'Fiddle and the Drum' presents a new facet of songsmith Joni Mitchell

by Misha Berson

The Seattle Times (MCT)

22 February 2010


SEATTLE — With her blond tresses, her sweet and high voice, her charmed songs of love, protest and rites of passage, Joni Mitchell became the quintessential female troubadour of the 1960s.

For some, she will eternally be the Joni in flowing dresses, the Joni strumming a guitar or a dulcimer and singing prettily of “Michael from mountains” and “ladies of the canyon” and “Chelsea mornings.”

Mitchell’s captivating, candid early albums (i.e., “Songs for a Seagull,” “Clouds,” “Blue”) influenced countless fellow musicians — from Prince to Morrissey, Janet Jackson to Sheryl Crow and Tori Amos.

But Mitchell long ago ditched her early, ethereal image to follow a mercurial muse. Her lyrics grew more surreal, her chord changes more complex, her voice huskier. She drifted from folk rock and gravitated toward blues, jazz and art song, recording with jazz greats Charlie Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius.

“I hate show business,” Mitchell once stated bluntly. She spent long stints away from the glare, painting and writing in her secluded L.A. home and at a Vancouver Island getaway in her native Canada.

In interviews, Mitchell could sound annoyed, imperious, even bitter that some of her later music (on such albums as"Dog Eat Dog” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”) was not more appreciated by critics and fans.

“Why is it that Americans need to hear their happiness major and their tragedy minor, and as jazzy as they can handle is a seventh chord?” she bemoaned to an interviewer.“Are they not experiencing complex emotions?”

But Mitchell’s creative juices kept flowing. And like another iconic troubadour of cross-generational influence, Bob Dylan, she has never stopped reinventing her artistry, and surprising us with it.

A few years ago, Mitchell leapt into a new medium, to work with the Alberta Ballet Company on “The Fiddle and the Drum,” a dance suite set to some of her songs, old and new. In Michelle Mercer’s 2009 book “Will You Take Me As I Am,” Mitchell says of the ballet, “It’s my favorite thing I ever did.”

“The Fiddle and the Drum” stops in Seattle — its U.S. premiere — on a short West Coast tour, for a performance Tuesday at Paramount Theatre. Mitchell is slated to attend, and take part in a post-show chat with the audience.

However, by phone from Vancouver, B.C., last week (where he served as head choreographer for the Vancouver Olympics Opening Ceremony), Alberta Ballet Company artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre said Mitchell, now 67, has had a flare-up of Morgellons syndrome, a potentially debilitating skin condition.

The attack kept her from taking part in Olympic festivities, and may keep her from coming to Seattle. (It may also help explain why she didn’t answer Seattle Times requests for an interview.)

In her stead, the ebullient, Quebec-born Grand-Maitre was happy to discuss “The Fiddle and the Drum,” and how his plan to honor Alberta Ballet’s 40th anniversary with a short homage to Mitchell’s life and music morphed into a two-hour thematic suite for 29 dancers — with projected backdrops of the tunesmith’s vivid paintings.

Grand-Maitre didn’t know Mitchell when he called her about the dance piece. But he knew she was an Alberta native and considered her “one of the truly great songwriters of the 20th century. There’s something about her music that grounds me. She helps you accept your humanity, all the strengths and weaknesses.

“I thought it was a longshot she’d want to do this,” he admitted. “We’re not the National Ballet of Canada! And I didn’t know how much she loved to dance.”

He learned that as a teenager, Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson, in Alberta, but raised in Saskatchewan) would “organize Wednesday night dances in Saskatoon, because she couldn’t wait for the weekend dances.”

To his amazement, Mitchell asked him to come to Los Angeles to discuss the project. There, he recalled, “We had five- or six-hour conversations about everything from paganism to cooking, to love, sex, death and civilization. This woman is intense!

“She thought my initial concept for the piece was a little fluffy. She wanted it to be about the environment, war, what’s going on with the planet. Joni’s been doing social commentary in her music for years and years, even when it wasn’t in vogue and pop music was all about Madonna and the material girl.”

Once they agreed on a theme (Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a red alert about the situation the world is in now”), she and Grand-Maitre collaborated closely, long-distance and in person, for a year and a half.

“She’s a very complex person,” observed Grand-Maitre. “Aesthetically Joni questions everything — and she’s very self-critical of her work. But she was very easy to work with. We had a great time, we laughed a lot. It was a joy, really.”

At the time, Mitchell was also crafting her first original album in a decade, “Shine” (2007). She dedicated the disc to her two young grandchildren — the offspring of a daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption when the girl was an infant, then happily reunited with in the late 1990s.

“There’s a little girl who appears and disappears throughout the ballet. Joni sees her as representing a new generation,” Grand-Maitre said. “I see her as Joni’s lost daughter, whose absence in her life runs through a lot of her music.”

Some “Shine” songs, like “If” (from a poem by Rudyard Kipling) and “If I Had a Heart” (a critique of modern “holy war”), wound up in the ballet. The other roughly one dozen tunes used came from the 1960s (i.e., the title tune; and the hit songs “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi”), through the 1990s (“Passion Play,” “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” “Sex Kills”).

According to Grand-Maitre, Mitchell had the older music remastered with digital technology “because it was recorded at a time when voices were more in the background. She wanted to make the lyrics more prominent.”

Mitchell also threw herself into directing a film of the ballet for Canada’s Bravo channel. “The way she edited it, she’s layered the colors, dancers and bodies so it looks like a painting in motion,” said the choreographer. “It’s my favorite film of any dance I’ve made.”

“The Fiddle and the Drum” debuted in Canada in 2007, to critical praise. The Toronto Globe and Mail touted its “meticulously detailed and ever-inventive” choreography, and use of songs about “environmental degradation and the absurdity of war” in ways that are “neither preachy nor depressing.”

Mitchell and Grand-Maitre have future plans. “We want to do three pieces altogether, a tryptich,” he said. “I’d like to do one with Joni’s prairie-girl songs, and I think she wants us to do something on love.

“That’s interesting, because she hasn’t written about love in over a decade and has not focused on that in her own life. I think this might be a nostalgic look at her own romantic past.”

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