Joni Mitchell and the Art of Attunement

At the Humanities Center’s Annual Symposium, Rita Felski, editor of New Literary History and professor of English at the University of Virginia, discussed the role of networks of experience in producing attunement to works of art.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 3, 2017)—How can someone go from hating folk artist Joni Mitchell’s music for an entire lifetime to suddenly loving it beyond all possible description? At the Humanities Center’s Annual Symposium, University of Virginia English professor Rita Felski discussed how responses to art are supported by an array of diverse, subjective experiences working to create the transcendently beautiful, indescribable experience of attunement.

According to Felski, attunement is to “enter into a responsive relationship, to experience an affinity that is not fully conscious or deliberate.” She suggested that the way we respond to art has a lot to do with our prior attachments and the subjective experiences we bring to it. Additionally, she argued that not all responses will follow directly from prescribed backgrounds of socioeconomic, racial, educational or gendered experiences.

To paint a picture of the connection between attunement and pre-existing networks of experience, Felski’s lecture examined an article published in the New Yorker by renowned author Zadie Smith, in which Smith recounts her sudden and surprising conversion to ’60s and ’70s folk phenomenon Joni Mitchell.

“Not all attunements arise out of effort or education,” said Felski. Quoting Smith, she continued, “‘I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her or understanding what open-tune guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me until the day it undid me completely.’”

Felski explained that the experience of attunement allows us to examine our networks of attachment. Citing philosopher Stanley Cavell, Felski said that though we can point out what might inspire us about a particular artwork, an artwork also contains an “inescapable subjective dimension to aesthetic response,” and this is where an examination of networks of previous experiences and attunements comes into play. 

In Smith’s article, for example, she paints a picture of all of the “co-actors” leading up to her conversion to Mitchell’s music. In Smith’s case, it is in the context of standing at William Wordsworth’s beloved Tintern Abbey accompanied by a car ride listening to Mitchell with her husband that she is able to have this sudden attunement to Mitchell’s music.

“Smith conjures up a cavalcade of co-actors: allies, active mediators, her friends, the landscape, the ruin, the sun, the voice of the husband. A constellation of actors has been realigned, a perception has been transformed,” Felski said. “Smith it seems could only hear Joni Mitchell when she was ready to hear her, when the ground was prepared, the listener receptive.”

Felski suggested that we become who we are through a history of attunements. “There is no pre-existing theoretical formula, only the empirical mess in us and the radical variations in which we become attuned to works of art.”

Such a formula, Felski believes, is hard to pin down, in part because scholarship is fixed on the concept of language, which can create a barrier from reality. This is complicated when one considers the presence of an artwork, which, Felski said, denies that a language barrier really does separate us from seeing things “as they really are.”

“Increasingly, scholars are beginning to question this view of how language works,” Felski said. “Language is far from being a closed, self-contained system, and words are deeply intertwined with our ways of engaging with the world. Language in this sense is more like an interface rather than a firewall, an array of devices that connects us to the things that matter to us.”

She continued, “Words and the world are not two hostile kingdoms at war with each other such that we must pledge our fealty with one or the other. Rather, language is one actor, one relevant actor, in our multi-model involvement with reality.”

To be attuned, therefore, each sense must coordinate and align, but this, Felski says, can happen with or without linguistic support. The connections through which we mediate our experiences with art can happen unconsciously, they can be long-standing, or even ungrounded in language and concepts, Felski added.

“[Attunement] is not just a flight into otherness, a withdrawal into pure interiority,” Felski concluded. “Artwork cannot act by itself. It needs allies, helpers, supporters. Attunement is a collective achievement. . . . That our experience of art is co-produced does not take away from its value, but makes it possible. Mediation does not detract from the magic of art – it enables it.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.

Photo 1: Rita Felski, courtesy of Aislynn Edwards, BYU Photo.

Photo 2: Folk singer Joni Mitchell, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.