A Queer Requiem in Grace Cathedral
There’s nothing quite like a show in Grace Cathedral. The sound, light, and vaulted halls create an atmosphere like no other venue in the city. So when YBCA told us they were setting up an impressive sound system in the Cathedral, for an incredible, queer driven, requiem, written and performed for a powerful and compelling reason…we said, ‘tell us more!” The creator of the show is singer-composer Holcombe Waller, and we had the pleasure of asking Holcombe about the inspiration and persecution behind the choral performances this Friday & Saturday, Nov 16 & 17, at Grace Cathedral 7:30pm. Tickets and Info here.
BAS: Grace Cathedral is wonderful right? What does it mean to create an LGBTQIA themed performance, and to be welcomed into a religious institution like this?
Holcombe Waller: Grace Cathedral is amazing, it is like the ultimate community center with the ultimate support staff. Whether or not you are religious, the staff and clergy of Grace Cathedral are absolutely, 100% here to support you in this world. They have impressed the living daylights out of me. I’ve had the privilege of staying on site in their guest apartment, and being deeply enmeshed in their the day-to-day, and these are perhaps some of the best, most generous, most open and loving people I’ve ever seen gathered into an institution. The commitment to service, and the broadly inclusive reach of that service beyond congregation into all facets of community – education, the visual arts, yoga, music and performance, civic engagement – is so profound at Grace Cathedral. They leverage the incredible space of the cathedral towards all of these ends. It is at once sacred and prosaic, it is a sacred space and a gallery/community center/concert hall. They let the space serve all of the people of San Francisco, it really is open. Literally unlocked all day, like a place of refuge.
Are you excited about the acoustics in Grace Cathedral?
HW: Not only am I excited about the amazing, washy reverb of the cathedral, but I must say that YBCA has brought in a remarkable sound-system that is just incredible. We’re sounding pretty darn good.
The performance is “a prayer of peace for all deceased people who suffered persecution for their gender identity”, what inspired you to create this requiem? Why is it important here and now?
The initial point of inspiration for this project was The Mormon and Catholic Churches’ support for Prop 8. At that time, I realized that the queer arts owed it to Organized Religion to intervene. It’s so misguided to apply Christian tenants against equitable social justice. It’s sort of a no-brainer to offer some ceremonial counterpoint. Music brings people together. It creates fellowship and shared experience. It disarms, it softens, it connects with heart. A Requiem calls on our common mortality. These were all points of inspiration.
Because the Requiem prays for those persecuted for their marginalized gender or sexual identity, the supporting panel of advisors to the project here in the Bay Area felt that we must measure our success by the total accessibility of the community engagement process. Otherwise, we would be turning our backs on those who are most marginalized even within our contemporary LGBTQ space. That would be out of line with the project’s mission.
Everyone will have their own experience, and I can’t wait to hear about it from anyone willing to share it with me. The experience I think about the most is the experience of the choir. The choir is comprised of bold individuals who self-selected out of a very long, free public choral workshop series I facilitated between June and September. There is no audition process and no particular musical skill-level required. In this way, the choir is manifested from people who are rising up to the call of the piece’s mission itself. They naturally form bonds of fellowship through the shared experience creating music. They naturally have a strong sense of mutual empathy and support. It is their experience I most try to facilitate; in some ways it is their experience that I underscore, with an 8-piece ensemble, to form the music itself. The choir is the heart and soul of this work. They are the embodiment of loving, spirit-driven queer identity that the Requiem dreams into being. And they can be atheists, Christians, or any strand of religion. I, myself, am not religious. The music brings the focus together. Despite all of the strides we’ve made, it is still a challenge to be LGBTQ today, even in the Bay Area, for many people, particularly QPOC and trans people. The lack of equity is so, so real. The barriers span cultural, socio-economic and geographic space. It takes real work to overcome these barriers. Speaking as a cis white male, we who don’t face these challenges can forget this – we can coast on privilege without doing the work to continue the march toward a more fully equitable society.
BAS: Which LGBTQIA+ community leaders have influenced your work?
Holcombe Waller: I need to just use this space to give some love to some of the folks working within this project who have been deeply inspiring me: Marvin K White, an Oakland-based poet, writer, artist, theologian, preacher and arts organizer who has been such a wonderful point of inspiration for me through this project, and who will be giving the sermon during the Requiem. Vicki Gray is a Dean within the local Episcopalian Diocese who works in advocacy for the trans community in and around the Tenderloin, and she will be delivering a reading in the Requiem.
We hear you do singing workshops? Where can people learn more about that?
The workshops were a part of the community engagement process for this project, from which the fellowship of the choir would manifest (through a self-selecting, organic, all-abilities, no-audition process). Sadly, when the project ends, so do my workshops in SF.
What’s your favorite song to sing in the shower?
Right now, my favorite song is one of my own – I wrote a piece for our procession out of the church that is a musical setting of “The Beatitudes,” from the Bible, the prayer that many people know that starts “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I love it because it’s like the original “It Gets Better” meme. That shit is all the way from the Bible, WHO KNEW?! I wrote the piece to be heraldic and be sung by a very talented tenor soloist, Leo Lawrence Lyons, who is about to slay the shit out of this sacred text. Come Friday and Saturday and see for yourself. 🙂