Lost in Space: Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders

Portland singer-songwriter's ambitious multimedia production feels incomplete.

by JAMES MCQUILLEN

Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders begins in darkness sometime in the distant future in outer space, with Waller himself taking the role of “an intelligent autonavigator program,” according to the plot synopsis on the front page of the program. His voice is wry and world-weary, suggesting David Rakoff at the helm of the USS Enterprise. When he comes into view, and for much of the rest of the hour-long piece, he appears to be in search of a fainting couch (at one point, he collapses across the camera dolly track laid out in a semicircle onstage). Traveling though a universe of existential issues, who wouldn’t be tired?

In interviews and a preview of the piece with Portland’s Fear No Music last November, the singer-songwriter, theater artist and indie darling talked up the piece, a theatrical song cycle that promised to embrace Polynesian navigation, self-driving cars and much more in addressing the essential human questions of where we are and where we’re going. In its completed form at Imago Theatre Friday night, it seemed as impossibly ambitious as it did when it was a work in progress.

Imago Theatre hosted the Oregon preview  of the fully staged version of Holcombe Waller's Wayfinders.

Imago Theatre hosted the Oregon preview of the fully staged version of Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders.

The most satisfying part of the show was essentially what we got in the preview: Waller’s voice, androgynous and anodyne, tracing smooth melodic contours in electronically mixed harmonies powerfully evoking early American hymnody. That much—sounds rooted in folk tradition and enhanced with a techno veneer—made thematic sense in suggesting a cultural journey.

Sensing some coherence in the whole was a conundrum, however, and I relied increasingly on the synopsis to help out with the story even as I found the description “A Possible Plot Synopsis” frustratingly noncommittal. If the people behind the thing couldn’t nail down the narrative, it’s no surprise that I was reminded of Woody Allen’s description of a mime’s performance. (“He was either spreading a picnic blanket or milking a small goat. Next, he elaborately removed his shoes, except that I’m not positive they were his shoes, because he drank one of them and mailed the other to Pittsburgh.”) Presumably somewhere in the libretto were hints that the spacecraft was a “transhuman collective” with two passengers who weren’t “physically alive” but who lived on as “disembodied identity records within the ship’s transhuman consciousness,” but all I could tell was that one of the three remaining living characters had to die, and the French hornist and the violinist chose the flutist because she was wearing an ugly toga (in their defense, it was indeed an unattractive toga). She seemed resigned to her fate, the Waller character appeared to be hitting on her, and then (SPOILER ALERT) the ship went on its way.

Some of the words were unintelligible because of electronic distortion, but not all of the ones that could be clearly heard were as pregnant with meaning as they were intended to be. The violinist (Ellen McSweeney) talked about death in vaguely Laurie Anderson style; Waller rambled about a variety of things; and the underutilized ensemble lent slow, spare instrumental accompaniment. Audiences need to be active participants in making meaning in art, but a creator should make some effort to meet them halfway. Much of Wayfinders seemed, in the end, to be a piling on of allusions and aspirations with little connective tissue.

When I reviewed last November’s preview, I wrote that “Wayfinders, in its fragmentary, unfinished form, seemed more like an aspiration than a collaboration, and its frontman like a coffeeshop charmer with big plans for big thoughts in a big project yet to be realized.” It still felt like that in finished form on Friday night.

James McQuillen is a Portland freelance writer and the classical music critic of The Oregonian.

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WAYFINDERS – MCA Chicago Development Residency (In-Progress, Excerpts 2 & 3: “When the Troubles Came” & “How to Mess You Up”) from Holcombe Waller on Vimeo.

17 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    James, good to see you on the beat – hope our new music scene is prepared for your objective take-no-prisoners rigor – your seasoned perspective is welcome – was curious about this show but too slammed with my own work to get out to anything lately – thanks for the account

  2. Giacomo DiGrigoli says:

    Jack – might I suggest you draw your own opinion, as opposed to reading James’?

    I’m not quite sure what sort of blood-thirsty vendetta Mr. McQuillen has with Waller’s work, but the only bit of joy I can take from his review is the irony that Waller’s show is hurtling through time and space with emotional complexity, stunning visual effects, and lush musical lyricism, while Mr. McQuillen’s inane perspective remains firmly left behind, lost in his own space, and utterly incapable of perceiving the show’s depth and richness. Clearly this piece of art wasn’t made for him (and frankly, it fairly obviously pokes fun at the sort of trite, nonsensical type of review he’s written here). It’s sad, really.

    After having seen the completed show (and watching its progress over the course of the last two years), I’m also stunned that he would make no mention of the incredibly complex video and audio design — elements that combined with such technical precision and visceral emotional impact — that I’m not sure he’s anywhere in the ballpark of understanding or perceiving what two evenings of standing ovations confirmed for the rest of us with souls who experienced the shows beauty and scale.

