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.
“I’m a middle-class white male, an artist, and I struggle with this idea of privilege in ways I can’t 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 don’t 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 year’s American Society of Composers, Authors and Publisher’s Morton Gould Young Composer Award.
“I don’t 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. “It’s some of my music and some of my colleagues’ and I’m writing little interludes to connect the works, which will be honoring the people we have lost to gun violence.”
The evening’s story of beauty and loss will include Runestad’s “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 Rudoi’s “Evolution of Christ.”
Social justice themes often inspire Runestad’s work. He grew up in Illinois and studied music at Winona State University, planning to be a ” ‘Mr. Holland’s 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 don’t know that I’m 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 he’s 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. What’s so special is that these are people I’ve never met in my entire life,” Runestad says. “I arrive to work with them and it’s like, suddenly, we know each other because we connect through the music. I’ve 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, Washington’s 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. It’s 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 Opera’s “Silent Night.” “It feels very natural that that would be the next step: a big old opera.”