College of Arts and Humanities

‘Incredibly special’: Clemson students impress Emmy Award-winning composer in one-of-a-kind visit


It’s safe to say Emmy Award-winning composer Jake Runestad will be eager to return to Tigertown when the time comes.

His residency with the Department of Performing Arts from April 24-25 was a success, providing students with numerous learning opportunities through teaching clinics ahead of Clemson University Singers and Cantorei premiering his new choral piece “El Aire Baila” in concert.

“My time at Clemson was incredibly special,” Runestad said after the visit. “I felt warmly welcomed into the Clemson Family, and each interaction I had with the students was engaging, sincere and meaningful. The world premiere of ‘El Aire Baila’ was a highlight. I can’t wait to come back again!”

Joy in imagination and creativity

Runestad’s multi-day visit from Minnesota was spearheaded by Director of Music Anthony Bernarducci.

Mr. Runestad is considered one of the most influential American composers of our time. To have such a highly respected musician at Clemson to learn from and bring new art into existence premiered first to the Clemson community is a life-changing experience. This musical journey has elevated the Clemson Choral Program, Department of Performing Arts and students from countless majors across the University. We were honored to make history with this world premiere and further the Clemson Elevate mission of student experience, research and transforming lives!


Last fall, the Choral Program commissioned a new work from Runestad for Cantorei and the piano. The department arranged for him to work with students through guest lectures, a masterclass and rehearsals ahead of the CU Singers and Cantorei concert on April 25.

A man holds up his left hand while teaching.
Runestad teaches students during a clinic alongside Director of Music and Vocal Studies Anthony Bernarducci. (All photos credit: Morgan Oliver)

Years ago, Runestad wrote a work with texts by Humberto Ak’abal, a Guatemalan poet who died in 2019. During that process, he visited Guatemala to meet with Ak’abal and his family. Now, Runestad is friends with Ak’abal’s widow. He also met his eventual partner there and splits his time in Guatemala and Minnesota.

“‘El Aire Baila’ is an homage to the joy found in imagination and creativity,” he said. “Humberto Ak’abal believed so strongly in the power of reading, what it can do for our imaginations, and the doors it can open. I hoped to capture his own creative spirit and that of the beautiful Guatemalan culture.”

Student feedback

To prepare for the piece’s premiere to the Clemson community, Runestad taught alongside Bernarducci for two festive and personable clinics. More than 50 students attended a question-and-answer session to pick Runestad’s brain about his creative process. He encouraged students to be open-minded about career opportunities.

“What you put into education is what you’ll get out of it. You have to invest in your own educational experience,” he told students. “If you want to learn more about something, you’ve got to speak out about it.”

Junior performing arts voice major Kaleigh Stagich said Runestad’s words clicked with her.

“Jake explained his journey from being an undergraduate music education major to a full-time composer and how that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t acted on specific opportunities,” she said. “As an aspiring music educator mastering my performance skills, this story resonated with me because I have various interests in the music field and hope to act on opportunities as they come.”

Caroline Jeffries, a first-year graduate student active in Cantorei, called the visit the “highlight of my semester.” Going beyond score notes and learning more about Runestad’s vision made it an unforgettable experience.

“It was incredibly special to have Jake with us before our concert to give feedback and guidance on his vision for the piece,” she said. “Jake often emphasized that what you give is what you will get out of it, and we really got to see that in action while performing his pieces. His works are often quite challenging, and seeing the hard work we put into bringing ‘El Aire Balla’ to life was so rewarding!”

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