Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Raven Chacon on the sounds of home in the Southwest

By: - May 17, 2022 4:45 am

Raven Chacon, solo performance, 2011 at the Banff Centre. (Photo by Trevor Duke)


Raven Chacon makes noise. 

It comes from the found items he uses to make music at basement shows for five people, a sound he heard when his failure to make a homemade bass guitar as a teenager put his ears onto the vibration of experimental sound.

He finds sound in deep quiet, discovered by seeking remote places in the desert to record. “Each different place had its own color of noise,” he said. “It had its own information. It had its own magnification.”

He makes scores for specific instruments. Like the one he specifically composed a piece for, an organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, that made a loud reverberation with the announcement that Chacon’s work “Voiceless Mass” was awarded the 2022 Pulitzer in music.

“It hasn’t stopped buzzing,” Chacon said, referring to his phone since everyone started texting him to let him know he won the Pulitzer on Monday. 

Chacon (Diné) is the first Native American to win a Pulitzer in music. Even with the distinction, the sounds in his head are keeping him in line for an upcoming book deadline. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing. And surely it’s some stress there. But yeah, it’s always onto the next project,” he said. 

Wednesday morning, Source New Mexico caught Chacon for an hour to talk about his inspiration for the Pulitzer-winning “Voiceless Mass” and how it became a reality.

The piece was performed in Wisconsin at the Catholic church during a Thanksgiving event. 

Admittedly, Chacon said he enjoys a plate during the colonial holiday, and like many in New Mexico, he grew up with some Catholicism while also engaging in his traditional practices. Those conflicted experiences shaped his worldview because he “oscillated between those two spectrums.”

Even to the point where he said he routinely turned down invitations to be the Native American presence at Thanksgiving events. 

“To be honest with you, every Native artist — or at least musicians — gets asked to do a Thanksgiving thing,” he said. “My inclination for the past 20 years or so I’ve been doing this is to turn that invitation down.”

But the draw of the organ at St. John’s was something Chacon wanted to explore, to see what sounds he could create, so he accepted that one invitation. A year later, he now has a Pulitzer for it.

Even with pandemic restrictions that did not allow him to travel or hear the organ in Milwaukee in person, he designed enough research to understand the sounds the instrument would make. 

The only other organ he played before writing this piece was one at Keller Hall in Albuquerque. “I got to play that one because I used to work there. And so I climbed up there one day and just, you know, started playing on it,” he said. “I don’t think I was supposed to, but I did anyway.”

Not only did he understand the ins and outs of the sounds the organ was capable of making, he knew his commissioned composition for the Thanksgiving performance, at a Catholic church, carried a weight taking space in spaces that typically fight against the existence of voices like his.

“Churches exploited people, so why not as an artist, you know, flip that back and use the church for the means of making art,” he said. 

He acknowledges the history of churches supporting the arts, financially and through the design of the structures, as well as large installations that are made under the direction of the church. Think frescos, stained glass windows and the large metal bleeding Jesus crucifix.

Chacon took his art in the direction he wanted by using the church space how he wanted, instead of the church creating a space for him.

“When I arrived, I was able to see where the organ resonates, you know, what parts of the hall might support more of the bass tones.” There were two organs daisy-chained together, he explained, and he wanted to find a way to use both sets of pipes. “One was in the front of the church and one was in the very back, so being able to have a much fuller sound inside of that space.” 

In chamber compositions, he rarely incorporates electronics, he said. But in this one, he introduced low-end sine waves to accompany the massive organ.

“And these oftentimes confuse a listener or are hard to place — if they’re coming from the organ or speakers.” The electronics supported the organ’s notes, he said, but they also created more wideness, took up more space inside the cathedral.

Chacon said he first came up with the Pulitzer-winning piece in Albuquerque. 

So what does he think Albuquerque sounds like? 

His response came after a long pause and laugh. The man who creates sounds out of anything he finds or thinks of, struggled to describe the sound of his city. 

Then the spark hit him. 

“There is a particular sound going down, walking around Central on a Friday or Saturday night. It sounds brown,” he said. “It sounds like cars, and it sounds like people who’ve been partying, and it sounds like people having conversation about anything. And you will hear some ridiculous things, but you’ll also hear people, very genuine people, just wanting to have a conversation with you about anything in the universe.”

Thanks to KUNM News for airing a segment of the interview (above) between Source NM Reporter Shaun Griswold and Composer Raven Chacon during the broadcast on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

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