Yoko Ono's Secret Piece
The Ear to the Earth Festival 2009 took place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, October 8, 9 and 10, at Judson Church in New York City. Three musicians — Gayle Young, amaranth; Esther Lamneck, clarinet; and Madeleine Shapiro, cello —opened the festival on October 8 with Yoko Ono's Secret Piece.
It was Bill Blakeney’s idea to include Secret Piece in the festival. A friend had sent him the score, which is a page of music paper with a single note—f below middle-c—drawn on it and with instructions to a performer to play the note in a secluded place between 5 and 8am.
Bill understood the secluded place to be a forest near a lake in a place far enough away from machines that we wouldn’t hear their sounds. And he saw beyond the simplicity of the score to think of it as providing the performer with a specific experience that included a relationship with nature. His concept for the concert was to bring a forest and a lake into the concert hall through sound and to have some musicians play that f as the score dictates.
To record the sounds, 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 not-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 recording 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:
In addition to Bill and myself, the group included 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, 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 laying plans for the next morning, which was to start with the placement of equipment at 4am. Shortly after sunset, we convened.
Left to right: Thomas Galligan, Lorne Reitzenstein, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Terrence O’Brien, Joel Chadabe, Gayle Young, Bill Blakeney, Warren Cooper
At the appointed time before dawn, Warren Cooper began to set up a video and audio recording station by the shore of the lake.
Warren Cooper just before dawn
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.
We pushed the record button at 5 on Saturday morning. And what followed was a spellbinding experience. 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 dawn
Although the following sound is from one recorder, you do hear, from different directions and varying distance, the multiple layers of activity.
The sounds of the forest
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.
Bill Blakeney & Gayle Young
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 even before 4am.
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:
— Joel Chadabe, first published Arts Electric, September 5, 2009; revised June 22, 2014