When composer Jake Runestad addressed an audience of mostly students last night, the first thing he pointed out was that he is not dead. The word composer, he said, might evoke in their minds an image of some long-dead European dude with wild hair and an unpronounceable name, but no: if Runestad is any indication, today's composers wear hip suits and use mousse and emphasize the joy of playing with music.
Runestad's talk, punctuated by glorious performances of some of his works by our college's concert choir, provided abundant evidence that the liberal arts continue to feed spirits even in our hectic information age. His creative process requires mastery of the technological tools that put notes on the page, but those notes spring from long stretches of time devoted to studying and internalizing texts. Most of the works performed last night were settings of poetic works by poets as different as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Wendell Berry--a setting of "The Peace of Wild Things" that made me want to lie down and die right now so the choir can sing it at my funeral.
Runestad draws on works of both established and lesser-known authors; "Dreams of the Fallen," his new work for orchestra, piano, and choir, sets to music poetry by Iraq war veteran Brian Turner. By far my favorite, though, is "We Can Mend the Sky," a choral work based on poetry written by young Somali immigrants to the U.S. (Click here to listen.) The piece opens on a dramatic note, with drums and shifting rhythms creating tension, but it then moves toward a solo expressing deep yearning for peace before developing into a rousing chorus proclaiming "If we come together, we can mend a crack in the sky" performed so joyfully that it made me believe.
The students, of course, had the most fun singing Runestad's popular "Nyon Nyon," a work composed entirely of gibberish and allowing accomplished singers to break out their amusing mouth-noises. Runestad explained that he wrote that piece as a college student because he just wanted to play around with words and sounds and music. His playfulness, of course, is grounded in a deep understanding of how music works, a willingness to delve into texts until they become a part of his psyche, and an ability to employ technological tools to disseminate the results.
I hope my students heard that message, and I hope they will pursue that highly informed and creative play. But more than that, I hope they will listen to the music and know that the arts are not any more dead than is Jake Runestad.