Rather than hire a babysitter when they had choir practice at night, the parents of Jake Runestad simply took their son along to rehearsals.
“I would just run around in the choir room, and I think a lot of that music seeped into my brain,” says Runestad (pronounced RUN-uh-sted), speaking last week from his home in Minneapolis. “There was just a lot of music in my own environment, and participation in that music.”
Runestad’s exposure to music in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., led to playing sax in the school band, college studies as a music educator and composer, and this week, a world premiere of his newest work by the Miami concert choir Seraphic Fire, which commissioned it with a grant from the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music.
The choir, led by founder Patrick Dupré Quigley, will give five performances of Runestad’s The Hope of Loving, a cantata for choir and string quartet, beginning Wednesday. The opening concert of Seraphic Fire’s 14th season also will include the Mass in G (Mass No. 2, D. 167) of Franz Schubert, accompanied by the New York period-music ensemble The Sebastians, as well as songs by Beethoven (the rarely heard Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118), Brahms (including his setting of Psalm 13), and the 19th-century Liechtensteiner organist and composer Josef Rheinberger (his Three Sacred Songs, inserted between movements of the Schubert Mass).
Runestad said he got one of his first big breaks from Seraphic Fire, which has performed and recorded his short sacred piece, I Will Lift Mine Eyes, a sweet, lush, pretty setting of Psalm 121 that burns with a deeply felt sincerity and has proven very popular with collegiate and church choirs (as a look at YouTube will demonstrate).
“(Quigley) was going to program ‘I Will Lift Mine Eyes,’ and it was around that time that we connected on Facebook,” Runestad said. “And then there was a message sent — I can’t remember if I sent it or he sent it —but we just made that connection, and that really started everything.”
The new piece is based on five poems from a 2002 collection of mystical works called Love Poems From God: Twelve Sacred Voices From the East and West, edited by Daniel Ladinsky. From this book, Runestad has chosen texts by Rabia, Hafiz, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, and Meister Eckhart. The poems speak of the importance and power of love, a subject that Runestad finds central to questions of society and civilization.
“I attempted to write about the divine in humanity, and I think there’s some of that in this piece. But it really started to shift, and I think that shift happened because of what I was seeing in the world, and the need for a message,” he said. “As an artist, I try to be really sensitive to what it is that’s going on in our society, and what I can bring to that. What can I say, or what can I propose, or bring to question that might help us to figure something out.
“And one need that I’ve seen so much about with all of the pain and the violence and everything else that’s going on in our world, is love. And that sounds so simple, but in thinking about all these elements … I think in some cases there’s a lack of giving love or a lack of receiving love,” he said. “And that’s something I wanted to explore in the piece.”
Runestad chose the poems from Ladinsky’s book that spoke most to him. He then cut up copies of the poems and moved various lines around “like puzzle pieces” in order to get the progression he was looking for.
“I would find these things and compile them to find the right way to put it together, to say what it is I want to say,” Runestad said.
The 15-minute piece is structured in six interconnected movements, with the fourth, subtitled “The Heart’s Veil,” given over to the string quartet. A central motif — two rising quarter notes followed by a descending triplet made of two fourths — runs through the entire cantata, and unifies it. A contemplative opening, “Yield to Love,” set to words by the 8th-century Iraqi mystic Rabia, poses the question of surrender to love, followed by a vigorous, folk-inflected movement, “Wild Forces,” which has a text by St. Francis. “Wondrous Creatures,” with words by the 14th-century Iranian poet Hafiz, is a tenor solo, after which the quartet plays a fugal movement (marked “dark, heavy”) in which a variation of the central motif is the driving force.
Next comes a duet for soprano and baritone, “My Soul Is a Candle,” set to words by the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite friar St. John of the Cross, and the full chorus, which re-enters in the fifth movement, takes over the closing section, “The Hope of Loving,” which features words by Eckhart von Hochheim, the 14th-century German theologian known familiarly as Meister Eckhart.
