Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

While the idiosyncratic graphic scores of 2022 Pulitzer Prize winning composer Raven Chacon are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Read the Full Transcript

    Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
    Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
    Transcribed by Julia Lu

    Frank J. Oteri: It’s great to actually have some time to spend with you after this wonderful thing of winning the Pulitzer. We had this brief interchange right after it; I know that a million people wanted to speak to you at that point. And I thought, I want to do something bigger and better, I’ve been wanting to talk to you forever, even before that, and this just seems the perfect excuse. So thank you, for making time to do this with me.

    Raven Chacon: Yeah. Thanks, Frank.

    FJO: I was so excited about the Pulitzer win because to me, it seems like one of the most experimental compositions ever to be given the nod. I’m hoping that it encourages a lot more experimentation in our community. I don’t know what your thoughts are about that aspect of it.

    RC: It came as a surprise. I didn’t know I was in the running in that way. I knew it was submitted, but I had no idea that I even won it until I started getting texts from others. They do mail something to the house, but I’ve been on the road. And I never saw anything so I had no idea. It’s been non-stop since that day of announcement, but I’m really happy that this was a work that was acknowledged and it was in line with the others that I make.

    You know, it is somewhat dissonant and unconventional in terms of some of the sonorities in there, the extended techniques, use of sine tones, and just the concert venue itself. This is not an accessible piece on purpose. It’s a piece that talks about the inaccessibility of spaces. And so there’s limitations on the work itself, namely the instrument that one needs to be able to perform it, which is the pipe organ. And the score requests that this organ be stewarded in a place where people would gather under the reasons of listening to a speech, or to gather to pray.  I was also considering that this is a place of sharing of knowledge. But on the other hand, questioning what does that mean. Does that mean that everybody has an opportunity to participate in dialogue or conversation? Or does this mean you’re being preached to, you know? Or does this mean you’re being spoken down to? And so that’s what this work was about. And it was meant to have a conversation around those ideas.

    It so happened that this organ is stewarded in a cathedral, a Catholic church, and so thinking about the institution of the church was a starting point of writing this piece. All of the elements came together. The venue, the date of the premiere, which was Thanksgiving, and then just thinking about the times we’ve been living in. This time of lockdown and the pandemic. This time when people were not meeting in person, but were voicing their ideas from afar, whether that was social media, Zoom calls, or whatever we had to do during this time. At the same time having this frustration around injustices we were seeing. We were seeing a lot of activities around Black Lives Matter.

    I know in the southwest, we had similar actions around monuments of the Conquistadors. One of which resulted in a good friend and collaborator of mine, fellow musician and artist getting shot, and luckily surviving. There were also a lot of other things that have been going on over the years, discovery and recognition of residential schools. And the abuse that was happening in those places, and the uncovering of graves of young children. And this being something that’s gone back a hundred years and all the way up through the 20th century. And so all of these things were on my mind, and went into this instrumental piece of music. As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey? And so that was the challenge of writing this piece. I think the elements were able to speak on behalf of at least that half of the dialogue.


    Present Music’s November 21, 2021 world premiere performance of Raven Chacon’s Voiceless Mass, winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music, at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

    FJO: It was interesting that you reference the importance of the specificity of the place as part of the sound. I want to explore that a bit more because you’re a composer, you’re a musician, but you’re also a visual artist. And for you, the way things look, the environment, the space where things take place are a very key element of the work. I went to the Whitney Biennial last month, right after your Pulitzer. I was delighted to see that you are a part of that which, had not the Pulitzer happened, that’s a huge deal. Being in the Whitney Biennial as a visual artist and of course, some of the work there were musical scores, but your scores are frequently works of art.

    RC: In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen. I draw them because there’s no other notation that can relay what I want to say, or what I want to give as an instruction to the collaborator who’s going to be making the sound.

    There are oftentimes bigger budgets in that side of things also. So, they would say: “Well, okay, well of course. Then let’s also do a concert!” That combination of musicians coming into the art world is something that I’m happy to see is happening more and more, and I’ve somehow just found myself in the middle of that. Of course, some of that also was working with Postcommodity, that collective that I was part of for ten years, bringing my sound knowledge into that collective as a skill set and coming up with sound installations with them, and somewhere in there I just kind of bounce between these different areas. Whether it’s doing art projects, or playing noise shows in the basement for a few people or going and doing a chamber music thing. I mean it’s really all the same work. And I work on all this stuff at the same time. And it really does influence each other. It influences the different projects even though I rarely incorporate electronics into the chamber work. That’s not really a thing that I had done in the past, but the performances into maybe an art installation; it’s something that I’m still working through. I’m still interested in seeing what I can do with them on their own. I’m still learning from the mediums I’m involved in.

