Meet Raven Chacon, the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music
Raven Chacon's Voiceless Mass received its world premiere Nov. 21, 2021 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, Wis. Far from any kind of traditional Catholic mass, the piece was written by Chacon, a Diné composer, performer and installation artist from the Navajo Nation, for chamber orchestra and pipe organ — specifically for the pipe organ at St. John the Evangelist.
This week, Chacon became the first Native American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music. In its note on the award, the Pulitzer jury called Voiceless Mass a "mesmerizing, original work ... that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful music expression with a haunting, visceral impact."
Until recent years, music Pulitzers have typically been handed to white men. But since 2013, five women have won the award, as has the hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. This year's two other finalists were Andy Akiho's Seven Pillars and Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti's with eyes the color of time.
Chacon's work was co-commissioned by the Milwaukee organization Present Music, for the latest iteration of its annual Thanksgiving concert, which it has called "a musical embrace of our differences and shared humanity."
Although proudly based in Albuquerque, I reached Chacon by telephone on Monday afternoon at a studio where he works in upstate New York, just an hour after he'd won the award. Chacon said he was grateful to have received the commission during lockdown from the pandemic. He said he is pleased he was able to create the music in the first place and that now it has been acknowledged.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Huizenga: Once you had the commission for Voiceless Mass where did the inspiration come from?
Raven Chacon: This was composed specifically for this organ that is housed in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, and I had no idea how to write for that. So it took a lot of back and forth with the stewards of that instrument. It took some other research online, speaking to other organists to tell me more about how these function.
Is this your first composition that includes the pipe organ?
Yes. Present Music has an annual Thanksgiving Day concert and they commissioned me to write a new piece. And just upon hearing an invitation like that, that's normally something I might turn down. Obviously, as an indigenous person trapped in this country, that's not necessarily something I want to respond to. Or there might be an expectation that I want to respond to that. The specific event of Thanksgiving is not something that happened to my tribe. Similar encounters happened to native people of the Southwest, but I don't always feel like I'm the one to speak about that particular historical event.
However, the second component of this was that the concert was to be held in this church, and this church has this magnificent instrument that I had to use. And to me, it always comes back to the instruments. I'm completely fascinated by all of these instruments that have been developed for centuries. And certain areas of the world get to claim them. But the truth is, they've gone through many different versions and traveled from Asia, from the Americas, from Africa, and ended up evolving through time into the instruments that we know today. And the organ is no exception. So really I was just using it as an opportunity to discover that instrument and at the same time thinking about the space this instrument is stored in and the history of that space. How long has the church been there? What is the relationship of churches in the area to the indigenous people of present day Wisconsin? What is still happening? What is the discussion around residential schools, around suppression of voices from the church? Those are the things that went into this piece.
Are some of those things you just mentioned references to the "Voiceless" in the title of your piece?
They are some of that. At the same time, during lockdown, we were seeing a lot of protests, a lot of actions around Black Lives Matter, Asian Lives Matter. I'm still thinking back to the big one for native people at Standing Rock, and what happened there, and the suppression, even from the media, at being able to tell these stories. There was more information, perhaps, over lockdown that we were able to at least get a glimpse of what people were trying to speak about and some of these urgent cries. Yeah, it goes back to historical voices, or suppressed voices, but it also speaks about where we are today with what people are trying to speak about.
Voiceless Mass is scored for more than just the organ.
It is for a large ensemble: flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, two percussionists and strings. Also another instrument is sine tones. You hear this kind of hocketing, or these kind of drones, that at times you can't tell if that's one of the pipes of the organ or it's the sine tone emitting either a high pitch or a low pitch in that space. So the space kind of mediates, or even confuses, the timbre of both the pipe organ and the sine tones.
So there is a little electronic component to the piece as well.
Yes and that's something I rarely do. I perform as a lo-fi kind of noise musician with homemade electronic instruments as part of my practice. But I keep that very separate from the chamber work that I do. And it's very rare that I'll integrate electronics or processing into the chamber works. But this was an exception. My reason for using sine tones was not only to complement or contrast the organ, but to also just support those tones and the vastness of that church space. Because it's such a resonant hall, it needed all of the support of all the instruments.
Because Voiceless Mass was first performed in a church setting, does that automatically mean that there is a spiritual component for you in the piece?
Let's put it this way. A lot of native people have also grown up in the Christian church. For a lot of us in the Southwest that was the Catholic church. For myself, on a personal level, there is something that happens in these spaces, something that despite the words being spoken in that space, despite the history of the congregation of that space, there's still, at least for me, an urge to recognize those buildings as places to reflect, places of some kind of sacred gathering. So anytime anybody's gathering under the purposes of hope, under the purposes of prayer, that for sure becomes something that's going to influence music inside of these spaces. I was, of course, conscious of that, and that is something that I acknowledged as I was writing the piece.
What should we be listening for in your piece?
Back to the title. This is not a piece for choir, not a piece that has voices. So there was this kind of playing with that void, finding ways to substitute other sounds for what one might see as this kind of choral group that would be singing melodies. Everything is a kind of stretched out melody, or choral structure. That might be the way to think of it — as if time has been very stretched out, elongated and not necessarily something that's speaking about today, but music that is talking about an ongoing story.
From now on you're going to be referred to as Raven Chacon, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Is that going to change things for you?
I don't think so. I'll probably take a break from writing chamber music. I do other things. I have work up right now in the Whitney Biennial. Those are still in the form of compositions: I have scores up there, I have video works that are focused on songs, I have field recordings. For me, there are always other mediums to work with, other forms that sound can exist in. So I'll probably find myself jumping to another area that folks might not consider to be compositions. Video perhaps, or songs.
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