Music, videos: the Pulitzer winner who emerged from a period of silence


Composer and artist Raven Chacon, a member of the Navajo Nation, at the Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts in Pendleton, Ore., on Feb. 17, 2019. Chacon’s “Voiceless Mass,” a work for ensemble and pipe organ that “evokes the weight of history in a religious setting,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music on Monday, May 9. (Credit: Celeste Noche/The New York Times)

AAt the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when the world around him became quiet and still, composer Raven Chacon got to work.

Inspired by the silence of the days spent in confinement, he began to write “Voiceless Mass”, a 16-minute work for ensemble and pipe organ. Chacon, 44, a member of the Navajo Nation who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided to use the sounds of the organ, along with winds, strings and percussion, to explore themes of power and the oppression.

“During the pandemic, we were able to focus on some of the cries of people who felt injustices around them,” he said in an interview. “The lockdown was that period of calm where there was an opportunity for those sounds and those screams to emerge.”
On Monday, “Voiceless Mass” received the Pulitzer Prize for Music. It was an unexpected honor for an artist who has worked in all genres – music, video, printmaking – to shine a light on the struggles facing Indigenous peoples.

Chacon said he only realized he had won the prize shortly after the announcement on Monday, when friends started texting him.

“Apparently they’re not calling you,” he said.

“Voiceless Mass” had its premiere on November 21, 2021, at the annual Thanksgiving concert of Present Music, an ensemble dedicated to contemporary music. It was commissioned by the whole and by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Plymouth Church in the United Church of Christ.

Chacon described the work as an exploration of the “spaces in which we gather, the history of access to these spaces, and the terrain on which these buildings sit”. He wrote “Voiceless Mass” especially for the Nichols & Simpson organ at St. John the Evangelist’s Cathedral in Milwaukee.

“By harnessing the architecture of the cathedral, ‘Voiceless Mass’ considers the futility of giving voice to the voiceless, when giving up space is never an option for those in power,” Chacon said. .

The Pulitzer Committee hailed the piece as an “original and compelling 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 is the latest in a series of works by Chacon exploring the injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples. He has produced graphic scores dedicated to Indigenous female composers; recordings of silent clashes between Indigenous women and police during protests near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2016; and a video installation, filmed in Navajo, Cherokee and Seminole land, featuring women singing stories of sites where massacres or kidnappings took place.

He also wrote the music, with Du Yun, for the opera “Sweet Land”, a meditation on colonialism which premiered in 2020.

Chacon said he hoped the award would help give “Voiceless Mass” a wider audience.

“I hope it will be played more,” he said. “It’s always been a challenge to make this kind of work accessible to people who can’t get into these spaces, either because of monetary barriers or simply because they feel they’re not the audience of the classical music.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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