    Raven Chacon performing on a synthesizer

    Raven Chacon making noise. (Photo by Jamie Drummond.)

    FJO: I know that you studied with James Tenney, who was a hero to so many of us. I got to do a talk with him toward the end of his life a number of years ago on NewMusicBox, and I treasure the time that I got to spend with him. But before that, I’m wondering how you were first exposed to experimental music. You have a very interesting background vis-à-vis everybody else who has won a Pulitzer Prize in Music. You’re the first person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music who grew up on a Native American reservation, on the Diné sacred lands in Arizona. And I’m wondering what that experience was like in terms of your earliest exposure to music and how that informed your creative life.

    RC: I get asked this question a lot. And I might give different answers every time, but the bottom line is that I still believe that every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. If you live near a highway, maybe that’s gonna end up in the music. Let me put it this way. If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making. People often say, “Oh, I can hear the landscapes of New Mexico in your music.” I’m like, come on. You know. I’m not that kind of composer. I don’t make music about the landscape. I make music about the history of the landscape that I know and that affected the people that I come from. That probably ends up in the noise music or the chamber music in some way. But I don’t even know if it ends up sonically in that. Unconsciously I feel that it probably does.

    The earliest music that I heard is the singing of my grandfather who would sing songs in Diné. He’d sing hundreds of songs. He would be singing almost every moment of the day. He’d be sitting there watching basketball games on television and singing songs. And combining that with the kind of music that any other youth listen to, for me, I mean rock music, heavy metal, that kind of thing, that was the music I listened to as a young person. That surely probably had some influence, but I was interested in listening to anything that I could have access to. Later, when the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, there was a much broader kind of radio that was available, and music stores. So I just tried to ingest anything I could.

    There were a couple early encounters with experimental music, though, that I had. One of them was that when we moved to Albuquerque, which was the bigger city, my parents had befriended a woman who had just moved there also, from England, to study piano at the university. And this woman, her name is Dawn Chambers, gave my sister and I free piano lessons as children. I was about eight-years-old or so, and I studied the piano with her for about three years. And learned how to read notes and all of that. And I can’t say that I ended up being a good pianist after all of that. Till today, I play piano still. I never write for it, because I don’t know what to do with the piano, honestly. But it gave me that basis to read notes and understand the grid of western music notation. Now one thing that happened was we’d never seen her give a concert in three years of working with her. And one day, she says, “Come tonight, I’m going to do a concert at the university of this composer.” And so we went, we got dressed up. Parents took us over there and sat in the audience and my piano teacher comes out on stage. There’s a piano there already set up. And she’s wearing a bathrobe and carrying these rubber duckies and bath toys. Throws them in the piano. Slams the lid shut. And does a bunch of other crazy stuff that I can’t remember. And I’m thinking, what is this? This is wild. I thought it was a maybe a joke, but I understood that it was some kind of action because some people were laughing. Some people were not. And after the concert, she introduced us to the composer, and that was John Cage, who was visiting University of New Mexico for the composer symposium that they put on every year. And so I didn’t think anything of that, till I was maybe 16, 17, or so and getting really deep into researching music. Going to the record store and came upon that name again. And then I understood, okay, this was something. This was somebody who is a composer. This wasn’t a joke.

    Meanwhile, during all of that, taking the knowledge of notation and piano, and trying to teach myself other instruments. Also experimenting with cassette tape, home recording, building instruments, and trying to just make some kind of band, I think. Heavy metal band, but I didn’t like that music anymore. I was getting frustrated with it. It was becoming gory. It was becoming even more juvenile than I as a teenager could handle. And so I wanted something that was, I don’t know, less virtuosic. Something that was more abrasive than what I hearing and so somewhere in there, I had decided I wanted to make improvised noise. I didn’t know anybody else was doing this. I had no exposure to that. And there was nobody that I was aware of doing that in the southwest. So, we’d go out to the desert and just make a bunch of noise. For the fun of it, but also musically. It wasn’t until later actually that I moved out of New Mexico to Los Angeles to go to Cal Arts that I see there’s people doing this. And that these are my people. These are the people I want to make music with. And so all of that came together. I studied formally at the University of New Mexico. I studied composition, that led me to go to study with James Tenney. I learned of his music through undergraduate education, and wanted to speak to him directly.

