UConn is looking at Joni Mitchell from both sides now. The legendary singer/songwriter is the subject of a daylong virtual conference at the University of Connecticut April 9.
The event is structured around the 50th anniversary of her "Blue" album, renowned not just for Mitchell's arresting vocal style and songwriting craft but for its sparse and unusual acoustic instrumentation which includes a dulcimer as well as acoustic guitar and piano.
The event's organizer, Peter Kaminsky is a professor of Music Theory at UConn. "I'll be 68 in May, and I grew up listening to her music," he says. "In high school, her albums blew my mind. Now, she's had a number of interviews lately, and released a five-volume archive of her music, so it's kind of a Joni moment.
"This is an academic conference, with cutting-edge work on Joni Mitchell from scholars, but it will also have appeal for Baby Boomers."
The conference, which is open to the general public, includes a live performance of "Blue" songs by UConn students: vocalist Emma Graebner, pianist Sofia DiNatale. The song "A Case of You" will be sung by the UConn Chamber Singers at the close of the daylong event.
"When I first envisioned this," Kaminsky says, "the first thing people asked when I mentioned it was 'Is there going to be a performance?'" It is not a performance-centered conference, but there are these two amazing sophomores, both of whom are in my Music Theory class. And we were able to get another student, Sarah Marze, to create a new choral arrangement of 'A Case of You.'" UConn students were also involved in creating a website for the conference and will be speaking at the conference. "I love that our students are so involved in this."
One of the key events in the morning session, a panel discussion titled "Back to the Garden: Reflections on Joni Mitchell's Life and Art," features author/musician Malka Marom and Daniel Levitin, author of "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession," moderated by NPR music critic Ann Powers. Kaminsky says both Marom and Levitin are close friends of Mitchell's.
Among the other presentations are "Wide Harmony: Joni Mitchell' Slash-Chord Piano Voicings" by Nicole Biamonte of McGill University and "Dissolves and Jump Cuts in Joni Mitchell's Poetry" by Lloyd Whitesell, also of McGill and "I Can't Even Hear the F***ing Music Playing: Trauma, Cross-Racial Performance, and the Limits of White Empathy in 'The Beat of Black Wings" by musicologist Matthew J. Jones.
The recent release of early Joni Mitchell recordings will be discussed, as well as specific aspects of Mitchell's singing and writing styles. Speakers come from universities in Maryland, California, Texas and England's University of Cambridge.
Separately from the conference, Kaminsky successfully nominated Mitchell for an honorary doctorate from UConn, which will be bestowed at the school's graduation ceremonies in the spring.
"Blue" has routinely made critics' lists of best albums, including in the top 5 of virtually any list of the best Canadian pop albums. In September, when Rolling Stone upgraded its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" for the first time in 20 years, it moved "Blue" from #30 to #3.
Mitchell is not expected to attend the conference, though Kaminsky expects she might hear about it from Levitin, who "is in constant contact with her. She is not in great health, and is known to be very private."
Mitchell has performed numerous times in Connecticut, including at the University of Hartford in 1969, the Hartford Civic Center in 1975 and the Oakdale in Wallingford in 2000. In 1978 she was a guest in a Yale Business School class called "The Music Industry and Arts Management," taught by her former agent David Geffen, who'd become a major record industry executive. The jonimitchell.com website cites 15 appearances in the state, starting with the Stone Balloon in New Haven in 1968.
"She is remarkable not only for the quality of her artistic output," Kaminsky says, "but for, as a woman, having to fight against so much of the music industry. Even with all the accolades she's received, she is still underappreciated as an artist - and not just as a performer or a writer. She became her own producer. She did the artwork for her albums. 'Musicians' musicians' have always recognized her. Prince was obsessed with Joni Mitchell. The opening to 'Purple Rain' was based on her guitar chords."
"Joni Mitchell's Blue at 50: A Celebration of Her Life and Music" is sponsored by the UConn School of Fine Arts and the Department of Music. It's held in two sessions, from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:45 to 4:30 p.m. Registration is at joniblueconference.wixsite.com/mysite.
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