Raven Chacon: Inside the music

Three musical performances of the works of New Mexico-based composer, sound artist, and visual artist Raven Chacon, including a performance of his composition American Ledger, will be presented virtually on Nov. 20, at the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre, by the UBC Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

“With American Ledger, I’m using the score as an opportunity to tell the narrative and even creation story, if you will, of a place, of the country of the United States,” says Chacon. “And even though this piece is about the history of the United States there is a shared history of colonization of Indigenous people with Canada, as much as Canada might pretend it doesn’t share that.”

Eschewing expectation

Raven Chacon, composer,
sound artist, and visual artist. | Photo courtesy of Chan Centre

Chacon was born and raised in Fort Defiance in the Navajo Nation indigenous Territory and has been interested in music for as long as he can remember. Following a formal background studying piano and guitar, Chacon went on to receive his MFA in composition at the California Institute of Arts before starting a career which would showcase his works across the U.S. and abroad.

With a background in chamber music, noise music, and visual installation, the artist takes a different approach with each new piece, depending on the topic, setting, or site. And while one might expect his music to combine elements of his cultural heritage with his formal Western music background, Chacon says that, for a while at least, his work was an active resistance of both.

“[I was] making sound in a lot of ways, other than just notated music: experimenting with recording and sound installations, things that couldn’t be presented on the stage or on recordings,” he says. “The early works definitely were a resistance to both [Navajo and Western music influence]. Now, it’s not meant to consider those questions or influences, but to navigate around the assumptions that each side is going to have.”

While there exists some guiding principles in Chacon’s work, for him, every piece and installation is different, and seeks to broach a tale, event,
or perspective.

“It might be something I’m responding to a site specifically, whether that comes from the invitation of whoever is commissioning or presenting the work,” says Chacon. “It may be something that I’m responding to the tradition of, or perhaps an event that took place at the site of performance or the site of exhibition. I have an interest in the history of the region where I’m from, in the Southwest and by extension, I guess anything that happens in the country I’m trapped inside of.”

Equity in performance

Chacon’s continued eschewing of expectations and influences extends to his goals and purpose as an artist too. While he’s far from apathetic or unaware of the many issues facing his country, especially in such a politically charged year as 2020, he stops short of trying to solve these problems through his own music.

“I’m not seeking to resolve issues or find solutions to problems, but rather to raise more questions,” he says. “I’m not interested in moralizing or stating my solutions or even my thoughts. The best thing I can do is bring up questions that I have around it.”

But while he’s more interested in asking questions than trying to answer them, Chacon is far from unconcerned with the effect of his art and music. For him, using a graphical score such as American Ledger is not only interesting as an artistic endeavour, but also as a means of fostering a kind of equity in the performance.

In this way, musicians, rather than being dictated to by the composer or the composition, might come to a more shared, communal experience in making sense of and interpreting the music they’re meant to perform.

“Performers inside of a music composition might be acting in the process of equity that might not be replicated in what we’re seeing in our day to day lives,” says Chacon. “And so, if I can replicate that model inside of how musicians interact inside of a composition, I feel good. I’m at least making a step in the right direction.”

For more information, please visit: www.chancentre.com/events/raven-chacon