    FJO:  Wow. I talk about your music being experimental and there are certain aspects: obviously noise, which you reference; silence, which plays a very big factor in a lot of your work; and–you mentioned Cage–indeterminacy, not necessarily knowing the exact outcome of what’s going to happen in a performance and being okay with that. And being okay with each performance being slightly different somehow. These are things that from a western classical music point of view are very experimental. But if you look to other cultures beyond western classical music, a lot of those things are there. So they’re part of tradition. They go back millennia to before recorded time. There are two pieces that I wanted to dig into a bit more, Tremble Staves and American Ledger no. 2, which are both highly experimental pieces, but at the same time, I hear elements of traditional Native American music in them. Experimental is this sort of forbidding word. It’s like only a few people like this. I feel like these are pieces that can have very wide appeal, especially American Ledger no. 2.


    The December 6, 2019 world premiere performance Raven Chacon’s American Ledger No. 2 in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District. (Commissioned by Atomic Culture with the support of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.)

    RC: Thank you. American Ledger 2 has only happened once. It happened as an action around that score existing as a billboard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m really happy about what you’re saying, because something that I’ve been realizing more and more is part of that early influence is thinking about music as not a fixed thing at all. Going back to my grandpa’s singing and him coming up with songs in the first place, me asking him, I remember, is this an old song? Because it sounds like a very old song. Something that would have been handed down through generations, and he’d tell me, “No, I just made that one up just now.” And so just thinking in that way that you can come up with a song immediately and you’d sing it at different tempos, and you would add some extra beats to a measure. And this is me coming from thinking: okay, things are in four-four. So starting to understand meter and so forth. And even keys. I’m thinking: how does this all fit together? I think very early on realizing there’s not really any rules there. How could there be? You know, music notation didn’t exist in the place or culture that I come from. So what would be the fixed way of knowing this? And I wasn’t seeing anybody being strict. I wasn’t seeing a strict music teacher. I was seeing my grandpa just singing, and coming up with songs, while watching a basketball game. Not to say it wasn’t serious music making. Of course it’s in our language, so of course it’s serious. When I hear you say this, it gets me thinking of that, it gets me realizing that that might have been very formative in understanding fluidity in music that can exist. And should exist, for it to evolve. So that gets me thinking about some of these scores. I don’t want to call them improvisational systems, but they’re basically graphic scores where the outcome is determined upon: who is playing; how many people are playing; what instruments can be there; and sometimes where the music is happening. So very site specific sometimes is going to be part of the work and is going to influence the work. And so yeah, American Ledger 2 is a piece written about forced migration into and out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    It’s very complicated to talk about. But I think the best way to describe it is a bit of a mixture of hot potato and a bunch of crabs in the bucket fighting for resources. And so it’s a system where one is trying to get out of the situation of playing. One is accumulating drumsticks and match sticks to make sound with. But when they make sound, they have to give one of their drumsticks or match sticks to a person who is behind them in a circular pattern. And what this means is there’s going to be an imbalance of those resources when you are getting out. You have to get rid of all of your sticks to get out of the game. I call it a game; it’s kind of a game or a situation. And so what that does is give burden to other players that they have to relieve themselves of. And so it’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources. It’s also talking about how maybe they are having to compete for those resources, those rights, those acknowledgments as people. And also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?

    I think that the presence of the drums itself, they’re being drumsticks that people are hitting upon them, probably does reference indigenous music. It might reference tribal music. I am speaking about various tribes of Oklahoma. But I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a conscious decision to put drums in there. I think it’s just something that is also an object that had to exist in the composition. It has a visual meaning as well. And so it’s just my inclination to use these instruments sometimes. I often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    The graphic score for Raven Chacon's composition American Ledger No. 2

    The graphic score for Raven Chacon’s composition American Ledger No. 2 © 2019 by Raven Chacon and reprinted with the permission of the composer.

    FJO: It’s interesting how you say the drum is an object in that piece. And I’m thinking of how the cello is an object in Tremble Staves. You use it in a way I’ve never seen or heard a cello be used before. Once again, obviously it’s about the sound, but it’s about so much more than just the sound: the intense visual experience of seeing a cello on the ground and being dragged. When I saw the excerpt online, it looked like it was a relic of some forgotten civilization that was then found and people were trying to figure out what to do with this thing. And it was fascinating. I think that perhaps is part of the message of the piece. I don’t know.

