🇬🇧 Restoring the Bonds of Grief

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Text: Jansson J. Antmann
Photography: Jeff Feng

A highlight of this year’s Mardi Gras in Sydney was the Requiem Mass by American composer Holcombe Waller. Half Polish, half Jewish and gay, Waller wrote the work to invoke remembrance and peace for the dead who suffered persecution for their sexual orientation. Performed by mixed ability choirs in a ceremonial context, it brings together people from all walks of life, many of whom have been denied the right to grieve as a result of prejudice and exclusion. Last year the Requiem was performed at Grace Cathedral — the seat of San Francisco’s Episcopal archdiocese. We meet Waller immediately after the performance in Sydney for a musical post mortem. 

How do you maintain harmony in a piece written for both amateur and professional singers?
I keep the choral parts relatively simple. It’s not the most complex music. I’m pretty limited in what I’m doing harmonically. As a singer I try to make sure the harmonies aren’t too difficult. Often choral music composers will go crazy, but you have to restrain yourself when you write for a mixed ability choir. In multi-part choral works you can often write nonsense lines, but, as a singer I always try to write sensible lines because I want every person to enjoy their particular part. That’s the point of it. That’s what it’s really about – their experience. It’s supposed to be a community engagement project. It’s built around the concept of radical inclusivity and a celebration of diversity in the context of a Catholic ceremony. That’s what makes it so special.

What was it like recreating the piece for the Mardi Gras in Sydney?
This was nothing like our previous performances in Portland or San Francisco. Our musical director, Sam Allchurch was amazing. He has a lot of experience as a choral director, as well as conducting outreach programs like the flash mob choirs, which are full of people who can’t read music. Combining the Sydney Chamber Choir with volunteers off the street worked beautifully. What you lose in virtuosity musically, you gain in a sense of sheer inclusive, communal pleasure. I find that the snobbery that can surround performance doesn’t generate good work. I mean, it generates a certain virtuosic level of work in terms of pitch and time but there comes a point when it can actually detract from the experience. I have perfect pitch and sometimes I find it annoying. I love it when people are out [of tune or tempo]. A lot of my favourite singers are the out ones, like Sinead O’Connor or Morrissey. They’re often way out and they use it almost stylistically. Similarly, part of the intention of the invocation at the beginning of the Requiem, when all the singers are scattered throughout the audience, is that you hear them doing their own thing. You realise that these are everyday people. Some of them sound great, while others don’t sound anything like a professional singer … but they’re in the moment. 

It felt as if these random people had walked in off the street and that the ceremony came out of a spontaneous gathering.
I find it interesting that you would say that, because it never occurred to me. I love the fact that it came across to you that way.

I can imagine that if it were staged in a church with direct access to the street, as it was in San Francisco, that idea would be even more potent.
The procession is a typical part of the ceremony. It’s the consecration of elements like the community, the clergy and the leadership coming together, with the book – the ‚Queen’ James Bible – and the incense… and then the singers appear amongst the audience. It is supposed to disarm the audience into expecting less professional singers and to embrace the members of the community who have shown up. This is established from the outset when they arrive and ask audience members to hold their sheet music while they engage in the opening aleatoric music game. We practised this to try and achieve the sense of a group dynamic by playing on themes. They hear someone and repeat them, or they harmonise and explore different choices within the group so that everyone co-creates a textural experience. It is designed to be disarming and achieve a kind of anarchist or communist vibe and break down the performer/audience divide. When the procession starts from the back of the hall, you understand that the singers aren’t members of a professional choir, but rather individuals like you.

The procession is a typical part of the ceremony. It’s the consecration of elements like the community, the clergy and the leadership coming together, with the book – the Queen James Bible – and the incense… and then the singers appear amongst the audience.


Are the liturgical elements of the Requiem part of your own heritage?
Not really. My legal family name, Sagalowicz, is Polish-Jewish. I’m Ashkenazi. My father was born in Nazi occupied France after his parents fled Poland. That said, composers who’ve written Requiems weren’t necessarily Catholic. And that goes back to the Old Testament. The musicians have often not been of the church. They’re part of the ‚smells and bells’ … the service team. Angela Mattox, the Artistic Director of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, which runs the annual, interdisciplinary Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon, asked me what I was interested in doing. I told her I wanted to collaborate with a church to create some kind of liturgical music intervention that could encapsulate a queer reality. Angela was interested in the community engagement aspects of the idea and I wrote two grant applications to both of the largest independent funding bodies for the performing arts in the United States – the MAP Fund and Creative Capital. I succeeded in getting both grants in the same year, which is highly unusual, so we spent a year developing the work through a community engagement process and we premiered it in 2015. I had wanted to do it for a while and I had a good relationship with a Dean at the Episcopalean Cathedral in Portland and he really was the dramaturg of the piece. He helped me in my research and through conversations with him I was able to settle on the approach. We decided a Requiem Mass would be a nice format, because it is so grand and it’s interesting to return the 20th Century concert format back to its ceremonial roots… and to achieve a queer return to the church. 

