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Elias and Company

Composer's fascination with Masada leads to a musical version


by Naomi Pfefferman

June 3, 1999 | 8:00 pm

You may know Jonathan Elias as the guy who composed the music to Chaplin and 9 1/2 Weeks. Or most of the songs on the Yes album, Union. Or the ditty to the original MTV promo, the one where the astronaut plants the MTV flag on the moon.

So it may come as a surprise that Elias' latest project is an album that has soared to the top of Billboard's classical crossover chart. The Prayer Cycle (Sony Classical) is holding fast at number six, not far below the new Star Wars CD.

It's a multilingual, New Age-y, nine-movement choral symphony featuring Alanis Morissette (yes, Alanis Morissette) singing in French and Hungarian. Linda Ronstadt croons in Spanish; James Taylor performs a medieval prayer; and Israeli artist Ofra Haza sings a duet, Forgiveness, with the late Pakistani-Muslim, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There's a personal chant by Perry Farrell, the punk rock singer from Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros, who apparently has been exploring his Jewish roots.&'009;

Elias, who composes free music for Amnesty International ads, says he began writing The Prayer Cycle while brooding about the future of the mankind during his wife's pregnancy three years ago. I was nervous about bringing Lilli into this world, he said, and my symphony became a prayer that the future is not like the present.

Morissette telephoned Elias just a few days after he sent an early version of the piece to her manager. She was so taken with the music that she agreed to sing on half the album. Morissette even composed her own lyrics and melodies for the project. We both come from Hungarian lineage, mine Jewish, hers Christian, so we clicked immediately about her singing in Hungarian, Elias says.

Yet the composer was jittery when Morissette, the big rock star, arrived for her first recording session in L.A. But after the first 10 seconds I was at ease, Elias says. Alanis was totally cool. And I was just awestruck by her ability. She's only 24, but she can hold her own with people like [African artist] Salif Keita.

Sadly, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn unexpectedly died before he could finish recording his duet with Ofra Haza. The Jewish artist had to improvise to fill in the blanks. Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn was so open and excited about working with an Israeli singer, Elias says. He knew that we were breaking cultural and political boundaries. -- Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor.


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