    RC: Yeah. You’re correct. In Tremble Staves, we’re speaking about water. And we’re speaking about ruins. The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are. So in the case of Sutro Baths in San Francisco, where we performed this piece, it looks like something very old. It looks like some ancient civilization from a thousand years back, when it’s really just a failed hotel on the beach from the ‘30s or so. And that’s why we chose that site. Not only its potential for dialogue about water being that it’s on the beach and being that that was the inspiration for the form, the forms of each of the movements. Different bodies of water. But also itself being a symptom and kind of precursor to the out of control development that’s happened in the Bay Area. And again, the displacement of people because of that greed of development.

    And so Tremble Staves tries to imagine this entire chronology. What was there in that spot before humans and what will be there after humans? And so you’re correct that the cello is placed in the water as if it was some kind of tool from this civilization that didn’t make it. And it’s dragged ashore by the percussionist who in the performances is dressed as a bird. One of the other birds that’s there on the coast as well. The reason the cello is used in the first place was that it floats. And we were trying to perform in the water. But that was proving to be a little bit of a challenge. The other reason for using the cello was that this was written for specifically for The Living Earth Show. They’re the ones that commissioned the piece. And being that they’re a duo of percussion and guitar, I wanted to think of an instrument that they could play together. What has enough of a body that Andy can play on this instrument. And what also has strings and a fingerboard that Travis can also perform in. So this is another one. This creates a dynamic where they are trying to accomplish the same thing. They’re trying to play the same notes actually. Maybe Travis is fretting some of the notes that Andy hits. And maybe they are bowing in a way in tandem that’s going to create harmonies inside the instrument that wouldn’t be possible by a single player. And so that’s the other reason for using that instrument. It’s to form this relationship between the players. All of the movements in that piece are about that relationship between two people. But trying to also think about: are these people acting as if they are distributing water to the same place? Is one receiving the water and one giving the water? You know. Thinking about channels. Tributaries. All of these forms of water that can be maybe metaphors for the interaction between the players.


    Clips from the world premiere of Raven Chacon’s Tremble Staves, commissioned and performed by The Living Earth Show on October 19, 2019 at the Sutro Baths in San Francisco, California.

    FJO: So this was really created for specific musicians and playing to their strengths and having them do totally new things, which makes it very different I imagine, maybe I’m wrong on this, I’m guessing American Ledger 2 seems like it’s a piece that theoretically could be performed by anybody. You don’t necessarily need to have a music background.

    RC: That’s right. I work in all different ways. Obviously for The Living Earth Show, them being masters of their instruments, I suppose in a way, I wanted to make something difficult for them. I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person. But in the case of them, seeing what they’re capable of and seeing what they are excited about, the situations a composer might put them in was exciting to think about. I highly value that ongoing collaboration. And while it is written for them, I’m sure they’d be open to anybody else taking on the piece. But there’s so much involved in that one that it’s an ongoing, evolving composition.

    But on the other hand, I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation. And their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities. And it allows again for this fluidity of sounds to occur. So I’m interested when people who don’t consider themselves musicians want to play something like American Ledger 1 or 2. And be a part of an ensemble making sound together and making meaning through their performance.

    Raven Chacon in the middle of a circle of desks teaching native American students.

    Raven Chacon (right) working with Native students interested in musical composition. Since 2004, Chacon has served as composer-in-residence for the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP), mentoring over 300 high school Native composers in the writing of new string quartets. (Photo by Clare Hoffman.)

    FJO: You referenced American Ledger No. 1. Now that’s a piece that was written for wind band, which is something in our educational system throughout the United States. There are tons of school wind bands that play on the highest level. They’re considered school groups, but these folks often play better than established symphony orchestras in major cities. They’re so devoted to the music. But what I love with that piece is you turn the paradigm upside down. Usually wind and brass get a lot of solos, and then there’s some percussion in the back that kind of gives it energy. But in this piece, the percussion’s the front and center. And all the wind players are the punctuation, scattered around the room. It’s like little dots of sound.


    Raven Chacon’s American Ledger No. 1 performed by the UBC Symphonic Wind Ensemble conducted by Robert Taylor.