It was interesting to see a Requiem Mass performed as a rite. Nowadays, the classical Requiems by the likes of Verdi, Mozart or Fauré are performed as concerts without the ceremonial elements, which your Requiem includes.
That’s how it’s been conceived as well. Of course, you could take elements like the Pie Jesu, or What’s Next? (our version of Dies Irae) and perform them in isolation, but the idea is the exploration of the theatricality of ceremony. I come from an interdisciplinary music theatre background, so while I started off as a singer-songwriter and touring musician, around
2004-5 I started integrating video design and mise-en-scène and narrative into a kind of parlor theatre music performance, where the music was entirely designed around the storytelling or the performing arts concept.

Like a Gesamtkunstwerk?
Exactly – a total work.  It’s one of those things where you follow the energy and, as soon as I started doing that, I found myself following a new direction in the performing arts, which was a complete departure from the commercial music world. Touring in clubs as a singer-songwriter had proven problematic, because a lot of people found it difficult to accept that I was out and queer. On the other hand, the performing arts community would ask me, “Could you be queerer? Could you please be more gay?” I realised I had been in the wrong milieu, touring straight clubs and trying to find ways of making it cool to be gay. To this day the American music industry is just a white supremacist, patriarchal shit show as evidenced by the #MeToo movement. 

It’s not just America.
Correct. So the performing arts embraced me and I began to receive support, commissions and grants doing these pieces and the Requiem was really a step to the side, where I wanted to stop working in theatre and video and do a community engagement piece instead, through which we could counter religious violence against gay people.

One critic described you as “folk-inflected” but that didn’t seem to be the case with your Requiem. How versatile are you?
I’m totally versatile [laughs]. I recorded an album that was categorised as neo-folk, or even anti-folk in 2005 and then I put out an elaborate multimedia piece of theatre titled Into the Dark Unknown which was an autobiographical, visual narrative. The premise was that I was a folk artist and the label stuck. However, since then I’ve been doing more choral and “new music” instrumentation, as well as electronic and rock music. I’m all over the map.

Do you think of yourself as a composer?
I’ve started using that word because I’m not really just a songwriter anymore and it confuses people if I say I’m a music-based, interdisciplinary artist. So, singer and composer will do just fine. [laughs] However, I don’t think of myself as a sophisticated composer. That’s why I shy away from the idea of a concert presentation of the Requiem. It’s about community engagement and it’s really intended to be like monumental folk art, not unlike the politically radical Bread and Puppet theatre founded by Peter Schumann, or something you’d see at the Living Theatre of Judith Malina and Julian Beck. It’s not about virtuosity or being within a genre, but rather it’s about coming at everything sideways, which allows you greater freedom of interpretation. In the US we collaborate with churches to ceremonially stage the Requiem in a totally earnest way with the participation of their acolytes. They’re not professional performing artists.

First, I try to identify the social, emotional imperative of the piece
and why I’m writing it. What’s the point? What is it trying to impart?


How do you go about composing a piece like the Requiem?
First, I try to identify the social, emotional imperative of the piece and why I’m writing it. What’s the point? What is it trying to impart? In the case of the Requiem, once I’d wooed people into a liminal ceremonial space, what ideas did I want to present and what emotional impact did I want to achieve? Once I’ve answered those questions, I’ll start to consider basic ideas of the text and appropriate ways of contextualising it. 

How did you tailor the original Latin text for this purpose?
Firstly, I took out all the references to Jesus, with the exception of the Pie Jesu. When you mention Jesus, you end up alienating a lot of the people the Requiem is intended for. When it came to the Dies Irae, it was interesting to see that all the text about the fear of Judgement Day and references to abomination and burning in Hell actually resonate with the gay community, because so much hate speech and homophobia is couched in these Biblical references. Therefore, it was a perfect opportunity to transform the Dies Irae into a representation of the judgement of queer people. Of course, retitling it What’s next? reflects the catchcry of conservatives in response to any civil liberty granted to the gay community. Those people who peddle fear are basically handing their power over to their own fear of mortality, and I think that is the economy the Catholic Church has been trading in for millennia. The Church makes people afraid and roots it in the fear of death and judgement … and that’s what the Dies Irae is about. I think it is utter nonsense and nobody should operate from a place of fear. Our version is grounded in the everyday warnings of divine retribution we hear all the time. You know, nonsense like: “Gay marriage: What’s next? One of them will get cancer and die.”

So, what is next?
I’m keen to get this out into the broader community and enable choirs to perform movements or even the entire Requiem, so I’m currently working on getting it published. My music seems to appeal to all generations. It generally brings mothers and sons together. There’s a lot more healing and bonding to do. |

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