    I’m also horrified that Mr. McQuillen makes zero mention of (and in fact, CRITICIZES!) the plot’s central, stated conceit: that much of the performance itself (while technically structured with choreographed precision), is improvised — and that much like the jazz greats of the early 20th century, Waller lends voice to the expression of emotion through loose structure and the purity of orchestrated improvisation. Given this review, I fear that if Mr. McQuillen had sat through the early performances of Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald, he then, too, might have commented that “it just doesn’t go anywhere” and would spend hours looking for neat intervals and tidy endings. He might equally note today of the recorded works of those masters that “the CD liner notes aren’t telling me what to feel!” What an absurd review and frivolous reviewer!

    Might I suggest that Mr. McQuillen enjoy some Andrew Lloyd Webber or some Schonberg & Boublil instead? Those pieces seem to offer the neat, unchallenging experiences that Mr. McQuillen seems awfully thirsty for. He’ll love it. They’re better than Cats. He can feel free to see them again and again. But for the love of God, stop writing these trashy and spiteful reviews of Waller’s work — you just don’t (and won’t ever seem to) get it.

  3. H Miller says:

    I only wish there was video of James Mcquillen feverishly thumbing through his program, trying to follow along, as Wayfinders beautifully unfolds onstage.
    If nailing down the narrative of performance art is your main objective James, you’ll continue to be frustrated and I’d suggest you switch to reviewing Law & Order or Friends – they’ve got some nailed-down narratives waiting for you.
    For those who can let go for an hour and allow the show to wash over them, Wayfinders is a beautiful, immersive, multisensory experience the evokes deep emotion and challenging questions about what it means to be alive in our current era. And, Waller has created some beautiful new visual journeys to help take us there. It does help though, to not try to read along during the show – the best part is on the stage, not in the program.

  4. bob priest says:

    Based on the preview clip & other samples of HW’s work on YT, I decided to skip this show. Simply put, I find HW’s music anemic & wholly unremarkable. Given these impressions & knowing James McQ to generally be a soundly perceptive critic, I tend to believe that his review is quite likely waaaay more fair than not.

  5. Thanks for your comments, all. I also attended the performance, with high hopes (based on Waller’s music with the Oregon Symphony recently), but have to agree with James’s review. There’s a difference between a piece of art (narrative based or otherwise) being elliptical, allusive, suggestive, evocative — and incoherent. For me, non-narrative works like (to take a couple of well known examples) Philip Glass’s Satyagraha or Koyaanisqatsi manage to be both. Wayfinders wasn’t.
    But I also understand that these are subjective responses, and I’m glad that some viewers found Wayfinders to be so moving, because clearly the composer and performers poured a lot of effort and commitment into it. Different strokes, y’all. I do think James’s review was a fair and forthright expression of his honest and informed reaction. We — audiences and artists alike — need more reviews like his, and more thoughtful responses when others disagree with them. I’m glad to see ArtsWatch providing a place for conversation about ambitious attempts like Wayfinders. Thanks for reading and commenting. Did anyone else see Wayfinders? What did you think?

  6. Jack Gabel says:

    curious exchange – telling point: criticisms of JM reference pop culture

  7. James quotes Woody Allen (and at length), so he’s apparently not unaware of pop culture, Jack.

    • Jack Gabel says:

      good point – on the same page then – btw: congratulations on your achievement – I know first hand how hard it is to pull off such a big show – certainly you’re feeling rewarded, tough review notwithstanding – know how that feels too – my 2005 collection of string quartets got dismissed by an American Record Guide reviewer (in so many words) as “…Ravel and Bartok knock offs…” – again, congratulations

      • thanks for the congrats, i’m very proud of the piece. i’ve been performing live music for twenty years, and have received a lot of positive and negative reviews. however, it seems evident from the writing both here and in november that james is zealously reveling in the poison pen when it comes to reviewing me. i wonder what it is about me that he hates so much, because he accurately picks up on a lot of the themes we were working with directly and them very maliciously recreates them into something he not only hates but that he seems to want the reader to hate, as well. this is different than criticism, and i’ve never been the subject of anything like it before. best, holcombe

        • bob priest says:

          + poison pen?
          + hate?
          + malicious?

          Uh, sounding a tad paranoid here, Mr. Waller.

          I sincerely hope you find your way to deeper maturity in both your work & the way you respond to honest & detailed criticism.

          • Ha. This from a man who, having not seen the work, is chiming in calling mine “anemic and wholly unremarkable.” Bob it’s clear we are on two sides of an argument, here, and I feel really good about my own mature, informed perspective on this. I’m sure you do, as well, but I think you should check yourself a bit before accusing me of being immature. Just my two cents, my dear! Alright, I’m moving on with my life and not returning to this blog post, so feel free to have the last word, Bob.

