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Jake Runestad sits down at a baby grand in a sunlight-drenched corner of a friend's Uptown condo. Asked to perform one of his compositions, he looks momentarily panicked, then smiles wryly.

"Oh, no," he says. "I can't," then proceeds with some off-the-cuff riffs ranging from melancholy to boogie-woogie. Apparently just because you write the stuff doesn't mean you can flawlessly play it.

Runestad is a rare musical bird. Not yet 30, he makes a living as a full-time composer. An impressive list of commissions from across the country — including a comic opera that premiered at the Kennedy Center — and enthusiastic reviews have built him a reputation beyond his years in classical circles.

Runestad, who has a particular knack for marrying powerful music to texts that speak to some of the most pressing and moving issues of our time, will see his "Dreams of the Fallen" get its Midwest premiere Sunday as the centerpiece of a concert by the choral group VocalEssence. The 25-minute piece is based on poetry by Iraq war veteran Brian Turner that takes a soldier's point of view on war and loss.

Although "classical" is the genre his work is most often associated with, Runestad chafes at the label.

"I hate using the word classical; it's so restrictive," he said. "Music is music."

Self-taught teen

Runestad, who exudes a sophisticated idealism tempered by a trace of aw-shucks folksiness, grew up in a musical family in Rockford, Ill., where his parents were always singing.

"They would bring me to church choir rehearsals instead of hiring a babysitter, and that's probably why I write so much vocal music," he said.

He taught himself how to play the piano by copying songs from the radio such as Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" and Beatles hits. While other high school boys were saving up to buy a car, he bought studio recording equipment to set up in the basement, learning how to add drums, strings and vocal harmony on his first forays into orchestration.

He attended Winona State University intending to go into music education, but switched to composing after encouragement from teachers. After earning a master's degree from Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he studied with Pulitzer-winning opera composer Kevin Puts, Runestad chose Minneapolis as his new home base for several reasons, including "a strong, supportive arts community; lots of arts funding; plus the American Composers Forum being located in St. Paul."

Another is that it's also home to the woman he considers to be his "musical mother," Libby Larsen.

Larsen, who once was his teacher and continues to be a mentor, "really taught me to think about the 'why' of my music," he said.

Runestad "uses his gift to bring people to issues that matter, such as this powerful piece on soldiers," Larsen said. "Jake believes music can change the world."

"Dreams of the Fallen" came to be while Runestad was thinking about soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder "trying to assimilate back into normal life, but they can't because of the lasting sights, sounds and smells of war."

When a friend, Minneapolis poet Todd Boss, suggested he look at Turner's work, "I knew right away this was it," he said. "It's so visceral."

All in his head

Runestad describes his composing process as "internalization, followed by improvisation. First I want to understand what the words feel like when spoken, then I improvise singing with the same cadence. Instead of forcing music onto the words, I allow the words to dictate what the music will be."

He also incorporates meditation.

"I'll work a bit, then lie down, close my eyes and visualize the performers and the space. When I go to hear live music, I have a hard time not closing my eyes because that introspection is automatic."

One collaborator told him his music "connects with the head and the heart, and that's what I want it to do," he said. "I want it to be relevant, to address things happening in our world."

He's always on the lookout for interesting texts, whether it be a biblical passage from Psalms or a poem by a 14-year-old Somali girl. His work "We Can Mend the Sky" came from the latter, after he read 100 submissions from a poetry club started by his sister when she taught at Whittier International School in south Minneapolis.

"Somalia has one of the strongest spoken-word cultures in the world," he said. "So it made sense to ask these kids to write about what the immigrant experience feels like, being the odd one out, and what it means to be accepted."

Runestad is passionate about more than music. Doughnuts, for one thing, as a perusal of his Facebook page will show you, and also — on a grander scale — the great outdoors. He's fallen in love with the hiking trails along Lake Superior. Last summer, he took "a pilgrimage" to Yosemite National Park, the beloved haunt of John Muir, the proto-environmentalist who inspired one of his most recent pieces.

"Muir was eccentric with a buoyant but introspective energy," Runestad said. "I can picture him frolicking down a trail and stopping to hug trees and smell the wind. The opening line of the piece is, 'Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.' "

Admiration for Argento

VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle first encountered Runestad after he moved to Minnesota from Baltimore and auditioned for the chorus, for which he sang baritone for a couple of years.

Runestad is exceptional because he has an innate sense of how to write instrumentation and vocal parts, Brunelle said: "He knows how to put words to music to make it comfortable for the voice, but he's also a good orchestrator. Another person who could was Dominick Argento, who also came to Minneapolis right out of school in his 20s."

In fact, Argento, the Pulitzer winner from Minneapolis, is the first name out of Runestad's mouth when asked about other living composers he admires.

"His 'Walden Pond' is among my top five pieces of all time," he said.

Turner, the poet whose work inspired "Dreams of the Fallen," saw it performed in New Jersey.

"I got to sit next to him at the concert," Runestad said. "I was a little nervous, but more excited for him to hear it than anything else. He said it was powerful and moving. I think he wanted to hear it again."

With Runestad's career off to such a promising start, hearing from him again seems a foregone conclusion.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046