Pulitzer Prize winning Diné composer and sound artist Raven Chacon, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in music at The University of New Mexico, has been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant. He was given the award for “creating musical works that cut across boundaries of visual art and performance to illuminate landscapes, their inhabitants, and histories.”
MacArthur fellows receive a grant of $800,000 over five years to spend however they want. Fellows do not apply for the grants but rather are nominated and endorsed by their peers and communities through a process overseen by the MacArthur Foundation. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a record of significant accomplishments, and potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
A composer and artist, Chacon creates musical experiences that explore relationships among sound, space, and people. In an experimental practice that cuts across the boundaries of visual art, performance, and music, Chacon breaks open musical traditions and activates spaces of performance where the histories of the lands the United States has encroached upon can be contemplated, questioned, and reimagined.
Chacon's work combines music, visual art, and performance. It uses objects and noise, costumes and place, as much as conventional instruments, and music − “what I call noise music,” and calls the type of music he writes “contemporary classical music.”
Last year, Chacon won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for music with his composition Voiceless Mass. The Pulitzer committee called the piece 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.”
Born in Fort Defiance, Ariz., Chacon grew up in Albuquerque. He first started playing music as a child under the tutelage of piano teacher Dawn Chambers, herself a UNM alum whose own compositions have been performed at the UNM Robb Composers’ Symposium.
From those early musical beginnings, he learned to play the guitar and cello before enrolling at UNM to study music composition. He also credited UNM Distinguished Professor Emeritus Christopher Shultis, who taught composition, and with professor Manny Rettinger, who taught recording and sound art as influences. Chacon studied composition with Shultis from 1998 until he graduated in 2001.
"Noise can be a carrier of history, it can be a carrier of story, it can tell a lot about the person who's making it," said Chacon in a video for the MacArthur Foundation.
Chacon’s compositions often include both orchestral instrumentation and sounds created by performers using objects such as rifles, foghorns, whistles, and coins. He uses a notational language that combines standard Western musical notation with nonmusical symbols, drawings, and written guidelines for interpreting the score. He often displays the visually arresting graphic scores during performances. For instance, Chacon designed the large-scale graphic score of American Ledger (No. 1) (2018) to be displayed on the side of a building, as a flag, or on a billboard. The symbols in the score and the sounds of the performance—the percussive ring of wood chops, the clinking of coins, a police whistle, the amplified striking and blowing out of a match—tell the history of settler colonialism in the United States, from arrival, to the building of cities, to the erasure of Native land and culture. In Sweet Land (2020), an opera he co-composed, Chacon explores this history and the American myth of Manifest Destiny. The opera premiered in a state park, with attendees split into two groups—the Arrivals and the Hosts. The groups are led through two different narratives, told from different perspectives, of American expansion across the continent.