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Songs of 'Prayer Cycle' seek universal themes

When composer Jonathan Elias started recording his symphonic, choral prayer album two years ago, he was still looking for another female singer.

"I had heard Alanis Morissette's song 'Uninvited' on the radio, and I was impressed by her vocal ability," Mr. Elias says. He sent her a tape of his project. "She got back to me within three days and said she'd love to do it."

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The result: the final cut for "The Prayer Cycle" (Sony Classical), a collection of nine beautiful choral songs by Ms. Morissette, James Taylor, Perry Farrell (formerly of "Jane's Addiction"), and world singers Salif Keita and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Morissette sings in both French and Hungarian.

The album was produced in two stages. In 1997, Elias recorded The English Chamber Orchestra and Choir at Abbey Road studios in England. Next, he recorded the soloists and then mixed the album.

Working with such a talented cast of performers was quite a thrill for Elias, an award-winning composer who has written soundtracks for films such as "Chaplin" and "9-1/2 Weeks."

"Being a composer, I can write a lot of things," he says. "But when it comes to having someone interpret anything you write, these singers were enchanting, some of the best in the world."

Several years ago, when Elias "envisioned a world prayer album," he turned to dozens of sources from the Bible to the Koran for inspiration. The lyrics in "The Prayer Cycle" were written by Elias, with the exception of "Mercy" and "Innocence," both written by Morissette.

The most challenging aspect for Elias was translating the prayers into music. "I was looking for prayers that were moving, and ones that were musical," he says. "And since the music came first, it was really difficult with the prayers."

Elias studied prayers in several languages, but he had to make sure they were singable. He also worked with translators.

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"I wrote most of the words, but there were parts of an old African hunting prayer or a Sufi prayer or things that were influenced by the Judeo-Christian prayer cycles. I was looking for things that meant something to me ... and for universal concepts of prayer."

The only song on the album sung in English is "Grace," performed by James Taylor. It is based on a 14th-century fishing prayer in the form of a poem.

"A lot of different prayers influenced the album, but this song is simple and very moving," Elias says. "James Taylor has a certain legendary status within the folk music world. I thought it would be great to have someone who could handle English and have a certain credibility."

The song "Faith," sung by Morissette and Ali Khan, holds a lot of meaning for Elias because it was written just before the birth of his baby.

"The song was to my own newborn," he says of the lyrics "I only wish I could bring you into this world feeling more faithful." He says these are "feelings about where the world [is] headed."

"I've always loved choral music, and [my child] certainly helped influence the directness of the prayers."

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