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Pulitzer prize-winning composer Raven Chacon talks cathedrals, broken basses and the mesa

Raven Chacon at performance in Banff in 2011
Trevor Duke
Raven Chacon at performance in Banff in 2011

Longtime Albuquerque-based composer Raven Chacon’s phone was off last week as he tried to focus on meeting a book deadline and doing some audio recording. He turned it back on, and it was nearly exploding with missed texts and notifications. He’d won a Pulitzer Prize for music, and everyone wanted to offer congratulations.

Chacon is Navajo and the first Indigenous person to win that award. The piece, “Voiceless Mass” is an instrumental composition for a church organ. “The only organ I had access to there in Albuquerque is the big one over at Keller Hall,” he said. “I got to play that once because I used to work there, and so I climbed up there one day and started playing on it. I don’t think I was supposed to, but I did anyway.”

Source New Mexico caught up with Chacon to talk about his work and how he got into finding new sounds.

RAVEN CHACON: Early on, as a young person, a lot of that came through, really, accidents. To be honest with you, I was trying to make instruments. I tried to build a guitar — I tried to build a bass guitar. I failed, but it sounded like terrible noise. But I liked it.

And I tried to record it on cassette tape. The tape player was running too slow, it was broken too. And, I don't know, it's just this stuff happens by accident, and I just had an ear that appreciated it, I suppose.

Part of me thinks I was just so tired of the music I was exposed to, maybe. I was really trying to make a bass guitar to play thrash metal. What it ended up coming out of the warped tape sounded much more like something I wanted to listen to instead — and make.

My friends and I would go and make this kind of music out in the West Mesa for five other people. And that's how it started.

SOURCE NM: So I'd like to learn more about your Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Voiceless Mass” that premiered in Milwaukee in 2021. Could you take us to where you were when you came up with the idea? And how it formed?

CHACON: I was in Albuquerque and had been in conversation with an organization in Milwaukee called Present Music. Present Music wanted to commission me to make a new work for their annual Thanksgiving Day concert.

And to be honest with you, every Native artist — or at least musician — gets asked to do a Thanksgiving thing. My inclination for the past 20 years or so I've been doing this is to turn that down, to turn that invitation down. Not that I have anything, you know, personally wrong with Thanksgiving, I like to eat like anybody else.

But we're always asked to respond to this event, this historical event that happened in Massachusetts. If I'm ever to take on one of these things, I'm always thinking, ‘Well, how can I speak about the encounters we had of colonialism in the Southwest?’ We had a different history, but also it all collided at some point.

That was the starting point for making this piece is taking that opportunity to speak about that.

And Present Music, that's why they invited me, too. I soon realized they also had an interest in responding and critiquing this date, celebrated by many, but it's also seen as a kind of negative anniversary.

SOURCE NM: So this is going to kind of lean more into some of the broader picture of the piece itself. And so this is in the description of your work. How does the piece “exploit the architecture of the cathedral?” And why do you use the term "exploit?"

CHACON: I use the term exploit because the building itself should be turned into an instrument as well. And I suppose I didn't have to use that word, but I thought about the church again. The church has exploited people. So why not, as an artist, flip that back and use the church for the means of making art?

I mean, there is a history of supporting the arts — big frescoes and all of these things in some of these churches in Europe and elsewhere.

In being able to use this architecture, once I arrived, was to be able to see where the organ resonates. What parts of the hall might support more of the bass tones? Being able to have a much fuller sound inside of that space.

The other part of this piece, too, and it's something I rarely incorporate into these chamber compositions, is the use of electronics. What you hear in “Voiceless Mass” is sine tones. These oftentimes confuse the listener, or are hard to place if they're coming from the organ or speakers that are generating these sine tones.

And so they're there to both support those pitches, but also to further give wideness and utilize the space inside of the hall.

SOURCE NM: There's that moment in New Mexico, you're either on the West Mesa or you're somewhere back home on the rez, and it's just kind of quiet. You get a little bit of wind. But that quietness is something that we're familiar with. What do you hear in that silence?

CHACON: Well, the very first piece I made — that, again, it was another experiment, but it has since become an artwork — is this piece called “Field Recordings” where I was wanting to go record quiet places that I knew. In fact, it was a bit of a goal of mine to try to find the quietest place to record in and set the recording device, even bury the microphone, I don't know why, but just to see how quiet it could get.

When I did that, I said, “Well, why did I do this? I can't hear anything.”

And so I kept turning it up and turning it up and turning it up all the way to its maximum. That's when I wanted to hear it. That was when it was finished.

Each time I did it, each different place had its own color of noise. It had its own information. It had its own magnification.

I'm not a scientist, and I’m not an anthropologist or anything like that. I wasn't studying nature.

I just wanted to listen.

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.