The Bells of Distant Stars

Program Notes

Creating this album was a unique experience for me for many reasons. When I was growing up, my family celebrated Christmas, and being musically inclined, I always enjoyed all the carols and songs. As an adult, I have participated in many of the Jewish holidays and traditions, including Passover, Hanukkah, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I’ve also become quite familiar with much of the traditional Indian music. This album gave me an opportunity to incorporate some of my favorite melodies from these three traditions, while giving them my own interpretations. I’ve also included a few of my own compositions, some of which were written for a holiday choir that I conducted for many years. I found it satisfying and interesting to see how seamlessly some of these different melodies could blend together within one piece. For me, combining the melodies was, in a way, symbolic for how we can appreciate the uniqueness of our diversity while celebrating that which we all have in common.

 

There’s a lot of musical information included in these tracks, so I thought that it would be helpful to give some insight into each piece. Here are my ‘Program Notes’ for The Bells of Distant Stars:

 

                                                                                                                ~ John 

 

1  Love and Joy The musical foundation of this piece is Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D - a piece that is probably familiar to most of you. The simple lyric “Wishing you love and joy,” beautifully sung here by Daya, is something that I wrote for the holiday choir. It was our “walk-in” song - something that we sang as the audience gathered. It worked well for this purpose because it’s based on a repetitive chord sequence, so its length could be adapted on the fly to cover however long it took the audience to take their seats. I like to make the first tracks on my albums something that has a welcoming quality, so this piece was an easy choice to open The Bells of Distant Stars.

 

Love and Joy is a good example of what I call ostinato-based music. An ostinato is a short musical phrase that can be easily combined with other similar phrases. In recording Daya’s vocals, I had her sing all the different short phrases - including all the harmonies. Then, later in my studio, I experimented with combining these phrases in different ways to get combinations that I felt worked well together. 

 

It can be a real challenge to mix this many of Daya’s vocals (as many as 12 or 16 of her parts all singing at once) and to give them each a distinctive place in the mix. For my son Nathan (who helped me mix the album) and me, it was a very delightful challenge!

 

2  Songs of Olden Days This piece incorporates seven different melodies from the Jewish, Christmas and Indian traditions. It begins with a loose interpretation of Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, a famous African-American spiritual, then the underlying theme that follows is from Patapan, a 17th-century Burgundian carol. Throughout the course of the track, you can hear Shalom Chaverim, a traditional Hebrew folk song, and segments of two Indian bhajans, Focus and I Am in Love With You My Lord. Because all of these melodies are in minor keys, they blend together quite easily. When you listen, see if you can hear the somewhat subtle references to the carol Angels We Have Heard on High and to the fifth movement from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6 No.8. This is a track to be danced to!

 

3 Gathering Together From a young age, I always loved the melody to the Thanksgiving song We Gather Together, and I’ve often thought of doing a version of it. Another beautiful melody that I feel has a similar vibe is from the song Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages), a Jewish prayer written in the 13th century that is sung after lighting the Hanukkah candles (not to be confused with the Christian hymn also called Rock of Ages). In Gathering Together, I’ve combined these two melodies in what I guess you could call a simple, easy-going Country-style arrangement.

 

4 Merrily on High Daya was the one who first turned me on to the fun Christmas carol Ding! Dong! Merrily on High. I had never heard it growing up, and I immediately liked it. It has a similar feeling to the well-known carol Angels We Have Heard on High - especially with the long “Glorias” that are sung in the chorus. The “Glorias” are even longer in Ding! Dong! Merrily on High, so to save Daya from having to sing them all in one long breath, I divided the phrase into two sections that echo each other. If you’re familiar with the carol, it might sound a bit unusual at first, because I don’t have Daya completing the full “Gloria” line until halfway through the song. This is one of the carols that was written in a Baroque style, which to me means that it has a strong rhythm. I think of Baroque as being the rock n’ roll of classical music, so my version of Merrily on High is another one to dance to!

