Yoko Ono's "Mulberry": The Future Tense of History
Yoko Ono has written, "I think of my music more as a gyo (practice) than as a music."1 In this sense, the music is process oriented, rather than product oriented. Each musical performance is a moment-in-time, a searching for personal revelation, rather than a recording to exist in "past-time," to be commodified and packaged for passive consumption.
When one thinks of music like this, issues of "like" or "dislike" or of aesthetic pleasure connected to experience are less relevant. Listening to it is a visceral, physical experience—because it is real—located in the body, because external concessions such as tunefulness, regular rhythm and time scheme are surrendered to the personal exploration of thematic geography of the voice.
"Mulberry" has several incarnations that move backwards in time and backwards from the point of "art" to the moment of art's origin. The first version was the most recent; it was a live recording of the song made in early 2001 and released on Ono's album Blueprint for a Sunrise. The earlier version of the 1971 was a home recording made by Ono and John Lennon but not released until decades later as a bonus track on the CD re-release of The Wedding Album. The earliest version is the "original" version. It doesn't exist as a recording, only as the story of the origin of the song that Ono tells as a preface to the performance of the 2001 "Mulberry." In this way it is somewhat related to Ono's "Instruction Paintings," paintings created or realized according to a pre-written score. As one can only appreciate the art by both reading the instruction and looking at the painting, it is only by listening (actually and conceptually) to the three versions of "Mulberry" together that one can understand the many levels of meaning in this song.
At the beginning of the 2001 track, Ono tells the story of her life as a little girl with her brothers. The firebombing of Tokyo in 1943 destroyed whole districts of the downtown area—over 25 percent of the city had been incinerated, and thousands upon thousands of city dwellers fled the city to take refuge in the barns and outbuildings of farm families in the villages and towns around the capital. Ono relates what at first seems a simple childhood memory: she would go across the fields to the mulberry bushes to pick mulberries. Sometimes she would stay late, and the sun would begin to set, and she would run home across the field as the shadows lengthened. In her child's mind she imagined that ghosts—perhaps ghosts of Tokyo's dead—were chasing her across the fields to her home.
What kind of song might a child invent in order to capture a moment such as this? Should it be melodic? Should it conform to the twelve tones of the musical scale? Should it rhyme?
No one in the audience knows what might come next. A child's song for sure: the kind of tuneless, warbling singing that all children begin nearly at the same time they begin speech. Also with the same visceral and unashamed intensity that we will only allow ourselves as adults when we think we are alone at home or when we are in the shower in the morning. Ono sings, screams, wails, grunts and groans the single word "Mulberry" over the course of sixteen minutes, accompanied by Sean Ono Lennon's harsh guitar, imitating the gruesome, breathless noises of his mother's voice: a voice depicting the human suffering of that childhood moment carried across the years. A voice that accompanies not only the child's fears of those nights in the country, but back further to perhaps the son's secret seed—the firebombing of Tokyo itself.
The 1971 version of "Mulberry" is much different from the one that comes after it. It comes without the context of Yoko's public life. It moves us back in time—rather than adult son Sean, it's John, alive, warm, breathing again, who plays with Yoko, sometimes humming along, giving her verbal encouragement. The tragedies of her later life unpeel from her, and she sings to the young child in the countryside from a very different place. The later song is given from a stage to a live audience; this "secret version" is sung only to John, in the privacy of their own apartment, a collaborative work for an audience of two.
But Ono's music is nothing if not generative. It returns over and over again to the seed of all of her art, her very first published work, an "instruction score" called "Secret Piece" which reads:
Decide on the one note you want to play. Play with the following accompaniment: the woods from 5am to 8am.2
At first it may seem nearly absurdly minimal, but this is the true power of Ono's art, and her music: that a single note of the human musician against the landscape of the world and history can teach you what history means, what art means, what music means: it is an individual spirit opening up her own powerful expressiveness against the harmonic backdrop of the whole universe.
When the flame that burns cities to ash falls from the sky in endless anger, what is left for the child running scared across the fields to do? Any words past the essential diminish the tragedy, the fear, that one moment. One word will have to do: "mulberry." And the way Ono tricks, teases, expands and expels that one word—of sustenance, of innocence and survival—is her "practice" of historical revelation through the only instrument that could possibly "reveal" anything real: the individual human body.
1 Yoko Ono, "To the Wesleyan People," in YES Yoko Ono, ed. John Hendricks and Alexandra Munroe (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 288.
2 Yoko Ono, "Secret Piece," in Hendricks and Munroe, YES Yoko Ono, 230.