Tag: Native American composers

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

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
  • 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.

    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

This is What Tuba City Sounds Like

The four musicians of a string quartet, a composer and a mentor sit in the middle of a circle surrounded by students

My father was a New York City subway track worker, one of those workers you see with the orange vests at night working on the tracks. He died from a genetic heart ailment when I was 13, leaving my mother a widow with 5 children. She went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a file clerk to support us. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were all going to college. No one in our large extended family had gone to college, none of us knew what that entailed exactly, how to get there, how it’s done, but that was my mother’s nightly narrative, “When you are in college… ” Not “if,” but “when.” I started playing flute in high school (New York City Public Schools!) and knew from day one this was what I needed to do. And I soon discovered that with a 35¢ subway token I could be at Lincoln Center in 45 minutes. And I was, if not nightly, as often as I could, sneaking in the back door of the State Theater to see New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. (Security was lax in the ‘70s.) I don’t know what gave me the nerve, but I never doubted I had every right to be there. That 35¢ token was my access to a world far from my home life. But I also knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t: That the color of my skin, the way I carried myself, all meant that no one else questioned whether I had a right to be there, either. That I had, despite my background, entitlements. And, with that 35¢ subway token, I had access.

I knew that I could “belong” because I could pass for something I wasn’t … I had, despite my background, entitlements.

When people ask us why my husband and I started the Grand Canyon Music Festival, I sometimes flippantly tell them it was a rash decision made in our foolish, impetuous youth: “Let’s put on a show!” It was 1982, and I was just beginning my career as a freelance musician in New York City. Feeling burned out, I decided to take some time off to visit friends in Boston. Before boarding the Amtrak train at Penn Station I picked up a book to read. The book I grabbed off the book store shelf, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, is, coincidentally, the story of a young musician who, feeling burned out, goes to the canyons of northern Arizona where she re-discovers why she is a musician. In the canyon dwellings of the ancient people, surrounded by broken bits of ancient pottery, she asks, “[W]hat was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself?” The pottery served a utilitarian purpose, to hold and carry the essential, scarce element of water, but the potters took the extra care, not necessary to fulfill its purpose, to make the pots beautiful. I returned from my trip to Boston and announced to my husband, “We are going to the canyons of northern Arizona.”

We started our trip at the Grand Canyon, a 4 day rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. The first day we hiked down to the canyon’s floor. I put my hot, aching feet in the cold waters of the Colorado River, took my flute out of my backpack and played. (Odd thing I’ve learned about playing in canyons: you can’t hear the echoes, but others can.) Grand Canyon National Park ranger Joe Quiroz heard the echoes, but couldn’t locate the source of the music. The next day we hiked up the canyon’s corridor floor to Cottonwood Campground. I found a spot under a washed out tree to play my flute. The ranger, Joe, had also hiked up the corridor. Hearing the music this time he was determined to find the source. When he found me, he asked if I would come into the ranger’s cabin after dinner and play a concert. That impromptu concert in the Cottonwood ranger’s cabin was the unofficial founding of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. I told Joe about our interest in exploring canyons where the ancient people had lived. Joe was the right person to ask. He knew exactly where we should go.

A school bus on an otherwise empty dirt road.

Standing in those canyons (sometimes playing my flute), thinking of the people who have lived and who continue to live there, I felt the truth of Willa Cather’s assertion that “it made one feel an obligation to do one’s best.”

Two years later, during the second season of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, we headed east out of Grand Canyon National Park, descending down from the Coconino plateau, past the Little Colorado River Gorge, towards the Navajo Nation, on our way to perform for the first time for students in Tuba City.

Our first performance was for a class of about 30 students at Tuba City High School. The students sat quietly, looking down at their desks as we played.  After the performance, we attempted the usual Q and A, hoping to spur conversation with the students. The students continued to sit quietly, looking down at their desks. This felt like more than the usual reticent high school student reaction. When the dismissal bell rang, the students rose quietly and headed to the door, where they stood, looking down. All I could think was, “They hate us.” But the teacher approached and told us the students loved it, and they wanted to speak with us, but it is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye. How inevitable for there to be a clash of cultures! It’s inherent in the conflicting cultural mores: The Navajo deferential, no-eye contact, stand back approach can appear suspect to the non-Native American, with their aggressive (forthright!) greeting, firm handshake, a pat on the back, a direct look in eye. What I fully appreciated for the first time, and what most non-Native Americans don’t understand, is that we are alien visitors on Native land. It is an honor to be welcomed, and a privilege to work with their youth. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery, friendships, and cultural exchanges.

A student composer working on a score in front of an electronic keyboard.

It is rude for Navajo to approach a stranger, an elder, or anyone in authority, or to even look them in the eye.

By 2000, our outreach had started to feel like Brigadoon, the town that emerges once every 100 years or so and then disappears without a trace. We would arrive once a year, present a program for the school students, and then leave: We wanted to do something that would have more of an impact. That year, Brent Michael Davids (a member of the Mohican Nation) created a chamber piece for us, with the Havasupai Guardians of the Canyon dancers. Brent had just completed a McKnight Fellowship, teaching composition to school students. He told us he had always wanted to do something like that with Native students. Brent’s arrival was a perfect confluence of the right time, right place, and right people. The next year, 2001, we launched the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP) with Brent Michael Davids at the helm. The students Brent would be working with in Tuba City had no formal music education. We didn’t know what to expect. But the music they created was a revelation: Here were original, authentic voices. It was Native music, but it was also infused with reggae and heavy metal influences. What impressed me was the apprentice composers’ sense of form and shape. What they lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense. I remember one of our early NACAP apprentice composers who wrote a piece in which “nothing happened.” It was repetitious, and slowly unfolded over the course of several minutes. During the workshop, the members of our teaching ensemble—the fabulous NYC string quartet ETHEL—kept asking the young apprentice composer if he wanted the piece to be faster or to move more. The composer said, succinctly and with confidence, “No.” I suggested to the quartet members that they look outside at the landscape. This slowly unfolding, patient piece, was of that landscape, something musicians from the fast-paced, nervous world of NYC perhaps, at first, didn’t have the patience for.

