REGARDLESS of the optimism evoked by the popular phrase "a new world order" and the abatement of cold war rivalries, artistic explorations of the effects of war and the hunger for peace are still timely.Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" inspire hope for peace, but also force listeners to confront the numbing realities of conflicts yet unresolved. A recent work by an American composer tackles anew such age-old themes - not as black and white extremes of good and evil - but as complex, layered, and shifting forces. Chords may resolve, but the conflict never does. "Swords and Plowshares," Ned Rorem's new work for orchestra and four voices, casts 14 moving poems in both harmonically lush and physically jarring settings. Debuted last week by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the work represents an important contemporary attempt to address war, death, life, and peace - though in a cautiously nonpropagandistic way. In his debut with the BSO, conductor Hugh Wolff shared the stage with soloists Cynthia Haymon (soprano), Katherine Ciesinski mezzo-soprano), Gran Wilson (tenor), and Andrew Wentzel (bass-baritone). The first seven texts, by such authors as Arthur Rimbaud ("Asleep in the Valley"), W.H. Auden ("O What Is That Sound'), and Archibald MacLeish ("The Too-Late Born") focus on the horrors of war, while the last seven touch upon the effects of peace. Denise Levertov's poem "Making Peace," for example, calls for acrobatic vocal leaps for the soprano soloist on its way to the final line "...peace, a presence,/an energy field more intense than war,/might pulse then,/stanza by stanza into the world,/each act of living/one of its words, each word/a vibration of light - facets/of the forming crystal." Closing the entire work is Psalm 133 ringing out, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Mr. Rorem - known for his skill at setting words to music - selected all the texts, a task more arduous, he says, than composing the music. Some poems portray an ironic view of death as a gateway to peace, as in W.B. Yeats's "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death." Emily Dickinson's humorous "To Make a Prairie" hints at the uncomplicated peace that exists in the natural world. "This is not a simple piece and it doesn't have a simple message," says conductor Wolff. "There are a lot of layers in the music, and certainly in the poetry. One shouldn't come [to the performance] expecting to be taken from war and transformed into peace. The piece is as complex as civilization is, in the subtleties it tries to explore along the way." In an interview, Rorem talked about picking the texts. "Some of the literature is 2,500 years apart. The songs of David or the poem of Denise Levertov [the only living author presented] are very, very removed. So the problem is not so much finding individual poems as finding a collection of poems that would gel." In setting words to music, "I always feel I'm cheating because here this terrific piece of literature exists, and who am I to swath this perfect skeleton with my dubious flesh?" Rorem, winner of two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his orchestral suite "Air Music," is a pacifist and atheist. "The world seems to be getting better, but I take a dim view of it." That nations might abandon war is "wishful thinking," he says. "I don't believe in political music in the sense of making a statement that can alter the way people think.... These pieces don't try to hit you over the head with pacifism. They're simply good poetry that happens to be about the state of the world," he says. "Swords and Plowshares" was commissioned in 1986 by WCRB 102.5 FM, Classical Radio Boston, in honor of its 40th anniversary. Station founder, the late Ted Jones, himself a pacifist and clergyman, initially wanted a "peace" piece with plenty of pageantry - visuals, dance, huge choruses. Soprano Leslie Holmes, artistic liaison for the station, recalls part of the discussion that ensued between Jones and the composer: "I can just imagine portraying a nuclear explosion with kettle drums and snare drums," Jones said. Replied Rorem: "I think it would be better portrayed by five minutes of silence." Rorem opted for a scaled-down vocal approach and asked to come up with his own libretto, to which Jones agreed. "The piece as it is now is very different from what Ted had envisioned," says Ms. Holmes, "but I think he would be very proud."