All this year, NPR is exploring spiritual music across America in a series called Ecstatic Voices. Today's story takes us to New York City where the Renaissance Street Singers have been performing sacred music in public spaces for the last 40 years. These singers insist their mission is not a religious one. The group consists mostly of self-described atheists who nonetheless share a deep reverence for the hymns, psalms and motets of the 16th century, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Every other weekend, the Renaissance Street Singers come together on city sidewalks and train stations and public parks - anywhere they can find an audience.


ROSE: On this summer afternoon, 15 singers gather under a bridge in New York's Central Park. They launched into a free two-hour concert of music by Palestrina, des Prez and other composers who lived more than 500 years ago.


JOHN HETLAND: It's simple, ungussied music. It's not anything showy. It's just beautiful music.

ROSE: John Hetland is the founder and director of the Renaissance Street Singers. Hetland says he's loved this music ever since he was a child.

HETLAND: It's polyphonic music, and so each part has its own melody that's four or five or six melodies, which are very similar melodies, but they intertwine in very interesting ways.


ROSE: Hetland grew up in Wisconsin where his father was a Lutheran minister who taught his children to sing during long family car trips.

HETLAND: It was religious music, when my dad was a minister. I was religious at that time. We all were. None of us are now, as far as I know.

ROSE: But Hetland still loves the music of the church. He moved to New York in the 1960s. In 1973, Hetland put an ad in the Village Voice looking for singers who shared his love. Janet Pascal was one of the first to answer the call.

JANET PASCAL: I saw them on the street, actually. I remember I walked past them and I looked and I thought, I would never do that, because, you know, they're standing in the middle of a city street singing Renaissance music. And I, you know, thought I would never have the guts. And then I started thinking about it. And I thought, what a lovely thing to do.

ROSE: Some passersby stop to listen for a song, or three. Others just keep walking. But Sigmund Rosen says the group is its own best audience, and the music gives them plenty to work with.

SIGMUND ROSEN: A lot of modern composers are pianists or theorists, but they didn't start off necessarily as singers. All these Renaissance composers were singers. And the music that they made was built for singing.


ROSE: The music was also built to be sung in church by composers who believed deeply in the words they were setting to music, whereas most of the Renaissance Street Singers do not.

NANCY MANDEL: I like to say that for an atheist and a Jew, I spend a lot of time singing about Jesus.

ROSE: Nancy Mandel has also been singing with the group since the mid-'70s

MANDEL: If I don't believe the actual things that are being said in the words, it's the act of singing together itself which is the most important meaningful thing, without which the rest of this couldn't happen.

ROSE: A few of the singers are practicing Jews or Christians, but most identify as atheist or agnostic, including Daniel Winkler, who's a relative newcomer after only eight years with the group.

Since I don't believe in God, the closest I get to a religious experience or an ecstatic experience is singing. I still crave experiences that are transcendent in some way. And singing music, making music is one way.


ROSE: The Renaissance Street Singers rehearse every week, and they perform twice a month, usually on Sunday afternoons. The group never charges admission, and it doesn't accept donations. The rewards, says longtime member Janet Pascal, are more emotional than material.

PASCAL: It's like a family. I mean, this is closer to a family than anything else I have in New York. I see the same people every other week. We know all about each other. We care about each other.

ROSE: You might say it's like belonging to a church where the religion is music. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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