Pulitzer-Winning Composer Raven Chacon Brings the Noise to High Zero

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What do you do after you win a Pulitzer Prize and a held-over exhibit at the Whitney Biennial? If you’re Raven Chacon, you come to Baltimore to perform at High Zero, the annual festival for experimental improvised music that celebrates its 24th year this month.

Chacon’s banner year began in March, when a selection of his video, photography, and sound works went on display as part of this year’s Whitney Biennial, including For Zitkála-Šá—a series of 13 graphic scores dedicated to contemporary American Indian, First Nations, and Mestiza women working in music performance, composition, and sound art.

“Zitkála-Šá was a composer, a Dakota woman who lived at the turn of the century. And in addition to making music she was also an activist a writer, a leader, a poet—so many things,” Chacon says. “The scores are dedications to contemporary Indigenous women, musicians, and composers … In a way, this kind of portraiture—one-page graphic scores—may be better at telling the story of their work, their ideas, and their biographies.”

Shortly afterward, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Voiceless Mass, a site-specific large ensemble piece composed specifically for the Nichols & Simpson organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A meditation on space, history, and power, Voiceless Mass “considers the futility of giving voice to the voiceless, when ceding space is never an option for those in power.” The historic award marked the first time a Native American has been awarded a Pulitzer in any category. 


The UBC School of Music Symphonic Wind Ensemble, led by Robert Taylor, performs Raven Chacon’s work, American Ledger (No. 1), 2018, outside the Music Building at the University of British Columbia, October 8, 2020, as part of Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (September 8-December 6, 2020). Photo: Rachel Topham Photography

A prolific Diné artist whose musical output spans the gamut between chamber music to noise, Chacon has exhibited and performed in some of the world’s most esteemed art venues, and frequently centers concerns about power and history from the position of an Indigenous composer living and working in the United States. And while a piece like Voiceless Mass is concerned with space, Chacon is equally interested in examining the histories of the instruments used in his work.

“I’m aware of assumptions that people might have when encountering my work. Maybe they find out that I’ve made a sound piece about Standing Rock at the Biennial and assume I’m going to be playing a flute or traditional hand drums,” he says. “There is a drum, but you’re hearing a snare drum as a bed underneath women singing in their indigenous languages. In a way, it’s subverted, and not because of dissonance or noise. It’s because that snare drum has its own history, and when it’s brought into that context, it’s going to complicate what your expectation of that song will be.”

Chacon shifts away from traditional chamber music forms at High Zero, featuring three sets of electronic improvisations over the festival’s run, including a solo set on Sunday night as well as collaborations with Ami Yamasaki (voice), Jamal Moore (reeds and percussion) and Tatiana Castro (piano and spoken word) on Thursday, and Eze Jackson (voice), Bonnie Lander (voice), and Samuel Burt (reeds and daxophone) on Saturday.


2022 High Zero lineup (via Instagram)

In all, High Zero’s scheduled performances include improvised performances by 22 artists—11 international and 11 from the Baltimore area—combined into fresh ensembles each night. Performances include solo sets from pianist Lafayette Gilchrist and vocalist Bonnie Lander as well as the festival’s trademark “Night of Randomization,” in which 16 musicians are randomly assembled into groups of four.

Although this will be his first in-person performance with High Zero, Chacon performed in High Zero’s virtual festival in 2020 with Tatsuya Nakatani and Carlos Santistevan. The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on performing artists, and Chacon is excited to return to live performance and listening.

“Collaborating and improvising with others takes up a third of my practice, and it’s the thing that allows me to listen to others. I like being in live music, either before or after I’ve played, especially after the past two years,” says Chacon. “It was hard; I didn’t enjoy the online streaming, playing in my bedroom kind of concert, and I didn’t enjoy watching it either. But it reinforced my love of being a spectator listener, being in the presence of people playing music.”

When he’s not collecting major art prizes, Chacon teaches at the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, and is enjoying seeing his students go on to successful musical careers of their own.

“Since 2004, I’ve been teaching high school students on Navajo and Hopi reservations to write string quartets, and those string quartets get premiered by a professional quartet at a concert at the Grand Canyon,” he says. “One of the first students of that program, Michael Begay, has since become a co-instructor of the program. He’s such a brilliant composer and recently he was accepted into Peabody, so he’s in Baltimore also, continuing his work.”


 High Zero 2022 runs from Sept 15-18 at the Theatre Project.


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