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Three CD covers next to an old manuscript.

Three prototype CD covers created by a University instructor and his students for The Rose Ensemble, a St. Paul-based choral group known for Gregorian chants and Renaissance music.

The marriage of type and ancient music

U students help local choral group redesign CD covers

By Pauline Oo

May 23, 2006

"Archeologists digging for bones." That's how Bill Moran describes the students in his three-year-old University of Minnesota design minor course, Travels in Typography. Unlike archeologists, however, the students don't turn up skulls and broken pottery. They discover ancient letters, symbols, icons, and illustrations from the University's James Ford Bell Library--a treasure trove of some of the world's finest examples of the printed word.

This spring, instead of just learning about the evolution of type, including developments in calligraphy and letterpress printing, Moran's students got a lesson in redesigning CD covers that could transport their owners to a former time.

"When Jordan [Sramek, the founder and artistic director of The Rose Ensemble,] approached me to redesign two CD covers, I said, 'Let's redo them all'--because the originals were such a mishmash of designs," recalls Moran, a graphic designer by trade and third-generation letterpress printer who owns Blinc Publishing in St. Paul, Minn. The Rose Ensemble has captivated audiences nationally and internationally for the past 10 years with its interpretations of ancient music. The Twin Cities group, which has five CDs to its name, combines Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music with folklore. "Soon after that conversation, I proposed to Jordan and Janet [Abrams, the U's Design Institute director] that we take this [CD redesign] on as a historical project involving the U's library system and the students in my class," says Moran. In addition to the James Ford Bell's collection, he adds, "historically significant printing examples" are also abundant at the U's music library in Ferguson Hall and the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank.

A hidden treasure

The James Ford Bell Library, located on the 4th floor of Wilson Library on the West Bank, has more than 20,000 rare books, 2,500 maps, and 2,500 manuscripts documenting European expansion and international trade between ca. 1400 and ca. 1800. The collection was donated by James Ford Bell, the founder of General Mills, in 1953--eight years prior to his death. Bell, whose name also graces the U's Bell Museum of Natural History, was a University graduate from the class of 1901 and a regent for 21 years.

The library also has an active publishing and teaching program. It publishes books ranging from translations of selected documents from its collection to volumes of essays, as well as a series of educational pamphlets.

Library hours during the summer are Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m., with appointments welcome for other times. When you visit, make sure to stop in the Bell Room, a reading room right out of the 16th century. If the four large stained-glass windows depicting English country life don't stop you in your tracks, the handcrafted wood panels or the 200-pound two-tiered brass chandelier surely will.

The combination of classroom and service learning or outreach is not uncommon at the U. Each year, hundreds of University of Minnesota students are solving problems for real-life clients and getting the chance to plump up their resumes while pursuing their degrees.

"There's nothing more pleasing than to have young people working on and researching a project," says Sramek. "They can offer a perspective you may not have thought of or a different way to look at something."

In February, each of Moran's six students was given a Rose Ensemble CD and asked to find the unifying element--an image or icon--that would best represent the music and the period that inspired it.

In March, it was show-and-tell time.

Senior Dave Hagen--who had The Rose Ensemble's third recording, "Slavic Holiday: Legends from Ancient Czechoslovakia and Poland"--hinted at the possibility of ignoring common religious iconography on the CD cover in favor of Gothic art, namely, the pointed arches and flying buttresses of cathedrals prevalent in Slavic culture. (The original cover featured an aerial view of a nondescript city in purple.) Senior Jen Barger brought along photocopied samples of sculpture, religious paintings, and typefaces from 16th century Spain for the presentation; all were likely candidates to replace the unnamed angel gracing the cover of her CD, "Seasons of Angels: Harmony of the Spheres." For Jesse Eiden, the task required delving deep into 17th century Eastern European politics and history. The fire and cross on the CD she was given, "Fire of the Soul: Choral Virtuosity in 17th Century Russia and Poland," were striking, yet told one little about the similarities that existed between Polish Renaissance and Russian Orthodox cultures.

Choral virtuoso

The Rose Ensemble specializes in the revival and preservation of ancient music and holds its vocal performances in various locations throughout the Twin Cities, especially in historical architectural landmarks such as the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

"There's always a story behind our music," says Jordan Sramek, artistic director. "Early music is one of the ways we learn who we are and what happened in the past." To learn more about the group and its CD collection, see The Rose Ensemble.

In April, with feedback from their client, the students continued or refined their research.

"The project has been surprising in terms of [the] research," says Hagen, who is majoring in graphic design. "I'm learning that graphic design is so much more than making things look good."

Moran says the "pick and shovel work" is over now and the students have received their grades. Moran is currently working with Sramek to finalize the images for all of the CDs.

Bill Moran, Jennifer Hathaway, and Jordan Sramek.
Rose Ensemble founder Jordan Sramek (right) and U instructor Bill Moran review a student's research findings.

Photo by Pauline Oo

"The most valuable contribution of the students has been to help us get into the time and place [the music evokes]," says Moran. "It's now up to the client to decide if the CDs are siblings or cousins [and that relationship will drive the similarity of their look]." The new CD covers are expected to debut this summer. In addition to fresh visuals, each CD will be enveloped in environmentally friendly paper-based jackets instead of plastic cases.

"Most of us buy wine or a CD because of the label or cover," says Moran. "In this case, what you see and read will become a doorway, another way to appreciate the music."

Further reading: combining classroom and service learning Saving the past Village lights Good neighbor policy