LYRIC: Cello Songs

When composer Jake Runestad was commissioned to write a work for choir and cello, he knew he wanted to give the cello a strong voice in a piece that celebrates its fullest range of moods.

On his living room wall, Jake has a letterpress broadside of the poem “Cello” by Dorianne Laux. Its central image is a fallen tree, lying in the arms of a living one. As years pass, it “…rubs its fallen body / against the living, building / its dead music / making its raw mark, / wearing the tough bough down / as it moans and bends, the deep / rosined bow sound of the living / shouldering the dead.”

Todd created a new four-movement text inspired by Dorianne’s poem. Intended as love songs—and written sparingly so as to allow the cello plenty of interpretive space—"Cello Songs" uses the four seasons as a structure to examine how the cello's richness and complexity might mean very different things to us at different times in our lives.

Its unique last movement, "Spring," consists of just two lines of text, graphically scattered across the page in a kind of visual puzzle representing a soft rainfall—a puzzle Runestad embraced in a composition that ends in a patter of technical playfulness and joyful release.

"Cello Songs" was commissioned by Doug Bella and David Hunt for the St. Charles Singers in memory of mother Doris J. Hunt. It premieres in St. Charles, Illinois, October 2-3, 2021. It marks Todd's eighth collaboration with Jake.

One of the joys of a healthy collaborative relationship—realized only over much time and effort—is the extent to which each artist can urge the other into new creative challenges. Jake and I are constantly pushing back against one another in a process I've come to think of as "gainful aggravation." Like good actors who keep opening scene possibilities to one another, we've come to crave the hard-won surprises that result.