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Eats and Beats: Diné composer Raven Chacon has become the first Indigenous person to win the Pulitzer Prize for music

Raven Chacon
Courtesy of Raven Chacon
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Composer and Navajo Nation member and Raven Chacon recently became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. He was awarded the honor for his work "Voiceless Mass" that premiered over the 2021 Thanksgiving weekend at Milwaukee's Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Chacon composed the piece specifically for the church's massive pipe organ.

Last week, Raven Chacon became the first Indigenous composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. The musician and educator grew up in Chinle on the Navajo Nation and was recognized for a piece called “Voiceless Mass.” He composed it specifically to be played on a pipe organ housed in a church in Milwaukee and premiered the work during Thanksgiving weekend last year. The music has an unsettling quality that, as Chacon says, reflects marginalized communities that served as the inspiration for the piece. In this installment of KNAU’s series Eats and Beats, he talks about “Voiceless Mass” and how it could serve as a touchstone for the under-heard and overlooked.

Raven Chacon: I think all of my music to a degree is dissonant. And the reason for that is that I don’t prioritize the same things other composers might, for instance pitch and harmony is not always a priority. I think more I’m concerned about timbre and the way the instruments are interacting with each other. And what happens when these instruments are slightly out of tune with each other is that they do create this kind of tension, maybe this kind of eeriness, and that tension is in there symbolically to show these relationships between the instruments themselves.

Raven Chacon 2 jpeg
Jamie Drummond
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Raven Chacon composed "Voiceless Mass" to encourage listeners to think "about speaking on behalf of others, suppression of voices, and also the ceding of those spaces for people to express what these urgencies are."

It was something that I was composing during lockdown. All of us kind of shut down for two years at various degrees, you know, not being around others during this time. And so, I was thinking about maybe the entire world going through that at the same time, and not having that type of interaction we would normally be having.

Of course during this time we saw a lot of protests. We saw people that, where their voices were maybe even louder because of the time that we were experiencing, this time of quiet. And so, thinking about this opportunity to voice these frustrations of injustice that were happening, particularly around Black Lives Matter; there were a lot of conversations about monuments. And ongoing, especially in the Native community, there had been more and more awareness about murdered and missing Indigenous women, about residential schools. And I think maybe it’s that last point of issue where I was thinking about the space then that I was going to be making this work for, which is the church, and maybe being a bit frustrated at the responses that we were not getting from that institution.

Thinking about these spaces in general—churches, universities—where they pride themselves on giving space to voices, but not necessarily enacting that in all cases. And so that’s what the piece is about. The piece is just to think about speaking on behalf of others, suppression of voices, and also the ceding of those spaces for people to express what these urgencies are, and using maybe the symbol of the mass, the choir, the musical form of the mass, and this one being an exception where there is no choir, just the organ.

Just an appreciation of music is going to influence your music. And every bit of music you’ve listened to in your entire life will probably end up in the compositions that you make. The issues that are affecting Indigenous people surely influence my work. I hope that this can inspire younger Indigenous composers to keep working hard. But there’s a lot of direct action that’s needed and a lot of that is, of course, teachers, music teachers, art teachers, school administrators who can prioritize music coming into the schools and letting young people have that opportunity for the education—letting young people know that they have an opportunity to say who they are, to remind people that they exist, and talk about the things that are important to them.