Runestad’s lyrical style, his use of the motif and the progression of his texts, from an opening question about the importance of accepting love in one’s life to the final affirmation that love is something people absolutely require, make the cantata something of a spiritual journey.
“Part of my view of constructing a piece is I very much think about the human experience. As humans, we live life in narrative, we interpret the world through narrative; everything is on a continuum. We move from one point to another point,” he said. “So what makes sense to me is that narrative idea; that’s in a lot of my music, probably all of my music.”
Runestad is only 29, but he has had a substantial career already. After studies at Eastern Illinois University and Winona State University in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education, he worked with the eminent American composer Libby Larsen, who was doing a residency at Winona State and heard one of his student works for band.
“She really encouraged me. I met with her after the band was done rehearsing one of my pieces … she was asking me a lot about my piece and my process, and she said, ‘Jake, I’d like for you to study with me.’”
Larsen recommended some graduate schools for Runestad to attend following their work together, and soon he found himself in Baltimore, studying at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University with another leading American composer, Kevin Puts.
“Kevin is one of the best orchestrators in the business, and I learned a lot from him about that,” Runestad said. “Probably the biggest takeaways were orchestration and pacing: How do you pace a work? What feels right?”
Since leaving Peabody with a master’s degree in composition, Runestad has had a busy career in which he’s won handfuls of awards from organizations such as ASCAP and the American Composers Forum. His works, primarily vocal, are cataloged on a robust website (www.jakesrunestad.com) and are published through his own company.
“One thing that allows me to write full-time is being my own publisher,” said Runestad, who is single. “Which does many different things, but one, is it allows me to connect with those who purchase and perform my music … it’s a wonderful way to foster community and collaboration.
“Another is that by having my own publishing company I receive a higher royalty for my music when it’s sold, which then in turn allows me to eat,” he said, laughing.
Runestad’s career is taking place in a wide-open time for music and all the arts, he said.
“I think we’re in a really exciting time when it comes to art in that there’s a lot of freedom. We have unlimited access to all kinds of different music, of different visual art, of film, through the Internet, and that has really had an impact on what we see as available,” Runestad said.
“So when I’m thinking about my composer toolkit, I have a lot of different styles that I can use. And it doesn’t necessarily seem like ‘Oh, he’s trying to write that,’ or ‘He’s part of this school,’” he said. “I feel like we’re moving beyond schools … I feel like I’m writing in a time where there’s a lot of acceptance of different kinds of music.”
Which can actually make a composer’s job a little harder.
“Now when we have so many different things we can use … we have so many choices, that sometimes it’s hard to choose. It’s like when you go to the store, and you see 15 different kinds of ketchup. Which one do you choose? Versus, I go to the store and get the ketchup,” he said.
After coming to Miami for The Hope of Loving premiere, Runestad heads to a residency in Kentucky, and also will hear two performances in Dayton, Ohio, next month of his largest work, Dreams of the Fallen, a choral symphony-piano concerto based on writings by a veteran of the Iraq War that premiered in New Orleans in 2013. He’ll also be working on two college choir commissions.
For now, Runestad hopes listeners this week will approach his newest piece in a spirit of discovery.
“I usually don’t like to dictate too much as far as what I want people to hear. But what I do hope is that they will listen with an open mind, with open ears, and remove any sort of preconceived notion of what they want to get out of it,” he said. “And just be open to the experience while they’re there, and what the words might say to them, and what the music might say to them.”
Seraphic Fire will perform its opening concert five times, from Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 18. The program will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in St. Sophia Cathedral, Miami; 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Moorings Presbyterian Church, Naples; 7:30 p.m. Friday in St. Philip’s Episcopal, Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday in All Saints Episcopal, Fort Lauderdale; and at 4 p.m. Sunday in All Souls Episcopal, Miami Beach. Call 305-285-9060 or visit seraphicfire.org.