ELIAS The Prayer Cycle. Various (Sony) – INKPOT
The Prayer Cycle
Choral symphony in 9 movements
Alanis Morissette James Taylor Salif Keita Richard Bona Yungchen Lhamo Perry Farrell Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Mah Damba John Williams Ofra Haza Linda Ronstadt Liz Constantine American Boychoir featuring Devin Provenzano
English Chamber Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Lawrence Schwartz
Composer’s birth date not available. Poems in English only.
My thanks to Frank for making me do this.
SONY Classical SK60569
by Chia Han-Leon
Yes, it looks the “New Age”-gimmicky, spiritualist, slow-lyrical-melody type… I took another look. Hello? Why is Alanis Morissette’s name among the list of performers? I became interested – because I own two copies each of Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (I do. I even have the JLP “live” video. I also like “Pollyana Flower” and I prefer the recent remix of “Joining You’…. but I digress…).
A friend asked me to listen to this disc. He kept a straight face (I found out later he didn’t even know I was an Alanis fan). First track. I was just listening, no expectations. The music is largo, tonal, soothing… there’s Alanis already, singing in her characteristic “liberated” voice. There’s an oboe, strings… another voice in some foreign tongue. Wait a minute, I am looking at the lyrics… it’s… Alanis is singing in Hungarian(!) and there is a Salif Keita singing in Mali. I read the original English words:
We have slaughtered
in the garden of beauty
Digging graves instead of planting
mercy for the crucified
A bitter justice
begging eternity for love.
… who wrote this…? “Music and text by Jonathan Elias”… never heard of him. I listen on, flipped a few pages to read more of the lyrics. The words are devastatingly beautiful. My eyes are tearing.
In the background of the pages with the text I see images of a gravesite with rows and rows of crosses, another page there is a scene of industrial chimneys pouring smoke into the air. Then dead bodies, all in black and white. Something to do with the human condition, definitely… war, pollution, cruelty. The music is still playing, still slow. Voices come in at seemingly arbitrary intervals, intoning in various languages their individual prayers. The choir soars with the orchestra, following, supporting. There are floating chants and songs, in Tibetian, in German, even “personal chant”…
By moon we gather
for the ascension
Great sky shelter us
With your endless compassion Last survivor
It is you who must pass
into the light of the new world.
Under a sky of innocence
We are now all dying
in a slow black rain.
Was it a failure
Of man and angels?
Was it a failure of love?
From this human river
too cruel for winter
We come to the gates
A rehearsal for the silence
Pray we do not enter
Under a sky of innocence
We bathe in the seduction
The light is unravelling now
We open our arms to it
It is close to ground zero*.
*Ground zero is the point of explosion of a nuclear weapon.
The nine movements are entitled: Mercy, Strength, Hope, Compassion, Grace, Innocence, Forgiveness, Benediction and Faith. It looks really religious, I thought, but this is no biblical text, although there are obvious references. The poetry of each movement echoes and develops their themes; themes of night and dreaming, light with science, war and blinding, washing and oceans, boat and river, sleep and death, birth, the unborn, angels…
Reading the remarkably simple words and sentences, the meanings come across easily, yet their impact is staggering. In movement I: Mercy, the image of the garden becomes a field of white crosses in II: Strength, and then the desert in IV: Compassion.
The image of the river in III: Hope refers to the “waters [in which] again we are born” (IV: Compassion) – in V: Grace, the poet asks the Father to carry him “For the ocean is wide/… For my boat is small”; the “gentle rain” in II: Strength becomes a “slow black rain” in VI: Innocence… One of the most terrifying is the treatment of the theme of light in Compassion (inset right):
The work is a cast for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus, consisting of nine “meditations”. What makes this at first look like some decadent Pavarottian “We Are The World” effort is that there is a wide array of international vocalists. Elias’ poems, originally in English, have been translated and reinterpreted in many other languages by the artists – Alanis Morissette (singing in Hungarian and French), James Taylor, guitarist John Williams, Israeli composer Ofra Haza, Malinese musicians Mah Damba and Salif Keita, Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo, and the late Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Oh dear, it looks like a multi-cultural mish-mash, I thought at first. But I was wrong – The Prayer Cycle actually works, or at least for me. It sounds really really unified. Even when the guitar solo appears, the fact that it is none other than John Williams (the other one) playing is -not- drummed into your head. The musicians simply fit in, humbly, dedicatedly, almost in anonymous unity. I figure there is something for everyone – I am desperately in love with Alanis’ voice, someone else will recognise and highlight James Taylor, others will celebrate the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I do not recognise most of the names involved, but someone out there will. Maybe that’s why it works.
They sleep in darkness
In cooled oxygen structures
Limitless They lay awake waiting
in smooth concrete beds
My children are still sleeping
I once believed in natural law
before the silos
I once believed in all that is holy
Before the silos
Before the trinity
Dark night of the soul
Forgive us, that we did not understand.
But I think there’s more. The Prayer Cycle represents a common struggle for belief – in or against the human condition. Should we be born only to be destroyed? The words seem to ask. “We are not yet born/ Half sadness /But half choice.” The link to the bible seems to ask subtly: are we to be born only to destroy, and then be destroyed? Reading through the texts, Elias seems to be providing us an end-of-the-20th-century version and reflection of the Mass, a cycle of prayers in retrospect over the deeds of humankind in the last century:
The music of the entire Cycle is always slow, a spiritual largo cantabile perhaps. There are virtually no straightforward melodies, but yet the sense of progression is so strong. Yes, it is like Gorcki’s Third Symphony, but not quite as “minimalist”, and with more colours. It is like light and water washing softly over one’s face, one’s inner ear. It is beautiful, and also sad.
The ideas – human cruelty, the science of destruction, the search for spiritual salvation, death, light, dream, sleep – are all very familiar. If not for the powerful poetry, I may have not bothered to review this. The music supports the words eloquently and the musicians all perform with great naturalness – these after all are the masters of their kind of music.
In all The Prayer Cycle is a remarkably unpretentious and sincere work, compared to other attempts in its particular genre. No one singer or musician stands out at all – everyone has an individual voice yet remains part of a combined effort. Even if you detest this “crossover”/”New Age”/”Neo-spiritualist” genre of music, at least read the poems. The verse from the final movement IX: Faith – in the context of and after hearing the entire Cycle, from the hope-infused opening to the final desolation – is truly heartbreaking:
My unborn forgive me
I only wish I had the strength to bring
you into this world
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