  8. I saw, or rather I should say experienced, Wayfinders last Friday and was so moved spiritually, intellectually, and aesthetically that I returned on Saturday to see it again. It is true that it is not an easy piece to understand logically with the mind, and that the “possible plot” printed in the program is confusing (and I think unnecessary), but once I just let myself be immersed in the investigative and creative world the performer’s engaged me in, I had one of the best theater-going experiences I have had in a long time. Not only is Holcombe extremely talented in multiple disciplines, he actually really has something to say about the nature of being human in today’s world. And he does this from a place of the heart–not sentimentality–but from compassion and love of this paradoxical and sometimes incomprehensible life. This is not art fueled by fancy art school/academic mission statements that are trying so hard to be clever, intellectual and modern. What I saw and felt was a real ensemble of players engaging in a complex investigation of this path/pilgrimage we are all on from birth to death, dealing with questions about what is awareness, what is the connection between the field of the individual and the collective, what happens to all of our thoughts and experiences at death, what does it mean to “be saved” (kept from calamity or recorded on some device?), are we really using all of the tools of perception that we have (i.e. the video ‘rigging’). This was one of the best theater events I have seen in a while, and I do see quite a bit. I have recently seen several productions that had high production values and much talent (and cost a lot of money), but underneath the surface there was no heart felt reason that the pieces needed to exist–they were exercises, not investigations. Holcombe’s voice is a voice of hope, and the integrity of his and his players’ explorations are needed in the world today. He has a vision that addresses what Art really is about–gaining a deeper understanding of what the world is and what it is to be a human in it. It also had some of the best integrated use of video that I have ever seen. I think he did confuse people with the “possible plot”, and I think the coherence of who this ‘navigator’ is and the transformations that happen to the players in the piece can be fleshed out as they continue to work on the show, but there is true beauty, wisdom, humor, and compassion in Wayfinders and I look forward to it finding itself more and more as they continue to perform it. I want to thank them all for giving me hope in what art and theater has to offer.

    • thanks, anet! i agree that the program text was overkill and may have confused more than informed (although a few people gave me the opposite feedback), and i do think that the specific character arcs are not as flushed out as they should be. this work is being made in public performances, essentially, that’s the nature of the project. i really appreciate your thoughts here, i’m looking forward to incorporating a lot of your comments into the revisions i’m working on between now and november. xoxo holcombe

  9. bob priest says:

    Oh, Mr. Waller, what am I to do with you?

    I’m afraid you owe me an apology!

    After all, what EXACTLY did I write in my first post here? Can you scroll back & re-read it for me? Very good.

    So, tell me/us, how did I gather the impression that your work is “anemic & wholly unremarkable?” Why, yes, you’re right, I actually listened to & viewed some of it – including excerpts from “Wayfinders.”

    In other words, you tried to shame the wrong feller here, my dear!

    Paranoid, immature & now embarrassing!!!

    I look forward to your apology.

    Bob Priest

  10. Andrea Janda says:

    I resonated with Anet’s experience and critiques, and walked away with some of the very same impressions.

    I found more curiosity than frustration.

    http://goo.gl/FTEZqH

  11. A.L. Adams says:

    Let me translate:

    One side: Holcombe is God and you’re saying he’s garbage! Which can only mean you are unrefined idiots!

    Other side: Nah, we’re just saying Wayfinders didn’t “do it” for us.

    Art is subjective. Why insinuate that someone’s inferior for not appreciating the art that you do? Isn’t it good enough that you enjoyed it? Isn’t it fair enough that someone else didn’t?

    Only the artist has true ownership of the work anyway; the rest of us are just spectating. Team Holcombe is sounding like deranged sports fans trying to argue with a ref that “they” should have won a point. But fortunately, art is not a game; it’s an experience. Holcombe has won SOME, and not ALL, of the hearts…which should be fine. I’m on Team Brett here.

  12. Lake Perriguey says:

    I have experienced a significant amount of performance art over the past twenty years, including works by Laurie Anderson, Tim Miller, Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, Spalding Grey, Ann Magnuson, Keith Hennessey, and Portland’s TBA Festival, as well as many others artists in various venues in NYC, LA, Austin and in Europe. WAYFINDERS is well within the best of show. My experience with the work was completely different than the reviewers. Far from feeling incomplete, the complex staging, projections, sound, multiple instrumentation, and performers worked together seamlessly and effectively to create a futuristic world in which the anxieties of modern life were crystalized and encapsulated on an extraterrestrial spacecraft. GRAVITY meets JAMES JOYCE. I was impressed with WAYFINDERS in the same way that I am impressed by certain pieces of conceptual art and sculpture in museums around the world (and New Yorker cartoons as a child)….I know that the work is full of significant and important intelligence….I can sense it…and some gets through…but it is so rich and so layered that it comes in waves….and continues to inform long after my initial experience with the work.

    It is in this way that WAYFINDERS succeeds, and perhaps because of the way it challenges our expectations so well.

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