Jake Runestad (b. 1986)
Come to the Woods (2015)
“I think my art is a way of discovering, trying to understand or question something. ... I hope my music supplies some path into that experience. Ultimately, what I want to do is to foster compassion.”
— Jake Runestad
Minnesota-based composer Jake Runestad has created music for orchestra, wind band, chorus, chamber ensembles, and opera. He is a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins and has studied extensively with Minnesota composer Libby Larsen, whom he regards as a mentor.
Runestad’s choral music is performed frequently by groups around the world, and he has developed “… a particular knack for marrying powerful music to texts that speak to some of the most pressing and moving issues of our time,” according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. His Dreams of the Fallen, for example, a work for solo piano, chorus and orchestra, explores the impact of war on individual soldiers, especially after they return from combat. It was commissioned by a consortium of five U.S. orchestras and premiered in 2013.
Runestad is also an avid hiker — “a big-time hiker,” according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press — whose favorite hikes include the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Mt. Rainer area in Washington state, and treks in Peru. Serious hikers inevitably encounter the prolific writings of John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist, environmental philosopher, “Father of the National Parks,” and co-founder of the Sierra Club. In the writings of John Muir, Runestad found vivid descriptions of months-long hiking trips in the Sierra Nevadas and elsewhere, recorded with a highly tuned musical sensitivity to natural sounds. He selected and adapted excerpts to prepare the text for this composition.
The opening salutation of Come to the Woods — “Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue” (July 31, 1869) — is recorded in Muir’s 1911 book, My First Summer in the Sierra. Then, from his 1894 The Mountains of California (Chapter 10), comes Muir’s description of a wind storm in the forest.
In December of 1874, Muir had stopped at a friend’s house instead of camping. He heard the gathering wind storm, saw the trees bending, and ran straight into the Sierra forest for the experience. He described it in musical terms, with individual trees producing varying tones, “each expressing itself in its own way — singing its own song, making its own peculiar gestures — manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.”
He wanted to hear it better, to feel the power of the wind and the resistance of the trees. Muir had seen many trees uprooted or broken in wind storms, but never a Douglas spruce, so he carefully chose a Douglas and climbed almost to the top. He was there for hours, holding fast to the tree as the winds blew the treetop in an arc of 20 to 30 degrees. “There was nothing somber in all this wild sea of pines,” he wrote. “The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion.”
But nature’s powers, displayed awesomely in a storm, extend also to quiet healing of the spirit. On the heels of the natural power of that wind storm comes a benediction from Muir and Runestad: “Come to the woods, for here is rest.”
Come to the Woods
Adapted by the composer from writings of John Muir
Another glorious day, the air as delicious
to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.
The day was full of sparkling sunshine,
and at the same time enlivened with one of
the most bracing wind storms.
The mountain winds bless the forests with love.
They touch every tree, not one is forgotten.
When the storm began to sound,
I pushed out into the woods to enjoy it.
I should climb one of the trees for a wider look.
The sounds of the storm were glorious with
wild exuberance of light and motion.
Bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round,
in this wild sea of pines.
The storm-tones died away, and turning toward the east,
I beheld the trees, hushed and tranquil.
The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say,
“Come to the woods, for here is rest.”