What the Native American apprentice composers lacked in knowledge of formal keys and chord structures they more than made up for in an authentic aesthetic sense.

One of our NACAP students that first year was a young man named Michael Begay. A senior at Greyhills Academy, a federal Bureau of Indian Education school in Tuba City, Michael was like a lot of our apprentice composers: A mostly self-taught guitarist, passionate about music, absorbing everything he could from wherever he could. After high school graduation, Michael continued his composition studies through NACAP, studying with teaching composers Brent Michael Davids, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, and Raven Chacon. He joined NACAP as a volunteer assistant composer-in-residence in 2006, working closely with Raven Chacon. He continues studying composition with Mr. Chacon, and officially joined NACAP as a composer-in-residence in 2007. When Michael tells people he is a composer he often gets the response, “I didn’t know Natives composed music.”

The Reservation system has led to persistent social inequality for Native Americans. Beginning with the Dawes Act of 1887, federal policies attempted to eliminate native practices, cultures, and communities, to “kill the Indian, save the man,” to forcibly eliminate traditional cultures. Natives were forced to leave their homelands and be relocated to reservations on lands considered worthless to white settlers. They were exiled to places that were resource deficient and isolated, resulting in concentrated poverty and loss of traditional lifestyles. Poor quality of education and healthcare, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence, and high suicide rates are among the legacies of the reservation system. U.S. rates of adolescent suicide are highest among Native Americans, and school dropout rates are twice the national average, the highest of any ethnic or racial group.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects.

Navajo culture has a strict taboo against expressing or even acknowledging dark subjects, like death and illness. There is no word for suicide. Navajo must avoid disorder and seek harmony in their lives, “walk in beauty,” with a connectedness to the world.

I feel the weight of that taboo when we ask our apprentice composers to talk about their music. They have generously shared with us extraordinary stories of their lives. One of Michael Begay’s early compositions was called Chiaroscuro. In his pre-concert talk about the piece he explained that he had a need to talk about the dark as well as the light, in spite of the Navajo taboo.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

The Catalyst Quartet reads through a work in front of its composer at Hopi High in 2019.

Workshops with our ensembles-in-residence and apprentice composers often start the same way. Before the ensemble begins playing the students’ work (the first reading for the ensemble and the first opportunity for the students to hear their work performed live), the members of the ensemble ask if there is anything they should know about the piece. Often the request is met with reticence. Not so in the case of Jordan Lomahoema, a student at Hopi High.

He went through his piece, The Darkened Heart, detailing, measure by measure, how he had used his composition to map out the evening of his mother’s death in a car accident.

Here is where the car speeds up (an undulating eighth note pattern), here is the squeal of the brakes and the wheels skidding on the road, ending in the crash (sul ponto descending gliss to ff). Then the silence after the crash, rests followed by a few spare notes, the peaceful sounds of the evening returning, suddenly broken up by the arrival of ambulances, sirens blaring first loud, then getting softer as they carry away Jordan’s mother. The piece ends with the return of the quiet sounds of a reservation desert evening, but now disturbed with disquieting interjections, glissandos, a lone pizzicato.

Whitehorse High School is at the northernmost edge of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. When we arrived at the school with the Catalyst Quartet in September of 2015 to begin our workshops with their NACAP apprentice composers, we were met at the door by their assistant principal, Kim Schaefer. She quietly, stoically, told us that a student had taken his life the night before. The school was in mourning. The next day, as we arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital, our friend Tom Riggenbach, founder of NavahoYES, ran over to us to give us the heads up: A young man in the community had taken his life the day before.

At the world premiere performance at the Grand Canyon, Whitehorse High School NACAP composer Brevin Norton choked back tears as he dedicated his piece, This is Just the Beginning, to his two friends and classmates who had lost their lives that year.

Joshua Honawa, a joyful, engaged student at Hopi High with an amazing smile, was everywhere during our ensemble workshops, running back and forth between the music room to finish his piece and the auditorium to listen to his classmates’ workshops. I mentioned him to Hopi High’s music teacher, Tom Irwin. I was shocked when Tom told me that prior to joining NACAP Josh had been on suicide watch. He had an abusive home life, and NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

NACAP gave him the outlet he needed, spending most of his free time in the music room, composing.

In 2008 the Arizona media was filled with a horrific story: A freshman at the University of Arizona, a young Navajo woman from Tuba City, was stabbed to death in her bed by her roommate, a young Navajo woman from Chinle. The murdered student from Tuba City was best friends with one of our NACAP composers, Jessie Bilagody. That year Jessie composed Beautiful Lost Soul, a moving tribute to her friend.

When we started NACAP we wondered about how we would teach music composition to students who had minimal music instruction. We now know that NACAP is so much more than that. It is both an outlet and an entryway, a door held open, with an invitation to enter. Yes, Natives compose music. And these are voices that need to be heard.

[Ed. note: Below are recordings of six additional recent works composed through NACAP.]