Jake Runestad's "Dreams of the Fallen" is the latest addition to classical war music

About a minute into Jake Runestad's new composition, the soldier's story Dreams of the Fallen, a solo piano line rushes from the haunting hum of an orchestra's worried woodwinds and strings, as if trying to flee. The pianist runs through clusters of notes, like a man darting from one hiding place to the next, until the strings settle into a reassuring melody and the piano becomes less frazzled. The orchestra seems to counsel calm before the strings erupt into an even more chaotic and frightful melody, sending the piano darting again. The opening of Dreams is a disorienting barrage of fear and anxiety meant to convey the experience of battle.

Runestad, Peab '11 (MM), didn't just want to convey war's violent calamity, though. With Dreams, commissioned by a consortium of five orchestras and debuted on Veterans Day 2013 by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and Symphony Chorus of New Orleans, Runestad wanted to focus on the broader experience of today's soldiers, from deployment through combat and the return home. He has produced an intimate addition to classical war music.

"I had been reading a lot of news articles about soldiers coming home and really struggling to assimilate back into everyday life," Runestad says. In 2009, the National Institutes of Health called post-traumatic stress disorder a growing epidemic among veterans; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD affects 11 percent of veterans returning from Afghanistan and 20 percent of those returning from Iraq. Runestad felt that he had seen little of the full narrative arc, from civilian to soldier and back to ordinary life. He wanted to tell that complete story. That first led him to read poetry about war and soldiering, since his commission as composer required a choral element. He read Horace, whose Ode 3.2 contains the line "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," which roughly translates to "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." He read Walt Whitman's Civil War poems. He read Wilfred Owen, the World War I British soldier whose experiences in the trenches led him to deem "dulce et decorum" the "old lie." Runestad realized that how war is culturally framed and perceived has changed, and that he needed poetry that understood contemporary combat.

He found what he was looking for in the writings of Brian Turner, an Iraqi War veteran. The imagery in his 2005 collection Here, Bullet—the titular poem opens, "If a body is what you want,/ then here is bone and gristle and flesh"—seared itself into Runestad's mind. "It has this immediate communication and powerful language," he says. "It's just such real, rough human emotion. I knew that I wanted to base [the piece] on his work."

The composer turned to a different writer for his composition's structure. Matterhorn, the 2010 debut novel of Vietnam War veteran Karl Marlantes, is a grueling account of a single company fighting near the Laotian border in 1969. Marlantes followed that novel up with the nonfiction What It Is Like to Go to War, in which he candidly explores how combat changes a person and what a soldier needs upon returning home. Reading Marlantes prompted Runestad to spend more time investigating the re-entry process. "What I kept finding through all of these resources was two main things that soldiers need when they return—the first one being some sort of ceremony or a rite of passage to transition from the war experience back home, a sense of closure. The other is a sense of community."

Runestad gave Dreams a three-part structure, like a rite, and then deliberately avoided the bugles and martial drums and march time typically associated with martial music. "My goal was to evoke a sense of place and experience," he says. "So at times, there are these moments of great tension; there are these moments where I've tried to evoke a dreamlike experience. I think of the [solo] pianist as a character, as someone who is experiencing all of this, and the orchestra is the sonic landscape that describes the place or a feeling. And the choir is at times commentary and at times the inner voice of the pianist."

The result is music that has both shifting ambient moods and narrative drive. It moves through a number of conflicting emotions and, by the composition's end, the contrast between piano and orchestra is less harsh than in the beginning. That's not to suggest that Dreams of the Fallen claims a soldier's story is tidily resolved once he's reacclimated to home. The snippet of Turner's poetry that concludes the piece articulates the composition's open-ended coda: "And I keep telling myself that if I walk far enough/ or long enough someday I'll come out the other side."