    RC: What I love about percussion is its theatrical capabilities, all of the meaning inside of the instruments that can be a percussion instrument. In the case of American Ledger no. 1, the chopping of wood is the primary instrument, or the instrument that keeps interrupting the music. And I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Percussion is something that I’m getting more and more excited about writing for because of its potential for metaphor. It’s symbology that you can have inside of the instruments themselves. I’m starting to understand in my own work how it can become maybe the most fluid instrument. Even though we think of percussion as being something always associated with time, keeping time, I’m really interested in the ways that it subverts that, or undoes the keeping of time. And so that’s what I’m working on right now with thinking in terms of percussion, not necessarily as a solely timbral instrument, but something that is perhaps narrative, and that narrative being in conflict with the meter of the piece.

    The graphic score for Raven Chacon's composition American Ledger No. 1.

    The graphic score for Raven Chacon’s composition American Ledger No. 1. © 2018 by Raven Chacon and reprinted with permission.

    FJO: Interesting. Now, there’s a third American Ledger piece, which I haven’t heard yet that’s for chorus. That’s not percussion at all. So that’s a totally different realm, dealing with just human voices.

    RC: No one has heard that piece. It was another COVID casualty, I guess. It was supposed to be performed in Chicago by two opposing women’s choirs. It’s a work written for Ida B. Wells, a figure in American history who brought attention to lynchings in the south through her journalism. There’s talk now that we are kind of coming out of the pandemic that maybe we can have this one performed. But it’s another part of the series of taking flags from places and telling some part of the history of that place where that flag is representing.

    FJO: The scores for all of these pieces, you talked about how they’ve sort of inadvertently become visual art works, but they were really designed to get specific message across to people. I’m curious, there are some scores of yours that are sort of hybrids of these things, that combine more sort of standard notations with graphic things. I’m thinking of the piece for the Kronos Quartet, The Journey of the Horizontal People, where obviously those folks are masters of reading scores, but you want to take them somewhere else with it as well through your music.

    RC: Absolutely. That was another piece about time, another contemplation on what does it mean to be in time together. And so, speaking about the notation, it does utilize a lot of notations that I’d used in pieces previous to that. A lot of those notations are for how a person bows their instrument. Meaning, a circular bowing pattern becoming a spiral pattern. Maybe a zigzag going across–sul ponticello to sul tasto. But also these being a bit of a reference to different indigenous geometries. Pictographs. One influence to me is these old drawings in this volcanic rock on the west side of Albuquerque that are probably a thousand years old. And they have these similar shapes: these kind of spirals, these circles, these zigzags, kind of lightning shapes.

    And so, again, I think it goes back to the discussion about difficulty. This being Kronos Quartet. I was not trying to make difficult music for them. However, knowing that they are the Kronos Quartet, and knowing they’re capable of almost anything they could imagine, or that’s being written for them, I did want to think okay, well what would happen if there were difficult things they had to do together. Meaning they were a doing similar action that was difficult. What would be the differences in that? Would there be some individuality that would peak through in those moments? Would something be difficult in a way that it affected time? You know? Their own time within a measure. Would they drift because of this? So thinking about alignments of people. Thinking about two people that are having a great conversation. And the time just slips away because of that conversation. On the other hand, thinking about something like awkward silences that could also become immeasurable in their duration. And so these are the things that end up being in the piece.

    This piece is very narrative. It’s talking about a creation story. And it references some Diné creation story within it. Particularly how clans had come from different areas in the southwest and ended up where they are today. But again, I’m not being a historical storyteller in this sense. I wanted to imagine this could be anywhere. This could be an alternate universe. This could be in the future. And thinking about that dynamic of leadership as well. This matriarchy, that is also in Diné-ruled view of how people might end up. Who is leading these four people, or these four clans from one end, from the beginning of their journey to the end of their journey. And that’s what happens in the piece. People drift. People get lost. Some measures are longer than others. Some people have the agency to repeat longer than others. Ultimately, they are realigned by a woman in the quartet. And so that becomes something that’s malleable, and different every time the piece is played. It’s really nice to hear other quartets play this piece and how they take on that leadership role for one. But also the fluidity of time that’s possible inside of the piece.


    Raven Chacon’s The Journey of the Horizontal People performed by the Kronos Quartet.

    FJO: Another piece that seems totally conventional in its notation, but totally unconventional in terms of what it does is this really wild piece of yours, an early piece of yours called Report, which is for a group of people firing shotguns based on a notated score of when they’re shooting. It’s visceral and when I listened and looked at this thing, I guess now even more so that we’re hearing about stories of mass shootings every other day in the news, it has this very, very chilling effect. I’m wondering what your idea was in creating such a piece, using guns as musical instruments.

    The first few measures of the musical score for Raven Chacon's composition Report scored for eight musicians operating various specified shotguns.

    The opening measures of the musical score for Raven Chacon’s composition Report. © 2001 by Raven Chacon and reprinted with permission.

    RC: There’s a long story behind that I’m happy to tell. This was one of the earliest pieces I had written. This was back in 2001, before 9/11. I was still a student finishing up at the University of New Mexico in composition, and excited about new music. Excited about all the possibilities, hearing all these composers. Going to the library. Hearing these new complexity folks, hearing John Cage, Alvin Lucier. Anything. Ingesting it all. And wondering what’s the gauge, what am I, what’s the gauge for quality? Having young ears at the time, I couldn’t even tell if I liked something or not. I was talking to my professors, and they would like something that I didn’t like. I would like something that they didn’t like. I was finding out about graphic notation. The possibilities just seemed endless, in a good way. But I still had no handle of which area I might proceed to; it was an open ocean of possibilities, and I didn’t know where to go.

    So I thought, well, if anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places. And of course knowing that this is also going to have loaded meanings, you know. No pun intended. It’s also something that’s going to be not possible in most venues. So I was starting to work on it.

    I wrote the piece. And I was happy with the work. I wanted to put on a performance out in the west mesa of Albuquerque, conscious of it being a bit of a subversive piece. I was going to program one of my string quartets and then have the gun piece, and so I gathered the players necessary to perform it, the requirements being that you had to read music, and you had to have guns. And so I gathered the people who I knew who could do that, which were mostly actually from the percussion department at UNM, and got us out there. Well, first, we rehearsed on drums–bass drums, snare drums. And then I had saved up some money and got us some ammunition, which was quite expensive. And some of us gathered, and I looked at us performing this, and I thought, what am I saying? What am I doing here? What are the optics of this situation? And so I abandoned the piece. I said, I don’t want to actually do this anymore.  I might be saying something that I’m not prepared to say right now.

    It was probably the first time I started really thinking conceptually about music actually. It was an eye-opener that music could say a lot more than what you’re hearing. And so I put that piece aside. It existed as a conceptual thing. I showed it to Jim Tenney and others. Everybody got a chuckle out of it, out of its possibilities, and I just thought okay, it exists. But I don’t know if it’ll ever be performed. Years later, I moved back to New Mexico. And people were asking about this piece. There were actually quite a bit of people of color and some women who were saying I heard about this piece.  I have a gun, my father, my uncle has a gun. And I had to really ask: should I do this? And what had happened is that the ensemble had changed. There was more diversity in the people who were going to be performing this piece that it actually raised more questions.

    I started thinking: okay, well, if we did this somewhere, what does that mean? If we do it in the desert, are we shooting at something? So we did a performance, and it was filmed. Because by this time, I’d started working in more art venues. And I liked these questions that are brought up. Where are these people? Who are they? What is the history of the land they’re on? What are they shooting at? Are they in the defense or offense? And are they defending the land or are they taking the land? So that’s how the piece exists now. It was never a commentary on guns, at least in the pro-gun-anti-gun sense. It’s leaving you to ask: do people use guns to hunt? Are these musicians shooting at an animal? Are they shooting because somebody’s going to take their land? All of these questions were enough for me to revive the piece. But still, it’s not something that gets performed often. 

    TRIGGER WARNING
    No pun intended.
    The video below contains an excerpt of a performance of a musical composition scored for a group of eight people shooting various guns.


    This is a one minute excerpt from a performance of Raven Chacon’s composition Report.

    FJO: I’m curious about the title, Report, for it.

    RC: Report is the word that’s used to describe the sound that a gun makes. And like a lot of my titles it might have double meanings. In a way it’s like American Ledger, like thinking about documenting maybe? Maybe about reporting? Maybe about history? but also kind of left ambiguous. I didn’t think that we would end up in a time where this is something we would see on the news every other day. That was not something that was being reported at the time if it was happening. I don’t think it was happening to this extent. So, is this a piece I would have composed today? Or any time maybe in the past ten years? I don’t think so. I think it’s a subject that’s too heavy actually to think about. And it’s something that, if I was approached to do a performance, I might have to be thinking about very carefully if I want to do this. As a video installation, I am happy with it existing in that format as a document of a one-time performance, but I think I’d really have to think more than most pieces about who is doing this piece. You know, I don’t know if a militia down on the US-Mexico border if they for some reason wanted to perform a new music composition, if I would let them have access to that score. Because it’s going to have a different meaning.

    FJO: But of course, calling it Report now that we have reports every other day, actually does give it another meaning that wasn’t part of the original intention of making it.

    RC: Right.

    FJO: It now has all these different layers, which is fascinating. Another one of those earlier pieces that I’d be remiss not to mention has a very innocent title: Duet. The earliest piece of yours that you put on your website is nothing but silences. But very, very carefully notated silences with tons of shifting dynamics. Is it a score for the imagination? How does that work in performance?

    RC: Of course, it is influenced by Cage in that it is silence. I don’t know if anybody can make a silent piece without acknowledging Cage in some way. But it is far from that. I mean, it is very specifically notated. It has a specific tempo. The subtitle to it is for two musicians. This is probably the piece that I keep coming back to in all of my work. Especially, as we were talking about, the Kronos Quartet piece. It’s about alignment. It’s about two people aligning in a way that maybe they are only aware of. And they are doing this inside or I should say despite the rest of the world happening. The tempo of the rest of the world around them. Two people are engaging in some kind of activity. Whether that’s a consciousness between them. Whether that’s some other kind of acknowledgement of each other. And there’s an intensity there. There’s a counterpoint. There’s a reciprocity of two people engaging with each other. And this gets performed. This is meant to be a performance. I mean, there’s a lot of ideas inside of it, but ultimately it’s meant as a performance between two people to engage in. And if there’s an audience, then that’s fine. I don’t know if it’s interesting to watch as an audience, but it’s really written for just the two people who would be performing it.

    FJO: So how does the silence get louder?

    RC: I don’t know if it audibly can get louder, but it is to acknowledge a louder silence I suppose. Whatever that means. In the Kronos piece, there’s accented rests. And I think it means to acknowledge that moment more than others. How that might be interpreted as a crescendo, I think, can only be maybe this intensity that maybe one is acknowledging a silence more than another. Maybe both are building to a point without altering their tempo or their pace. Those are the questions inside of the piece, but yes, silence is not necessarily getting louder or quieter. Those are probably outside of the control of the performers.

    The musical score for Raven Chacon's composition Duet for 2 musicians which consists entirely of rests which are very precisely notated and embellished with various dynamic markings.

    The full score for Raven Chacon’s 2000 composition Duet for Two Musicians. © 2000 by Raven Chacon and reprinted with permission.

    FJO: So a final area that I’d love to talk to you about, which we touched on, but didn’t talk directly about is this whole notion of collaboration. You mentioned it early on when you talked about collaborating with musicians who perform your work. And you mentioned it in terms of collaborating with Postcommodity. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk at all with you about Sweet Land, which was the biggest project you were involved with right before the pandemic hit. Opera is an innately collaborative activity, but this one is more collaborative than others because you worked with a second composer. Usually there’s one composer of an opera, and you worked with Du Yun, another Pulitzer Prize winner. You both wrote these operas that are sort of intertwined, and connected, and the audience has different paths through it. I wish I could have gone to this thing. It sounds like such an amazing experience, but I’d love to hear more about it from you and about what the collaborative process was in creating this.

    RC: Sweet Land was an immense project. And it started from a very simple idea. Early on, there was an invitation from an opera company who wanted to make an opera about the first Thanksgiving. Kind of like Voiceless Mass, this was to me a bit of a red flag. Who said I wanted to talk about the first Thanksgiving, you know. That has nothing to do with my tribe. It’s also something that I know some native people refuse to celebrate.  So I was of course skeptical right off the bat. But this invitation was coming from Yuval Sharon; I’d become familiar with his work and loved what he was doing. I trusted in his interest in starting a conversation or a subversion of what that might mean, this idea of making a historical opera. He wasn’t interested in that either, making something about actual, factual history. Especially, something that is probably not known. Like the first Thanksgiving. We were interested in the conflating of that myth. What do we know about that myth? Or what were we taught? Or what were we taught by Disney? Was it this peaceful encounter? Did it end up becoming more? Was it the conflating of Pocahontas and her marriage with Lewis and Clark? All of these things end up becoming the same story because people can only imagine so many native people at one time. They end up being the same character. And so that’s what we ran with. Let’s just smash it all together. That’s something I love the opportunity to do because it meant I could write songs. It meant I could go back to these Baroque exercises I wrote as a 20-year-old and actually use them for something.

