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The Music of Joni Mitchell [Paperback]

Lloyd Whitesell

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Book Description

July 11 2008
Joni Mitchell is one of the foremost singer-songwriters of the late twentieth century. Yet despite her reputation, influence, and cultural importance, a detailed appraisal of her musical achievement is still lacking. Whitesell presents a through exploration of Mitchell's musical style, sound, and structure in order to evaluate her songs from a musicological perspective. His analyses are conceived within a holistic framework that takes account of poetic nuance, cultural reference, and stylistic evolution over a long, adventurous career.

Mitchell's songs represent a complex, meticulously crafted body of work. The Music of Joni Mitchell offers a comprehensive survey of her output, with many discussions of individual songs, organized by topic rather than chronology. Individual chapters each explore a different aspect of her craft, such as poetic voice, harmony, melody, and large-scale form. A separate chapter is devoted to the central theme of personal freedom, as expressed through diverse symbolic registers of the journey quest, bohemianism, creative license, and spiritual liberation.

Previous accounts of Mitchell's songwriting have tended to favor her poetic vision, expansive verse structures, and riveting vocal delivery. Whitesell fills out this account with special attention to musical technique, showing how such traits as complex or conflicting sonorities, dualities of harmonic mode, dialectical tensions of texture and register, intricately layered instrumental figuration, and a variable vocal persona are all essential to her distinctive identity as a songwriter. The Music of Joni Mitchell develops a set of conceptual tools geared specifically to Mitchell's songs, in order to demonstrate the extent of her technical innovation in the pop song genre, to give an account of the formal sophistication and rhetorical power characterizing her work as a whole, and to provide grounds for the recognition of her intellectual stature as a composer within her chosen field.

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"Whitesell's splendid study illuminates an impressive span of Joni Mitchell's music, offering fans and scholars alike new ways of hearing these songs. A magnificent achievement."--Ellie M. Hisama, Columbia University

"This thoughtful book is a revelation: a long-overdue scholarly examination of one of the most important bodies of work in twentieth century music. Joni Mitchell's fearless explorations defy simplistic categories of popular, jazz and art music, and Whitesell's sophisticated, rigorous analysis does her work justice. This study will be invaluable to anyone with a serious interest in contemporary music and culture."--Jacqueline Warwick, Dalhousie University

"The Music of Joni Mitchell brings together the richest traditions in the study of popular music. The book is detailed in its study of form and style, and a model of expert musical analysis. Just as importantly, for non-specialists, it offers a compelling account of Joni Mitchell's life and career, showing the extra-musical influences on her work and Mitchell's interaction with the broader cultural forces around her. Whitesell's admiration for Joni Mitchell is clear, but the book is rigorous and balanced, a piece of first-rate scholarship."--Will Straw, Professor of Communications, McGill University and Co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock

About the Author

Lloyd Whitesell teaches music history at McGill University. He is the author of articles on Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, Bernard Herrmann, and minimalism, and co-editor of the book Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity. His research interests include queer studies, popular music, film music, modernism, music and literature, and theories of the audience.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not Just For Musicians, But Highly Technical Aug. 21 2009
By Mark D. Prouse - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It's about time someone did a book like this on Joni Mitchell (there have been several biographies, none of them especially illuminating). I'm a musician of the most amateur sort, with little formal training, so much of this detailed analysis of Mitchell's songs went right over my head. But what I've taken away from it is an even greater admiration for Mitchell's singular genius. She is not classically trained and doesn't "write" music. Brought home by THE MUSIC OF JONI MITCHELL is the possibility that this lack of technical knowledge actually freed her to explore all kinds of things that a formal background may have hampered. She admits to some difficulties, particularly with regard to her ability to communicate with her accompanying musicians at times, but her incredible catalog of music, going all the way back to the beginning, is like no other artist's in popular music (and there will never be her like again). Most importantly, what becomes clearer for me is how Mitchell makes choices about keys, chord changes and various modes, all in service to her poetry. She may be an experimental musician in the best sense: her decisions are rarely, if ever, random, even as they emerge from a process that often avoids established pop song conventions. This purposeful exploration of musical possibility, as the book clearly illustrates, is what elevates Mitchell above most of her peers, and places her light years ahead of most contemporary pop singers. She does not possess the most beautiful voice, nor does it have the flexibility it once did, due to years of heavy smoking -- but then, she has never been about showing off her vocal prowess, formidable as it has been in the past. Few cover versions of Mitchell's songs can top her own recordings, even when they are more vocally spectacular or polished. Whitesell makes frequent reference to how Mitchell's singing style works in harmony with her music and her words, and how she takes particular care in phrasing; in other words, where she places vocal emphasis in performance.

Mr. Whitesell's thorough overview is fascinating, but rather dry in places, despite an obvious passion for his subject. Caution is advised to the reader who knows little about music, but wants to know more about Joni Mitchell, the person. However, much is revealed about her as an artist in the pages of this remarkable book, which includes a number of direct quotes from Joni Mitchell herself.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Expert view of Joni's contributions to music world. Sept. 29 2008
By Kerry L. Wanish - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It was both surprising and gratifying to read this 'critical analysis'
of Joni Mitchell's vast contributions to the world of music. One might
have expected to learn more of her 'jaded' personal life, but this commentary of the professional, technical aspects of her music is enlightening.

It has become more apparent -- despite her nearly ten-year hiatus from the creative scene, that she must be recognized, as the author so appropriately puts it, as the 'genius' that she is. Kudos to Whitesell for his thoughtful, introspective analysis of her work.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Real appreciation of Joni Jan. 9 2010
By Anna Johnston - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am thankful for this book which presents academic and intelligent music knowledge to discuss Mitchell's body of work while clearly detailing, illustrating and proving that Mitchell is an Artist, a great Artist, one-of-a-kind, unique and astonishing, comparable and perhaps surpassing most, if not all other significant songwriters in the United States and Great Britain. Joni has always EVOLVED! - my sign of an Artist and the author agress. This is an important work for anyone enamoured by the writing and work of Joni Mitchell.
3.0 out of 5 stars Too technical for me Sept. 27 2013
By Rebecca H. Lowndes - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I'm a great admirer of Joni Mitchell's artistry -- her musical craft and innovation, her poetry, her overall style -- and I wanted to learn more about her. This would no doubt be an enlightening read for someone schooled in the fine points of music, but I found it very slow going, and in fact didn't get very far before I started skipping around in hopes of lighting on a chapter/subject I could understand. I learned some of the lyrics that had eluded me before; ultimately abandoned the book. I've always known she's a I know I'd rather listen to her than read about her.
4.0 out of 5 stars Missing a good editing and Personality Sept. 22 2013
By Charles Whitfield - Published on
Agree with reviewer FKPeterson - this is so hard to read. Reader unfriendly.

Yet it has so much potential if author had woven more of his own personal experience as he did in the first page and a half of Chapter 7.

If you have a copy, read this first and then try any other section at random and you may see what I mean.

I give it 4 stars for his effort and Joni's creativity for anyone to analyze.

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