holcombe waller

Lost in Space: Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders

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


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.

No, your screen isn’t deceiving you (at least not about Oregon arts); this is a special bonus edition of our usually weekly look at what’s happening in Oregon music. Don’t blame us; blame the profusion of worthwhile events happening Wednesday night.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony performed with Portland indie rockers at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

I was actually tempted to call this one “News and Nose,” or “Nose and Notes” because, although opera fans have a couple of other treats coming up Friday (including Oregon Public Broadcasting’s TV premiere of one of today’s most prominent contemporary operas, San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” on Great Performances, and of course Portland Opera’s “Salome,” which we’ll preview on a silver platter shortly), anyone interested in contemporary visual, theatrical and musical arts should hie herself over to one of the half dozen cinemas in Oregon that on Wednesday are screening the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of its acclaimed 2009 production of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera “The Nose.” This latest offering in the Met’s Live in HD series opened last Saturday and will be encoring at theaters in Bend, Beaverton, Happy Valley, Medford, Portland, Salem and Springfield.

Shostakovich’s quasi-Cubist score, which dazzles with everything from a percussion ensemble interlude to a gorgeous vocal chorale to a polka, is a precisely-performed delight, very different from the great 10th symphony he wrote at the end of this career, and performed by the Oregon Symphony last weekend. So is the source material, Nikolai Gogol’s proto-Surrealist 1936 short story, but the real star is the multifaceted visual design by one of the great visual artists of our time, South African theater artist William Kentridge.


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