TBA Spotlight: Holcombe Waller


By TJ Acena, PQ Monthly

While perusing the TBA listings, I was intrigued by Holcombe Waller’s project Requiem Mass: LGBT / Working Title, to be presented September 11 and 12 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. “Requiem” is a solemn word invoking both Christianity and classical sacred music; the program describes the piece as a “work invoking remembrance and peace for the dead who have suffered persecution for their sexual orientation or gender expression.” I reached out to Waller to learn a little more about this project.

PQ Monthly: What inspired you to start this project? What is it responding to in the world right now?
Holcombe Waller: The current emphasis on “religious liberty” as being opposed to equality for gender and sexual diversities is something that is begging to be addressed, and the project seeks to use music as a tool of dialogue within communities of faith. I hope churches and faith organizations use this music, because communities of faith are actually our strongest allies in supporting the equality and dignity of all people. Even in “affirming” communities, there are still people on the fence about GSD [gender and sexual diversity] equality, or closely tied with folks who are outright anti-gay or are “compassionate biblical literalists,” as many people claim to be.

PQ: How long have you been working on Requiem and what kind of research have you been doing?
Waller: The project was conceived over three years ago. We began engaging experts in areas of liturgical music, GSD advocacy in communities of faith, and community engagement through a series of symposiums and public events hosted by PICA last September.  These continued through the spring, and served as a forum to help me create a blueprint and “program” that writing and composition could try to fulfill.  Alongside these roundtables and discussions, I started a series of workshops that were free, open to everyone, and that put out a call around the project’s mission—to invoke the peaceful repose of GSD people who suffered persecution in their lives.  A lot of people responded to this message, and to the idea of using singing as a form of direct action for both cultural remembrance and healing.  Something like 150 people passed through various workshops, and a core group of 40 continuous participants emerged who were committed to seeing the project through to a premiere performance—that’s the choir.  It’s very much a kind of fellowship.

PQ: The word “requiem” evokes a solemn religious feeling and the performance is at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral with a choir. How has your own experience with religion shaped this piece?
ler: I’m not from a religious background. Over the past couple decades, as a professional musician, you end up interfacing a lot with churches, through your capacity as a singer or musician. Music is a pragmatic, utilitarian aspect of a liturgical service, but it’s also the magical secret sauce—the “smells and bells,” if you will, of “high church.” It’s also something that brings unity to people, because it’s a form of self-organization for groups. Once I realized that the “space” of church would be a lovely place to contextualize a concept-driven music work with specific social aims very relevant to religion, I just kind of felt like it all started connecting.  People were interested in supporting the project; both Trinity Cathedral and PICA have been amazing in their championing of the project.

PQ: Has working on a choral piece been a challenge for you?
Waller: No, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve gotten to know the members of the choir pretty well. I knew but a couple of these people one year ago.

PQ: Is this work personal for you?
Waller: Of course. I’m gay identified, and even just in 2013, my very “out” singing appearance with the Oregon Symphony drew calls of complaint from some serious symphony supporters—the development director actually had to field these calls.  This sentiment is still very real, even in Portland. People didn’t want a gay soloist – or a soloist who was going to casually discuss being gay by, for example, mentioning his same-sex partner. So yeah, it’s personal. At the same time, it has been such a pleasure to compose for and direct other people as singers. I sing one solo in the piece, but aside from that, the choir is the main attraction. They are the stars of this work and they are amazing.

PQ: Will TBA be the only performance of Requiem or do you have plans for this in the future?
Waller: TBA is the only current performance. I’d love it to continue. At the same time, I’d love to take a small break; it’s been a crazy couple of years for me. So I’ll be staycationing most of October, working on the archives of music from my last two projects that I still owe to the crowd-funders.  I guess that’s not really a break, but I’m looking forward to a bit of time to hit the gym again.

Requiem Mass: LGBT / Working Title
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave., Portland
Fri., Sept. 11, 6:30 p.m.
Sat., Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $10-$30 sliding scale and can be bought here.