Dream for a Requiem: Holcombe Waller and the Subversion of Church

The composer's ‘queer divine rite’ aims to get the irreligious back into Grace Cathedral this weekend — Latin and all.

For the 30th anniversary of the NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral hung a number of its panels over the nave. In that lofty, neo-Gothic context, the names of the people lost to the plague took on an even more transcendent cast. For all the moral opprobrium and stigma surrounding same-sex love — in 1982 as today — there was compassion, sorrow, and wistful remembrance. It was a testament to what could have been, and who might still be living today, if only Church and State had acted differently.

Composer Holcombe Waller looks to build on that about-face this weekend with Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite. A highly structured liturgical reimagining produced in collaboration with the cathedral, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and many figures working at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality, it inverts the venerable medium of the High Church funeral service. And it’s about altering our understanding of what a church is really for.

“In medieval times, requiem masses were important funerary services, and at that time the church was really a community center, a garrison in war, a refuge and hospital in times of plague, a market,” Waller tells SF Weekly. “It would do all sorts of things, so [we’re rethinking] this space in that way and taking what had become a concert form in the 20th century back to its ceremonial roots.”

Waller compares a Mass to DJing, where you put different sections together and then consecrate the space. It’s not unlike theater ceremony or models of therapy, he says.

“They’re all kind of parallel, and it superimposes a theater-based sense of ceremony and a music-based ceremony onto this religious one and kind of says, ‘Oh, these are all the same.’ ”

To wit, on the evenings of Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, attendees at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill — the seat of San Francisco’s Episcopal archdiocese — will essentially be treated to a subversive Mass. It opens with an invocation that reclaims some of the Bible’s “clobber passages,” those translated and re-translated terms that have been used to oppress people based on their gender and sexuality. YBCA’s artistic directors will then welcome everyone, and a series of songs, chants, and readings will lay the groundwork for a recuperation of the sacred from the clutches of those who would use altars and holy texts to persecute others.

There is a choir, a sermon by poet Marvin K. White, and a “media listening” component that involves selections from 20th-century reports on LGBTQ people. It then culminates in a recitation of the Beatitudes, the Blessings uttered by Jesus Christ at the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, it’s church, but it’s not. Sounding very much like Taylor Mac, Waller says he’s “radically re-appropriating the white patriarchal form of the Requiem Mass” to “take back the fortress.”

It’s about form as much (or more than) it’s about content. And if, as per the Book of Revelation, there’s silence in heaven for half an hour, it’s not because the Seventh Seal will have been opened.

“In heaven, there’s some serious side eye,” Waller imagines.

The creation of this iteration of Requiem Mass has taken him hundreds of hours through the course of the year, to where Waller has essentially divided his time between San Francisco and Portland. Much of the work is in cultivating partnerships with Glide Memorial Church and other stakeholders, to get the most marginalized people on board in a substantial, rather than tokenistic, way. Such inclusivity can be as nitty-gritty as simple transportation: Nob Hill is a hard place for a lot of people to get to, especially if you live in Oakland and have very little disposable income. But mostly it’s about working to get people who are routinely harassed and surveilled to want to return to a house of worship.

Waller was not raised Catholic (or in any other faith) and considers himself an atheist. But the explicit goal of Requiem Mass is a catharsis, something that’s more closely associated with communion rather than community. That could mean a simple emotional release, the act of crying in public with others — but it’s much more than that.

“People who grew up Catholic and were alienated from their experience by their gender or sexual identity have deep wounds around it, and when they walk into a church and they experience something profoundly Catholic yet entirely queer and affirming, it’s uncanny,” he says. “People are called to the project almost to reprogram their experience. And it does that: It could have been this way the whole time! You realize how sad and constructed anti-LGBTQ sentiment in these spaces is, as it is in the world. But just to look at the one specific category it really is sad. The thing I like to point out, and I say it in my artist statement, is that queers have been at the center of religious experience for millennia.”

Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine RiteFriday and Saturday, Nov. 16-17, 7:30 p.m., at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St. $12-$32, ybca.org.

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