You Can All Join In

"You hear modern chant every day": Workshopping at the Highland Park branch library

"You hear modern chant every day": Workshopping at the Highland Park branch library

Nerds: Every town has them. Our town has a lot of them. Perhaps it's because Minneapolis-St. Paul is the nerd of the Midwest. We try to be cool, with our new hockey team and our bad-ass governor and our "Site of the NCAA basketball tournament finals" coup. But come on: Where else could you find even one person psyched to be sitting in a library auditorium waiting to hear a lecture on Gregorian chant?

Jordan Sramek, artistic director of the Rose Ensemble, has drawn a crowd of ten to the Highland Park branch of the St. Paul Public Library for his workshop, which is entitled, "No, You Don't Have to be a Monk!" Pretty impressive, considering that this is the second such event in the past few months, and that participation involves performing pre-Renaissance vocal music in front of strangers. A youthful, blond, drama-club type, Jordan introduces himself, then proceeds to deconstruct the popular chant myths. "Being a young person in love with chant," he declares, "my goal in life is to bring to light that chant really isn't about dark monasteries and hoods."

He invites us to share the first things we think of when we hear the word "chant." "Church!" shouts a graying woman in the front row. "Solemn!" yells another. "Monty Python!" calls one of the two gentlemen in the room, causing his fellow music lovers to laugh uproariously. Most of the women look flushed, twitching excitedly in their chairs and giggling, as though it were Fabio reading from a thick text on medieval music and not a scrawny guy in a beret.

After a half-hour of remedial history (Q: How did Gregorian chant get its name? A: From St. Gregory, who invented it when he was a monk), it's time to chant. Jordan assigns each in turn a Latin syllable to vocalize, and tries to bolster our chanting confidence. "You hear modern chant every day. Like, um, 'By Mennen!'"

He belts out a few more advertising jingles, opera-style. The women fluff their hair and clear their throats, and we're on our way. Before long we're ready to assay an entire chant. Handing out a lyric sheet, Jordan explains that in medieval times, cantors didn't need to write down chants because their memories were so good. "The medieval mind was like a sieve," he reveals. "It would just suck everything in, because there were no distractions back then."

I'm still trying to figure out that one.

LIKE JESTERS' HATS and Dungeons and Dragons, yo-yos and juggling fall within the province of the nerd. (Performing five rotations of a Mach 5 from a split-bottom mount never did lure the ladies back to your dorm room.) But at Southdale on this sunny Saturday, the Garden Court stage is a bigger draw than the food court. That's thanks to Air Traffic Kites and Games (the Twin Cities' headquarters for yo-yos, disc golf, and 38-sided dice), which is sponsoring the Minnesota State Yo-Yo Championships 2001.

More than a hundred people are crowded around the judging platform to watch a chubby kid attempt to walk the dog. The judges, all of whom are members of Minnesota's yo-yo elite, thoughtfully rub their scraggly goatees and fill out the scoring cards. Young hopefuls, meanwhile, practice behind the stage, performing superstitious rituals and checking strings for possible frays.

Between contestants, the parents in the audience stoically endure the whining of their kids, who are begging, seemingly in unison, for a new, state-of-the-art yo-yo, one that will allow them to execute the rocket or the spaghetti with unparalleled panache--and one that will set Mom or Dad back a hundred beans at Air Traffic. The strangeness of this public spectacle is mesmerizing. Consumers laden with their department-store spoils can't help but join the ring of spectators. Why are so many people standing here watching yo-yo tricks? they wonder, sucking thoughtfully on their Orange Juliuses.

While the judges tally the results of the semifinals, a bespectacled female juggler in a tank top and black leather pants, looking for all the world like Pippi Longstocking on a crank binge, entertains the assembled throng. The wide eyes of every preteen yo-yo jockey in the room are glued to her pale, nimble hands. "You were, uh, really good," one middle-schooler manages to croak as she quits the stage. Those who made the cut warm up for the next round. One pudgy, polo-shirted hopeful after another takes a turn before the panel of would-be Radio Shack employees.

"Why are we still standing here?" a stalled passerby asks of no one in particular. Like car wrecks, moments of unadulterated dorkiness are hard to look away from. There but for the grace of the Minnesota-Iowa border go many of us.