 

5  Come, O Dayspring Bright Aside from a few slight variations I’ve made, this is pretty much a straight-up version of the carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The source of the melody is unknown, but it’s estimated to be from the 13th century, which makes it one of the oldest of all the carols. I have sheet music for a 4-part choral version of the song, so I simply played all four of the vocal parts on the cello. The melody is quite beautiful, but it has a somewhat mournful quality to it, so I felt that the cello would be an instrument that could capture that feeling well. The title comes from the third verse of the song, which begins with the lyrics “O come, o come, thou Dayspring bright.” 

 

6  The Bells of Distant Stars Once I began working on this piece, it completely took on a life of its own and went in directions quite different from what I had envisioned beforehand. It begins with a  sweet, simple melody called Kadesh Ur’chatz that lists the fifteen steps of the Passover Seder (festive meal). From there, I wanted the underlying feeling of the music to be similar to the Carol of the Bells, which is a pretty cool song in itself, so throughout the track you’ll hear suggestions of the famous bell motif that usually starts the song. The Carol of the Bells has a driving quality, which is what I think gives The Bells of Distant Stars the momentum to drive it into some pretty epic territory. It really ends up taking the listener on quite a journey. 

7 The Beautiful Message of Peace This track is my interpretation of How Beautiful Are the Feet, one of the most beautiful movements in Handel’s Messiah. The main lyric of this piece, “How beautiful are the feet of them who bring the message of peace,” has a meaning that I feel is universal and timeless. I knew that having Daya sing it would be something special, and she really captured both the feeling and the message of the lyrics.

 

For people who are familiar with Handel’s version of this piece, it might take a few listenings to get used to the changes I’ve made in the musical arrangement. I’ve always thought that it was strange that Handel wrote music for such an uplifting lyric in a minor key, since minor keys generally have a melancholic quality. There was always a bit of disconnect for me between the music and the lyrics. So, with all due respect to Handel (my favorite composer), I’ve changed some of the minor chords that he used into major chords. I wonder what Handel would say if he heard this version, especially at the end of the song, where I’ve taken the liberty to add my own original section to the piece. This new ending was something that came to me as I got to the end of the song, and it was one of those ideas that flowed completely naturally and seemed to just add itself to the piece.

 

8 The Dance Beckons This track starts off with the Jewish dance song, Zemer Atik (also known as Nigun Atik). I first heard it at a Jewish wedding where everyone gathered in a large circle and did a simple stepping-and-clapping dance to it. As I joined the dance circle, I thought, “Man, this is a really cool piece of music, and I’ve got to use it on something someday!” Zemer Atik morphs into another traditional Hebrew song from the Passover seder called Dayenu - a lively tune that tells the story of the Exodus. I had a lot of fun with this section of The Dance Beckons - it really turns into quite a jam, and it definitely beckons one to dance! I’ve hidden a few hints of other tunes in the piece, so I’ll be curious to see if anyone can identify them!

 

9 Dona Nobis Pacem This beautiful round was written in the 16th-century (the author is unknown), and it is one of the most well-known rounds. The lyrics consist of the three words that make up the title, which are Latin for “Give us peace.” This is another song that I thought Daya could sing beautifully, and sure enough, she did! I’ve added a few harmonies that aren’t included in the round, and on top of those harmonies, Daya sings the word “peace” in several languages: “shalom” (Hebrew), “shanti” (Hindi), and “salaam" (Arabic). This is another song on the album that carries a message of peace - a message that never gets old.

 

10 A Most Magical Night This is the instrumental version of a song I wrote for the holiday choir. The basic message of the song is that we don’t need to wait for holidays to celebrate things like love, thankfulness, and peace. The magical times are when we’re surrounded by people we love — and we should celebrate those times whenever they happen.

 

11 The Silent Princess This is one of my original pieces, and I thought that it fit in well as an ending track to this album. As I mentioned above in the notes about Love and Joy, I like to start an album with a welcoming piece. For the final track, I like to end with something that will leave the listener with a feeling of comfort and peace. The title comes from a poem by the German poet Heinrich Heine called Prinzessin Sabbath (Princess Sabbath).

© 2021 John Adorney Music