Jonathan Elias Biography
One of the most talented and versatile American composers of his generation, Jonathan Elias is a highly regarded writer, arranger and conductor of music for film, television, and advertising. But since 1999 and the release of his landmark recording Prayer Cycle, this Los Angeles-based musician has forsaken some of these lucrative commercial assignments in order to pursue his own creative vision.
Jonathan Elias' new Decca release, American River, is the latest and most fully realized manifestation of that vision: a strikingly original work of passion and beauty that invokes the spirits of Aaron Copeland and Woody Guthrie, Charles Ives and the Carter Family. His collaborators on the new disc include Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Marty Stuart and-in one of his very last recordings-American music icon Johnny Cash.
Each guest artist "wrote his or her own lyrics, and they're all different," Jonathan Elias explains. "For 'The Source,' Kris Kristofferson wrote about the river as a symbol of both destruction and renewal. For 'The Continuance,' Johnny Cash and his daughter Rosanne speak about the Cash family coming to America as mariners and musicians-how they wove themselves into the fabric of the new American society."
"This was Johnny's last recitation or reading on record, and his performance is fragile but totally heartfelt," says co-producer John Carter Cash, the singer's son. "It was an inspiring thing to witness."
If some portions of American River should sound familiar, it's because already millions of listeners have heard elements of this music used in major advertising campaigns: "Wild Colorado" as a theme for Microsoft, for example, or "Crossing Rivers" in an ad for Lexus. Now Jonathan Elias has reworked and expanded these themes into a unified conceptual work. From the delicate, haunting strains of "At The Edge" to the closing "Mother of Exile" (featuring Emmylou Harris in a recitation of Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus"), American River blends intricate melodies, modal harmonies, and virtuoso instrumental solos.
Accompanying Jonathan Elias (on acoustic piano) is a stellar cast of eclectic musicians. Violinist Charlie Bisharat's credits include sessions with Will Ackerman, Jon Anderson (of Yes), Fiona Apple, and Barenaked Ladies; cellist Cameron Stone has worked with singer-songwriters Tracy Chapman, Susan Barth, and Katrina Carlson as well as the Indian world-music artist Azam Ali. From the world of bluegrass and country music come dobro master Jerry Douglas, guitarist Randy Scruggs, and mandolinists Marty Stuart and Ronnie McCoury. American River was recorded at Elias Studios in Santa Monica, California and the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee; John Carter Cash co-produced with Jonathan Elias on selected tracks.
"American River is intended as a symbol of hope and renewal," says Jonathan Elias. "In both the spiritual and environmental sense of a river constantly being reborn, the music suggests a long transformation through slowly-evolving nature. Along the way, the river reflects the history-sometimes emotionally dark and somber, sometimes hopeful and of unimaginable beauty-that makes up our own American River."
Jonathan Elias was born in New York City in 1956 and has been composing music for over forty years. At age six, he began piano studies and at age twelve was creating his own music, inspired in part by such classic Broadway musicals as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof. Native American history and culture-an interest he maintains to the present day-also fascinated the adolescent musician.
By time he turned 15, Jonathan's life path was set on music. He would spend 3-4 hours each day either composing or practicing piano, and although he enjoyed some rock music (such as that of the Doors), he preferred the great contemporary classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky and Romantics like Rachmaninoff. His studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester did not go well (Elias recalls how he "burnt out my fingers and arms trying to master Chopin's Etudes") but set the stage for his enrollment at Bennington College in Vermont (in 1976) and his future career.
At Bennington, Jonathan's explorations in electronic music led to his first paying job as a composer when he scored the trailer for Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979. Elias' music-written without his ever having seen the film footage-still stands the test of time 25 years later in the ads for the film's recent DVD release. After graduation from Bennington, Jonathan went on to compose and score music for the trailers of such major motion pictures as Altered States, Back to the Future, The Thing, Blade Runner, and Wolfen.
Elias Arts, the production company formed by Jonathan and his brother Scott, soon established an industry-wide reputation for its high-quality, award-winning music for television commercials. Jonathan Elias created the famous "Moon Landing" score in 1983 for the launch of MTV; the first sound mark for Apple; the Columbia Pictures sound logo, and the world famous Yahoo! "yodel" sound mark. Elias Arts has won dozens of Clio Awards as well as multiple prizes at Cannes and the London International Advertising Awards.
In 1986, at the age of 30, Jonathan began to write and produce for major pop music artists. After working with Duran Duran's John Taylor on the score of 9 1/2 Weeks, Jonathan produced the group's 1988 album Big Thing; in 1989, he worked with Grace Jones on her Bulletproof Heart set, which yielded several Number One Dance hits. Other Elias producing and arranging credits include B.B. King, Alanis Morissette, James Taylor and Yes. Jonathan's first solo project, Requiem for the Americas: Songs from the Lost World (1990), was inspired by Edward S. Curtis' photographs of Native Americans; the performing cast included vocalists Toni Childs, Michael Bolton, Patti Scialfa, and Jon Anderson.
After moving California in 1992, Jonathan Elias created music for the soundtracks of Chaplin and The Singing Detective, both starring Robert Downey, Jr. His second full-length solo composition The Prayer Cycle was released in 1999. This nine-movement choral symphony featured an international cast of nonpareil voices performing in twelve languages including English, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Swahili and Urdu. Among the participating artists: Alanis Morissette, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Ofra Haza of Israel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan, Salif Keita of Mali and Yungchen Lhamo of Tibet. The Philadelphia Daily News called The Prayer Cycle "a richly melodic, borderless, world-music hymnal...that wraps you up like a warm coat of many colors."
Even as he completed work on American River, Jonathan Elias was writing and recording portions of a second volume of The Prayer Cycle entitled Prayers in Silence. This work, to be released by Universal Classics, addresses the threat of unchecked nuclear proliferation and the influence of the atomic bomb on American history and society. Sting, Salif Keita, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Jonathan Davis (of Korn) are among the performers slated to appear on Prayers in Silence, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir.