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?
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.
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.
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 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.
I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.
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.
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.
I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.
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.
Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.
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