First Native American Composer Receives Pulitzer Prize for Music

Composer Raven Chacon's piece for ensemble and pipe organ, entitled “Voiceless Mass,” received the prestigious award this week

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(Photo credit: Adolphe Pierre-Louis)

 

Diné composer, performer, and installation artist Raven Chacon is a member of the Navajo Nation and is currently based out of Albuquerque.

During the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Chacon started writing the 16-minute work "Voiceless Mass" for pipe organ accompanied by strings, winds, and percussion. The work was co-commissioned by the Milwaukee contemporary music organization Present Music, the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, and Plymouth Church in the United Church of Christ. The piece received its world premiere in Milwaukee in November 2021 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist — which housed the pipe organ the piece was specifically written for.

Exploring themes of power and oppression, the Pulitzer Prize organization wrote that the piece is "a mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact."

"This work considers the spaces in which we gather, the history of access of these spaces, and the land upon which these buildings sit," the indigenous composer wrote in the prize's entry questionnaire. "Though ‘mass’ is referenced in the title, the piece contains no audible singing voices, instead using the openness of the large space to intone the constricted intervals of the wind and string instruments. In exploiting the architecture of the cathedral, Voiceless Mass considers the futility of giving voice to the voiceless, when ceding space is never an option for those in power."

The piece is one of many of Chacon's projects that explores the struggles of Indigenous people. His creative output includes recordings of 2016's silent standoffs between Indigenous women and the police near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, plus a video installation filmed on Navajo, Cherokee, and Seminole lands, featuring women singing the stories of massacres or removals. Along with Du Yun, he also wrote the music for the opera “Sweet Land,” a meditation on colonialism that premiered in 2020.

Raven Chacon is the first Native American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, which has historically been given to white male composers. However, in the last decade, five women have won it in addition to African American rapper Kendrick Lamar.

A graduate of the University of New Mexico and the California Institute of the Arts, Chacon has served as composer-in-residence for the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP) since 2004. Within this role, he taught composition to American Indian high school students living on reservations in the Southwest U.S.

A member of the American Indian arts collective Postcommodity, he is the recipient of the United States Artists Fellowship in Music, The Creative Capital Award in Visual Arts, The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation artist fellowship, and the American Academy’s Berlin Prize for Music Composition.

Chacon has presented his work at international venues such as The Kennedy Center, Vancouver Art Gallery, ABC No Rio, REDCAT, La Biennale di Venezia – Biennale Musica, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Chaco Canyon, Ende Tymes Festival, and 18th Biennale of Sydney.