By Chris Hewitt
When events overwhelm composer Jake Runestad, he responds the only way he knows how: with music.
Minnesota-based Runestad and Magnum Chorum artistic director Mark Stover have created Requiem: And So I Go On, a program of music curated in response to recent racially charged events.
Im a middle-class white male, an artist, and I struggle with this idea of privilege in ways I cant necessarily help, Runestad says. I attended the memorial for Philando Castile and it was a really complex experience, wanting to show support and be there but also trying to figure out what role I could have. I dont want to trivialize anyone or anything, so I decided the best way I can respond is through my art, to try to foster compassion and bring beauty into the world.
The Requiem performances, Oct. 29 and 30, are a unique opportunity for Runestad, 30, who earned this years American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Morton Gould Young Composer Award.
I dont know if this has been done before. I collaborated with the conductor, Mark Stover, on creating a seamless experience. Usually, it would be a piece and then applause, then another piece and more applause. But this will be straight through, with a thread that creates a journey, Runestad says. Its some of my music and some of my colleagues and Im writing little interludes to connect the works, which will be honoring the people we have lost to gun violence.
The evenings story of beauty and loss will include Runestads And So I Go On and Come to the Woods, as well as a Billy Joel song (no snob, Runestad insists music is music), settings of traditional hymns and a premiere of Paul Rudois Evolution of Christ.
Social justice themes often inspire Runestads work. He grew up in Illinois and studied music at Winona State University, planning to be a Mr. Hollands Opus-type teacher. But a residency by world-renowned composer Libby Larsen turned into an invitation to study and, eventually, a move to Minneapolis.
I think my art is a way of discovering, trying to understand or question something, says Runestad, who considers Larsen a mentor. I dont know that Im blatant with what I believe but I hope my music supplies some path into that experience. Ultimately, what I want to do is to foster compassion.
Runestad is proudest of Dreams of the Fallen. The piece for which he won the ASCAP award, it sets poems by a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan on music that illuminates the impact of war on an individual. Another piece, We Can Mend the Sky, was inspired by an essay by a Somali teenager.
Making a living as a composer you can listen to and purchase his work at his website means traveling three or four times a month. Runestad says hes come to love the travel, which is a change of pace from the necessarily solitary time he spends alone, composing.
I love being able to meet and interact with all kids of different people. Whats so special is that these are people Ive never met in my entire life, Runestad says. I arrive to work with them and its like, suddenly, we know each other because we connect through the music. Ive never felt that with anything else before.
Next spring, Runestad will perform a residency at Carnegie Hall, where Dreams of the Fallen will be performed, and, closer to home, VocalEssence will tackle We Can Mend the Sky.
Somewhere in there, Runestad also hopes to spend a little time with the thing that inspires him as much as social justice issues: nature. A big-time hiker, his work also includes music set on texts by legendary naturalist John Muir, who describes climbing a tree in the middle of a storm, in an effort to experience it more fully.
Favorite Runestad hikes include the North Shore, Washingtons Mt. Rainier and Peru any of which might end up in his thoughts as he figures out what to do next. Runestad is not sure what that will be, but the veteran of high school musicals has the glimmer of an idea.
I love writing music for the theater, for opera. Its like the perfect combination to make a statement. I dream about that so, yeah, I would love to do a bigger piece in the next few years, says Runestad, whose teachers also include Kevin Puts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Minnesota Operas Silent Night. It feels very natural that that would be the next step: a big old opera.