Yoko Ono's Secret Piece

September 5, 2009
Joel Chadabe

Ear to the Earth 09 will take place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, October 8, 9 and 10, at Judson Church in New York City. It was Bill Blakeney's (see the photo) idea to open the series on October 8 with Yoko Ono's Secret Piece.

The score is a page of music paper with a single note—f above middle-c—drawn on it and with instructions to a performer to play the note in a secluded place between 5 and 8am. Bill saw beyond the simplicity of the score to think of it as an interaction with nature. More, he understood that Yoko Ono was providing the performer with a specific experience. To the collective historical knowledge of all of us that were involved in this performance, Secret Piece was the first musical composition to be based on a concept of engagement with the environment. And the concept of art as experience was a deeply appreciated idea.

Bill assembled a fearless group of musicians, artists, technicians, and a lawyer to accompany him to a secluded place far north of his normal habitat in Toronto. His goal was not only to perform the piece, but to record in audio and image the performance in such a way that it could be presented in a non-secluded concert hall in New York and that the audience could be made to feel a part of it. On Friday, June 12, 2009, armed with plenty of battery-powered audio and video gear as well as a reasonable supply of adult refreshments, the group proceeded to its destination at the Nekabong Hunting & Fishing Club in the Pontiac area of Quebec Province. Bill sets the course:

Bill Blakeney

In addition to Bill and myself, the group consisted of Warren Cooper, Thomas Galligan, Terrence O'Brien, Lorne Reitzenstein, Reinhard Reitzenstein, and Gayle Young. Beautiful and indeed secluded, the Nekabong Hunting & Fishing Club was made available to the group by Tom Galligan, a member of the Club. It included a lodge and various outlying buildings. It did not include electricity, telephone, internet, or cell phone possibilities.

The lodge

Tom Galligan

The lodge, surrounded by forest, faced a most beautiful lake. In fact, the area contained several lakes. Exploration, organization, and in general getting to know the terrain preceded our plans for the next morning, which was to start with the placement of equipment at 4am.

The group
Left to right: Thomas Galligan, Lorne Reitzenstein, Reinhard Reitzenstein,
Terrence O'Brien, Joel Chadabe, Gayle Young, Bill Blakeney, Warren Cooper

At the appointed time, Warren Cooper began to set up a video and audio recording station by the shore of the lake. The video was high definition and the audio included shotgun mics. Lorne Reitzenstein, Reinhard Reitzenstein, and Gayle Young took a rowboat across the lake to record from another vantage point. Bill Blakeney, Terrence O'Brien, and I set up different equipment at a location near the lodge.

Warren Cooper just before dawn

We started the recording at 5 on Saturday morning. And what followed was a spellbinding experience. Not being early, but being attentive. I was not the only one among us never before to have simply watched the sun come up and listened to the forest come alive. It was three hours but time flew by. The lake, the shadows, the reflections were beautiful in the transforming light. The sounds were fascinating, the overall texture hypnotic.

Shortly after sunrise

Bill Blakeney and Gayle Young

But, we concluded, we were an hour late. After our first morning on the job, we realized that the forest actually wakes up at 4am. We discussed it. We decided to record again on Sunday morning from 4 to 7am. Listen to a minute or two of the sample below. The sound is from one recorder only. But you hear, from different directions and varying distance, the multiple layers of activity.

The forest at 4am

Reactions? As Gayle put it, we had learned how to do it for the hypothetical next performance. And we learned that the forest orchestra, as Bill referred to it, starts playing well before 4am.

Gayle Young & Bill Blakeney

But the result, as it turned out, was stunning. We turned to Warren for a final comment. We asked him if he had advice for others to do similar things. His answer was universal:

Warren Cooper

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For more information on Yoko Ono's Secret Piece at Ear to the Earth 09,
go here:

EMF Productions site