    How do we complicate it even more? Well, we add a Chinese composer, and a black librettist, and another native librettist and even another director in there. Just put it all together into this kaleidoscope. Why did we add so many different styles or complexities to this? It wasn’t to dodge any discussion. It wasn’t to confuse necessarily, but it was to talk about the conflating of these myths. It was to talk about how multiple viewpoints, or the forcing of multiple viewpoints, might not add to any kind of resolution. And it was also a way to also play with time. Back to maybe what I was saying about not being historical. Maybe this alternate universe where colonialism had happened to an indigenous group of people. Which is what we’re really talking about. I mean, even though I don’t have a connection to the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims on the east coast, there was a parallel history that happened in the southwest with the Spanish and the tribes in that area. And so this starts becoming a series of parallel stories that we were able to write around. And that’s happened in the opera. You see two parallel operas happening at the same time, talking about the Manifest Destiny of not necessarily the United States, but everything that happened in this timeline of this country.

    FJO: Wow. Well, I hope that they’ll be future productions of it once, if, and when the world gets back. It was in the middle of a very successful run, and then everything totally shut down.

    RC: I believe there will be. It was such a massive project that it’s bound to happen again. I did want to say, back to your question about the composition of it, there’s an introductory scene. The entire audience sees this scene together. This was something that Du Yun and I wrote together. It was either that I would write a measure, and she would write the next measure.

    Maybe she wrote a melody, and I would orchestrate that or vice versa. Maybe we combined two ideas together. My first rule in all of this was that I didn’t want to write just the native characters, and somebody else would write the Pilgrims. Maybe I want to be the Pilgrims. And so we avoided that at all levels. Du Yun didn’t want to write the Pilgrims either. Nobody wanted to write the Pilgrims. But, what was worse was going to be, okay, you’re just going to write the native side. You’re going to represent them musically. And I didn’t want to do that. In fact, our tactic for avoiding having to do that was being influenced by Mongolian music. If you hear something as a reference to the native people in the opera, it’s coming from an influence of traditional music from Mongolia. Something I guess in a way bridges where Du Yun comes from and where I come from, which is really beautiful to think about. So after that first act, then Du Yun writes the first scene of the parallel track that is called Feast. And I write the first act of what is called Train. And after an intermission, you see the second halves of those story lines. And I have written the sequel to Du Yun’s part, and she has written the sequel to my part. And then at the very end, you see the conclusion, which is a series of arias written by both Du Yun and I, individually and collaboratively.


    The trailer for The Industry’s February 2020 world premiere production of the opera Sweet Land, with music composed by Raven Chacon and Du Yun, featuring commentary by the opera’s two composers, two librettists, and two directors.

    FJO: Fascinating. The last thing I wanted to ask you about is you just did the score for a documentary film that’s getting distributed here in New York and is hopefully going to be shown around the rest of the country, as well, Lakota Nation vs. the United States. We talked a little bit about collaborative process. When you’re writing a score for film, that’s totally a collaborative process in that your role is just one of many layers, and is there to serve, to tell a story. So I’m wondering what that experience was like, where the music isn’t necessarily foregrounded, front and center. It becomes part of a larger process.

    RC: I know a lot of composers don’t like to do film gigs because of what you’re speaking about. But for me, it was a bit of a relief. I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything. I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. So for a harpsichord to all of sudden to appear on the landscape of Lakota lands, what does that mean? What does that say? And so that was fun to play with. I’m not saying that there’s harpsichord in my score. That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.


    A trailer for the documentary film Lakota Nation vs. United States, directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, which premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and features a musical score by Raven Chacon.

    FJO: Fantastic, well I’m very eager to see this film and hear how your music works in it. And, Raven, thank you. This was a great conversation. I feel like I could talk to you the rest of the day, but I’m sure you have a million other people who want to get to you and a million other projects that you need to do between now and the end of the day. But I really do appreciate the time that you spent with us.

    RC: Thank you, Frank. Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. We’ll have to do it again.


    Here is a final selection by Raven Chacon, “Rattle Game,” an example of his “noise music,” which was recorded on his 2007 album Overheard Songs released by innova.