What happened to you on Sunday night when Kim Gordon started screaming? Maybe you felt your capillaries go frosty. Or maybe you collapsed in laughter. Maybe you cheered. Or ducked. Or maybe you tightened up, unsure of how to feel about the forever-cool co-founder of Sonic Youth channeling the delirium of a thousand slasher movies into one cosmic wonder-wail.
The point is you had options. Gordon was headlining the “Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington and the World,” a tribute show presented in the courtyard of the Hirshhorn Museum, and because Ono’s experimental pop music is all about radical possibilities, your body could respond in more ways than one.
This was a celebration of Ono’s music by three heirs to the playfulness and intensity of her vision: Gordon; Lizzi Bougatsos of the tremendous wild-style band Gang Gang Dance; and Moor Mother, a Philadelphian crafting Afro-futurist soundscapes. But before anyone set foot onstage, it was Ono’s voice that first materialized in the speakers as a repeated plea to “imagine peace.” After that came 1994’s “Rising,” a ballad where Ono quite literally gives voice to the enlightened beings we aspire to be (“Listen to your heart . . . Respect your intuition”) and the freaked-out animals that we are (improvised gags, retches, spasms and groans). And that might be the essential proposition of Ono’s music, right there. Explore the space between.
Moor Mother had no trouble zooming across the chasm, performing a dash of her incendiary music alongside more demure interpretations from Ono’s “Grapefruit,” a 1964 manual filled with pithy instructions for performance art. The best was “Beat Piece,” which directs the artist to “listen to a heartbeat” and prompted Moor Mother to make a drum machine flutter and pummel. What kind of creature suffers from such a loud, strange arrhythmia? Ono’s guidelines are often simple, but they get the imagination moving. While your sneakers tap to a techno pulse, your mind’s eye starts conjuring beautiful monsters.
Bougatsos tapped into the feral vocalizations that Ono brandished like weapons back in the ’70s, singing slack covers of “Yes, I’m a Witch,” “Why” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” joined by drummer Brendan Canty of Fugazi and guitarist Dana Wachs of Vorhees. Bougatsos’s singing resembled laughter, panic and a missed orgasm, but her most striking turn at the microphone came in the form of a mantra: “I see peace!” An hour or so earlier, Ono’s voice had asked us to imagine something important, and now Bougatsos could see it taking shape in the crowd. Metaphysical good times.
Gordon’s performance utilized the guitar grammar she helped invent in Sonic Youth, especially during “Overtone Piece,” another page out of “Grapefruit” that required Gordon to “make music only with overtones.” And so she strummed her guitar with her index finger, the way the rest of us swipe through photographs on a touch screen, using her left hand to move a melody around on the high strings while her low strings droned toward the void. Five minutes into it, she began to sing in a wordless moan that felt ambiguous, then more specific, as if she were trying to locate a secret vowel between “uh” and “oh.”
Gordon also shared one of her own Ono-inspired pieces, reading a dry little a narrative about an anonymous guitar guy who played with windmill swipes, then fell to the floor, then charged out into the crowd to rub his guitar against members of the audience, and so forth. Once she’d finished reading the plot, she acted it out to the letter, eventually bounding into the crowd to brush her guitar strings up against random necks, arms and shoulders. We’d been warned that this very thing was about to happen, but once one of the greats of American rock-and-roll is bouncing her guitar off your head, the gap between imagination and manifestation feels startlingly short and mysteriously deep.
As for the screaming, it came during Ono’s “Voice Piece for Soprano,” which required Gordon to howl three times — “against the wind,” “against the wall” and “against the sky.” Her third cry got trapped somewhere between horror and ecstasy — an extraordinary sound that made you wonder what all the tourists strolling nearby on the Mall must have thought.
And how was their Sunday night going? Were they getting the same kind of deep kicks out there? Did their brains feel this open, this loose, this activated? And would ours once this music was over and we joined them back in the real world?