Musical Time Travel

The Rose Ensemble makes ancient tunes new again

*To listen to The Rose Ensemble, visit our Music Clips page.

There’s a Latin craze going on, fueled by monks, not mojitos. Latin, the language of ancient Rome and the modern legal system—the supposedly dead tongue—is the lingua franca of the Rose Ensemble, a St. Paul-based choir that for more than a decade has performed the mostly sacred music of the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. And recently, despite the fact that most audience members can’t understand a word the group is singing, it has been invited to perform their chants, motets, and other ancient song forms in places ranging from the Har Mar Mall in Roseville to Willmar, Fergus Falls, and La Crosse, Wisconsin. This month they will perform at the Walker Art Center in collaboration with a New York punk-metal band, pushing the limits of Latin music to the maximus.

Most of the time, the Rose Ensemble sings in churches, such as the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, a natural habitat for music that aspires to the divine. But the ensemble’s founder and artistic director, Jordan Sramek, has never been content to simply reproduce ancient music, or early music, as it is known, like some choral anachronism, like the Fort Snelling of singers. Which is not to say that Sramek manipulates the music to modern tastes—there are no drum-machine fills or doo-wop choruses, and though he swears he someday is going to sing a Bette Midler song (namely, “The Rose”) in Latin, he has yet to do it. His choir is doing the Walker gig—performing a 15th-century choral work and organ piece reinvented for screaming guitar and thudding drums—simply as a hired gun; Sramek didn’t initiate the project. But he nevertheless finds ways to make inherently esoteric music no more intimidating than a Shakespeare play.

Sramek, who sports a nose ring and Vandyke-style facial hair, became interested in early music while studying vocal performance at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. Upon hearing his voice, one of the college’s nuns told him, “You were born to sing Gregorian chant,” à la the Spanish monks whose million-selling chant albums in the early 1990s revealed a surprising demand for ancient, ritualistic music. Indeed, Sramek and his singers have the sort of ethereal-yet-strong voices that echo in stone cathedrals like eternity itself. When Sramek realized that performing ancient music would require extensive research to locate the music, much less put it in context—tapping his interest in history—he was hooked.

Sramek tracks down repertoire for the Rose Ensemble in libraries and other repositories around the world, sometimes flying great distances to dig through manuscripts. “We don’t buy our music at Schmitt’s,” he explains. Most early-music ensembles are located in Europe, where they mine the rich artistic troves of Italy, France, and England. And so does Sramek—the Rose Ensemble’s most recent holiday program was “Christmas in Eliza-bethan England.” But he has also explored the music of Poland, colonial Mexico, and Hawaii. This spring he will present music created for Sweden’s Queen Christina, with narration by author Patricia Hampl.

Sramek is rarely content to let such foreign music speak for itself. He has interspersed songs with humorous, travelogue-style narration and even enlisted modern dancers to perform with the singers. “The idea isn’t to pelt people with obscurity,” he says. “We’re trying to stimulate their intellect, not bore them.”

The Rose Ensemble, which performs during vespers services at the Basilica of Saint Mary, is often “misidentified,” Sramek says, as a religious group. “Do you have to do all this stuff about God?” he often is asked. The music, however, is often sacred by necessity; the Catholic Church was once the only institution, with the possible exception of royal courts, with the means to transcribe and preserve music. In any case, Sramek believes the gorgeousness of the choral arrangements transcends its intentions, as well as its obscurity.

“Before a show, people will call me to ask, ‘Will there be anything I know?’ ” says Sramek. “I say, ‘Does that matter?’ I would never choose unbeautiful music.”

The Separation: A Song Cycle on Church and State will be performed February 2 and 3 at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-375-7600.

*To listen to The Rose Ensemble, visit our Music Clips page.

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