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Reviews

The Starlit Jewel

Joy Like Swords

Reviewed by Paula DiSante

The Starlit Jewel
Avalon Rising
Flowinglass Music
2821 Truman Ave.
Oakland, CA 94605

…the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold…. And he sang to them…until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

—The Return of the King

Half of the songs on this captivating tape, The Starlit Jewel, were originally known as The Rivendell Suite, a musical setting for seven poems by J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s been nearly three decades since distinguished fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote the melodies for these seven songs. Now they are newly arranged and performed by Mediaeval-Celtic fusion ensemble Avalon Rising, with six additional Tolkien poems and original melodies to round out the collection.

Avalon Rising, which performed to acclaim at the 1996 Mythcon in Boulder, is Margaret Davis, Kristoph Klover, Deirdre McCarthy and Beth Milne. They are joined on the tape by a number of talented guest musicians and singers. The songs cover poems from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, “sung” in the books by such Middle-earth luminaries as Bilbo, Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and Galadriel. In The Starlit Jewel, Davis, Klover and McCarthy share the bulk of the singing duties – and splendidly so. This is a work that begs for many listenings, much as a hobbit might clamor to hear, over and over, his favorites tunes from near and far.

The group plays beautifully to its strengths – effortless harmonies and deft facility in numerous traditional and modern instruments. In “Hobbit Walking Song,” one hears arguably the most recognizable of Tolkien’s poems: “Roads go ever ever on…” It is a charming tune, the voices comfortably hobbit-like, friendly and familiar. Recorders and harp add to this charm. The melody is uncomplicated and simple, the unmistakable sound of a heart yearning for home.

Lament for Boromir” is a measured, evocative elegy for a beloved dead warrior. In some ways, the musical setting and vocals here are almost better suited to a song by the Rohirrim, rather than the men of Gondor. The “slow voices of the Riders stirred the hearts even of those who did not know the speech of that people,” as Tolkien described. Although sung in English, “Lament for Boromir” has that same mournful, moving effect.

Galadriel’s Lament” and “Song of the Eldar in Exile” are showcases for Davis’s crystal soprano. Klover’s vocals on “Merry Old Inn,” as well as the energetic music, gives the song a light-hearted feel one might term “hobbit bluegrass.” “When Spring Unfolds,” the song of the Ent and the Entwife, has echoes of 19th century American frontier tunes, very much like Western ballads sung around a campfire. As such, the guitar work on “When Spring Unfolds” is particularly appropriate. Overall, the musicianship displayed in the entire collection is excellent.

The real standout among a tape full of gems is “Lay of Nimrodel,” which opens with the elegant, floating notes of a recorder so keen and pure as to be almost oriental in its sound and in its depth of longing. A steady fall of silvery notes from Davis’s harp shapes the melody, transforming the singer’s chant into a river of words and music flowing effortlessly over the listener.

This poem is one of Tolkien’s most haunting, and this exquisite new music makes it even more so. Davis accompanies her own soaring lead vocal, to eventually be joined by others, meshing melody and harmony into sheer magic. The song is so quintessentially Elvish as to give the listener chills. It is best experienced with the volume up and eyes closed. Let Davis’s voice sweep you into the midst of the song, pierce you to the heart, then let you go. You will not escape unchanged.

The Starlit Jewel is a rare collection – a must for admirers of Tolkien’s Middle-earth poetry and for lovers of well-played, well-sung music. With luck it will one day make its way onto the more permanent medium of compact disc. In the meantime, you’ll find yourself wearing out the tape. Highly recommended.