental jazz.” From this narrow perspective, Wolpe the German-Jewish, high modernist composer would have little to do with Ono the expatriate Japanese performance artist.

What do we lose by ignoring such creative bonds forged in diaspora? Wolpe and Ono both knew what it was to be treated as less than human. They had both felt the hammer of military state violence. They both knew what it was to not “fit” in the nation—to be neither fully American, Japanese, nor German. And they both directed their artistic work toward the dilemmas arising from these difficult experiences. The record levels of forced displacement during their lifetimes have not ended, but have only risen in our own. According to the most recent report from the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, “more people were forced to flee their homes in 2013 than ever before in modern history.” Though the arts cannot provide refuge, they can do healing work by virtue of the communities they sustain, with the call-and-response of human recognition exemplified in boundary-crossing friendships like Wolpe’s and Ono’s. And to recognize such histories of connection is to recognize figures of history as fully human.

Headline image credit: Cards and poems made for Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree and sent to Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington), 7 November 2010. Photo by Gianpiero Actis & Lidia Chiarelli. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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