East Meets West in Chinese Choral Ensemble

Nine Gates Polyphony Shares Renaissance Music and Its Sacred Message


As a small choral group bringing Western sacred music to the Far East, Chinese listeners hearing the unfamiliar sounds of Renaissance-era polyphony for the first time also can experience the Gospel message through the classical music’s lyrics.

That’s one of the hopes of St. Paul, Minn., native John Kusske, founder of Nine Gates Polyphony, an ensemble based in Beijing that seeks to bridge East and West by presenting in China medieval and Renaissance music that is mostly but not exclusively sacred (the group can be reached by email at [email protected]).

In a country that has a very different musical culture — and which also restricts religious expression — Kusske and others share their love of Western sacred music and express interest in music written by missionaries to China from earlier centuries.

Kusske, who first came to China in 1998 and most recently has lived in Beijing for three years, noticed there were few choral ensembles dedicated to sacred and chamber music, including polyphony, which consists of two or more independent melodies juxtaposed in harmony.

Already a member of a large Beijing classical choir that performs with an orchestra, he approached friends in the choir in 2012 about forming the new group to sing mostly without instrumental accompaniment.

"We wanted to do some different kinds of music than what [the larger choir] had been doing," he said, "polyphony, a cappella and Renaissance music, most of it completely a cappella."

Nine Gates Polyphony performs works by composers such as William Byrd, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Orlando di Lasso and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

When he is not singing, Kusske works for Roundabout, a charity organization that collects and supplies second-hand items to groups such as the Beijing-based China Little Flower, which cares for abandoned children with medical needs.

Named for the ancient city gates of Beijing, Nine Gates Polyphony has 12 members: expatriates like Kusske and three Chinese citizens.

During the past three years, they have performed in and around the Chinese capital, but the choir hopes to bring its music to other locations.

In Chinese tradition, small choral groups often perform with instruments, Kusske said. Western sacred and classical music is not familiar in China, although the Chinese identify it as part of the Western musical tradition.

"Most of what they’re exposed to is modern Hollywood movies and American pop culture, so this is filling in the fullness of Western culture for them," Kusske said.

Many foreigners come to the performances, but more Chinese are starting to attend, he said. Along with introducing Chinese audiences to the music, Kusske hopes they will be drawn to its sacred nature — and to Christ. Not all Nine Gates Polyphony members share this faith-related hope; some are more interested in the music as art, he said.

"I don’t think we have an overt goal of evangelizing in this group," he said. "The group is founded to pursue the music as art. But for some of us, personally, yes, it works toward that greater end. But I think sacred music does have its own inherent power that will lead people to understand more about God in the long run and even the short run, sometimes."

The music the ensemble performs is found mostly on the Internet, and since the Chinese government blocks access to YouTube in much of the country, previewing the music before performing it is challenging, Kusske said.

In a society that discourages religious evangelization, music is one way to share the faith.

Kusske said the Chinese government permits him to talk about faith, but "what I’m not officially permitted to do is actually encourage other people to change their faith to become a Catholic."

He lets his life as a Catholic speak to the Chinese around him.

"What I’m doing is living my life," Kusske said, "setting an example. If people ask me about it (faith), then I’ll tell them more. Mainly, I sing a lot, so that’s the way I’m giving back."

While he said the group hasn’t encountered much government opposition when organizing concerts, plans are subject to shifting political winds. Permission to perform in churches and other locations can be denied without explanation, he said.

"As long as we’re working through official channels, it’s not a problem," Kusske said. "We have been quite out in the open. We sing in officially recognized places and make sure that the officials approve of what we’re doing."

He hopes interest in the music will draw more Chinese to the Latin liturgy.

"As there is more devout traditional sacred music, I hope that people will be encouraged to start seeking out the traditional liturgy."

Kusske is inspired by the work of two Italian missionaries who were among those who introduced the Chinese people to Western music while presenting the Christian faith and Western culture. Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (the early stages of his canonization cause are under way) in the 16th and 17th centuries and Vincentian priest Teodorico Pedrini in the 18th century sought to bridge Eastern and Western cultures by uniting Chinese melody and language with Western harmony in the music they composed.

Father Ricci introduced Christian ideas and values through music in eight songs for the manichord that he composed and presented at the court of the Chinese emperor. A century later, Father Pedrini wrote music and performed with the emperor while also teaching the emperor’s sons music.

"They tried to work Chinese idioms into the music as well as the Western form," Kusske said. "My friends and I are quite interested in looking into that music and trying to do some of it."

As Kusske shares truths of the faith found in classical sacred harmonies with Chinese audiences, he contributes through song to the missionary efforts Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized in his 2007 "Letter to the Church in China": "The Church, always and everywhere missionary, is called to proclaim and to bear witness to the Gospel. The Church in China must also sense in her heart the missionary ardor of her Founder and Teacher."

Susan Klemond writes from

St. Paul, Minnesota.