MB: What was your earliest experience of making music?
YO: My father, who wanted me to be a pianist, made me start practising when I was two and a half years old. At the age of four or thereabouts I was sent to Jiyu-Gakuen, where they gave you a formal music training. Up till then, I was trained at home.
MB: When the Chambers Street performances were happening in New York in the early 1960s, how important was music to your work?
YO: Music was always an integral part of my life. However, in the period you speak of, most male composers – and I didn’t know any female ones – frowned, sulked, grimaced and scowled at the very mention of me. Male musicians, in general, commented on the fact that my work was too emotional and theatrical. Composers spoke of me as a painter who was a dilettante in music. Artists spoke of me as a composer who dabbled in art.
I finally said I was glad I was a dilettante whose ideas were not limited by ‘professionalism’. In hindsight this period was a blessing in disguise for me. I became more in tune with the power within me rather than being affected by the words of anaemic intellectuals. John [Lennon] commented: ‘They tried to sweep you under the carpet but they couldn’t.’ John made the same comment when we came back together again after the famous ‘separation’. I’ve heard him say that to me a few times after his passing, too.
MB: Did music play a large role within Fluxus?
YO: Most Fluxus artists were musicians as well.
MB: Were you interested in Jazz?
YO: I was as interested in Jazz as I was in Western Classical music, avant-garde music and Eastern music. I think most serious musicians are like that, just as most serious artists are interested in all schools of art. Of course, I was into my own work first. I thought I had the answer.
MB: Were there particular musicians or composers whose work you found inspiring or informative?
YO: I was inspired by so many composers in the history of music, there is no way to highlight one or two. John Cage inspired all of us contemporary composers by sticking to his guns, and that’s what I did.
MB: How did you feel about the Beatles as a group?
YO: I thought all four of them were very talented, witty and pleasant. I think they were all nice to me until John and I became an item.
MB: You recorded Two Virgins (1968) and Life With The Lions (1969) quite early on in your relationship with John Lennon. What was the process of making those records?
YO: Two Virgins came out of John and my initial getting-togetherness. Life With Lions, too, was like the musical process of us getting together. They are like the notes of two scientists experimenting in new musical attitudes and sounds. It may have been more interesting for other composers than for the public.
MB: With Fly (1971) and Approximately Infinite Universe (1973) you recorded two groundbreaking albums in the rock genre. How did those records relate to the broader direction of your artistic practice?
YO: I used to write songs in twelve-tone style, influenced heavily by Schönberg and Berg. I threw a lot of dissonant chords and complicated meters around, and made it almost too hard to sing. This was from listening to my father, who had told me that composers stretched the technical possibilities of performance, requiring the performers to stretch their technical skills to match it, and that was how music advanced in its complexity, mirroring the complexity of our society. In Pop and Rock you went for the heartbeat. I loved it. It was fairly simple in terms of technique from where I came. My bones relaxed, and I became more me.
MB: The basis of all your art seems to be predominantly political in a pro-active sense of demonstrating strategies for change or reflection. How political did you find the Rock scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, or was much of it simply a form of fashion?
YO: I think all of us artists and musicians had very genuine feelings. That was the most important thing about those days in the 1960s. Rock may have become more sophisticated later, but that’s something else. A drop of a genuine feeling goes a long way. It’s powerful, it’s infectious, and it gives a lot of energy to people.
MB: How important is live performance to you?
YO: It’s just depends on my mood. Sometimes I think it’s everything, and other times I think recording in a studio is much more fun. But like anything else, once I say it’s important, it ceases to be fun, and then it’s not important any more.
MB: Was it easy working with your son Sean’s group IMA on your last album, Rising?
YO: We both went forward long time ago. If you ask Sean now, ‘How’s IMA?’ He’d say, ‘Excuse me?’ That’s how we both are, mom and son alike. It’s always great working with him. Listen to ‘Mulberry’ on Blueprint For a Sunrise (I managed to slip that in, didn’t I?) and you will be surprised how well we do it.
MB: Tell me a little about the writing and recording of the new CD.
YO: Blueprint For a Sunrise, I think, is my best work so far! As usual, I followed my inner urge to record. But I felt a strong presence of the old rebellious me making the decisions in the process. The timing could not have been more terrible, I thought, with a big sigh and a chuckle at the same time. The album was made when Americans were enjoying the longest period of peace and prosperity. And here I was singing about abuse and disaster in the middle of it! People would think I was out of my mind, I thought … though you might say that there was nothing new about that! The thing was, I woke up in the middle of the night, a few times, hearing people screaming. I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I knew I wasn’t hearing something outside my window. The scream sounded eerie, like something from another planet. Then on 11 September the most unbelievable disaster happened, as you know. First, I didn’t connect it with what I kept hearing in the middle of the night. Once I connected, I got chills. I’m still in shock a little. Maybe when I was making the album I was picking up some stuff about 11 September without knowing. Maybe I was led to make this CD for a reason. Who knows?
MB: Do you think that the political edge of music been removed?
YO: Just by being real we are affecting this world, which is getting more and more unreal. Hey! Get real!
Interview by Michael Bracewell for Frieze 64, Jan-Feb 2002