Joni’s Chords of Inquiry

October 12, 2006

Joni Mitchell, photo by J Exley

Photo © by Jonathan Exley.

I just watched the terrific documentary about Joni Mitchell called “Woman of Heart and Mind.” In it there is a brief discussion about her complex harmonies. I read years ago that she doesn’t have any idea what these chords are called technically. She has alway explored alternate tunings on the guitar and has subsequently found a new kind of harmonic progressions. She speaks directly in the movie about her chords, saying something like “I call them ‘chords of inquiry:’ chords are like questions. […] Each chord reflects my emotion at the moment. Sometimes it takes weeks to answer them…’

This image of chords as living or gravitational entities is one that resonates with me. Yes, we teach young musicians to learn how to label such chords, but the Mitchell chordal syntax had no such alphanumeric names at their inception. There is very little traditional functional harmony; her chords function as emotion conveyers, made to amplify her poetry, and from time to time exorcise her pain. No music theory class was ever necessary for her brilliant compositions. Tonight I realized that Joni Mitchell is one of the great composers of the 20th century.

• • •

I don’t know how this slipped by me, but Joni Mitchell is now Dr. Joni Mitchell having received an honorary doctorate degree from McGill University:

After receiving her honorary Doctor of Music degree last night, Joni Mitchell urged McGill University music students not to ignore emotion in favour of intellect. Breaking from the solemnity of McGill University’s convocation ceremony, where she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree last night, the legendary singer-songwriter adopted a Bugs Bunny voice and said, “From here on in, everybody will have to say, ‘Eh, what’s up, doc?’ ” Turning serious, Mitchell spent most of her brief speech urging the graduates of the music faculty to “think about balance in art,” and not to ignore music’s emotional side in favour of its intellectual content. “The music I like is a balance of opposites,” she said.

Earlier in the day, at a McGill symposium devoted to her art and music, Mitchell delighted fans by attending the event’s closing round-table discussion at Redpath Hall. Meeting well-wishers and media before taking a seat in the front row, she addressed her reason for attending the ceremony: “It’s recognition for my total work,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Asked whether she likes to talk about her work, she said music is a way of conveying emotion directly.

“To put it through the intellectual process does it a disservice, like translating from any language into another language. You lose something in the translation,” she said. [From ratboy’s anvil]

Despite Joni’s request, I doubt that music theorists of the not-too-distant future will be able to resist trying to codify and tame her harmonic language.

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