In May 2022, Diné composer and noise artist Raven Chacon won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his composition “Voiceless Mass,” created for chamber orchestra, sine wave frequencies, and pipe organ. Chacon, 44, is the first Native American to win the prize. Co-commissioned by Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, Plymouth Church United Church of Christ, and Present Music, Voiceless Mass was composed for the Nichols & Simpson organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee where the piece premiered on November 21, 2021, as part of Present Music’s annual celebrations around the dichotomous theme of Thanksgiving.
“I’m happy that people remember to include Indigenous artists to come and weigh in on these things,” Chacon told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. Voiceless Mass does more than modestly weigh in. Chacon uses the power of the classical organ to momentarily free it from its obligation to reinforce religious might, allowing it to fill the room and speak for those who have been oppressed by its sounds, its dominance, even its very arrival to this continent. All of which was no small feat, because let’s face it — organs are kind of creepy.
Like a Modern Prometheus, the organ — with its mechanized chest that breathes air but has no lungs — is forged by human hands. Dating back to third-century Greece, the organ has been essential to European classical music since the Middle Ages, and closely associated with churches since the 13th century, becoming large, permanent, dominating fixtures in cathedral architecture. The organ has mesmerized us with its capacity to express pressurized air into dulcet tones or booming condemnation, as well as terrifying us in horror films. In the 19th and 20th centuries, settlers displayed their wealth and access to the newish art form of photography by snapping daguerreotypes with the family in front of their reed organs, sometimes in the parlor, on the front porch, or under a tree outside.
The organ could be characterized as a type of wooden and metal golem or puppet that sings when pressed and pulled, and its voice contains multitudes and frequencies. Chacon explaines that there are tones in the piece that can only be felt by the listener. So, there are tones in the piece that we can’t hear?
“Yes … there are also tones in the piece that you can’t hear but that the building can hear,” he said. Chacon explains further that a sound with a very low frequency can be felt, and because it’s in a vast cavity of empty space, like a cathedral, it’s possible to hear and feel it.
“I don’t know about technically or scientifically what it’s doing,” Chacon said, “I just know that some sounds may not be audible, but they definitely are magnified by the cathedral, finding their way into the crevices to make an audible reflection. ‘Resonance’ is a way to describe what’s happening.”
What’s happening in the composition and in the cathedral are the sounds of broken treaties. Ships, packed with captured humans, stacked stern to stem, slowly combing through deep black water. Thunder clouds and no rain. Muskets firing and cannons booming in the distance. Keening women. Approaching armies. Burning cities and perennial riots. Kenosha. The wind as it scrapes gnarled barbed wire fences erected on stolen land. The whine of time being spun like thread on a wheel as it elongates and stretches like an insatiable yawn, from a mouth that’s always hungry but can never be fed. The weight and strain of history. The grind of metal on metal when the train brakes can’t stop the future from happening.
Somehow, Voiceless Mass opens up an unhealed, cultural wound that’s been festering since the dawn of the United States. Performing this kind of emotional surgery, using the largest musical instrument on Earth to do it, is tantamount to some form of conjuring. How did Chacon approach an instrument that for centuries has been the loudest, least vulnerable voice in the room? How did the goliath of sound become an orchestral team player?
It seems that Chacon played to the instrument’s tendencies rather than obscure them. “The organ’s tones … the air is rising, it’s forcing us to maybe look up subconsciously or unconsciously,” he says, “to tilt upward in praise of whatever’s above us.”
Rather than wrestle the giant to the ground, Chacon used its undeniable size and power to resonate with the collective strength of the chamber ensemble. “The interesting thing that happens is that none of these instruments (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, viola, and percussion) — other than maybe the bass drum, maybe the bass clarinet — can adequately compete with the organ,” he said. But, in that space, there’s not a cluster of musicians up on stage with the organ. As Chacon explained, “they are spaced out in a way where everybody can equitably resonate in the hall.” That sense of sonic equity extends beyond the instruments. Chacon sees the possibility of redefining the power dynamics in the room and used the opportunity to create Voiceless Mass to explore this idea.
“How do we expand whatever music we’re making?” Chacon asked. “How do we make it fuller? How do we make it reach more people? How do we let it have greater power than the voice itself? That’s a beautiful idea. And that’s what having faith means. It’s something greater than you that exists and is supporting you through life. And I surely stand behind that.”
Chacon’s first composition for pipe organ has also inspired him to continue the type of deep listening he has built his life around. “I’ve been interested lately in sounds that I don’t even like,” he said, “sounds that aren’t musical sounds at all. And it’s not to even make an attempt to make music out of it. It’s that they exist in this time frame that I’m working with, existing for even non-musical reasons. Maybe it signifies something that is semiotic to whoever’s listening, maybe it’s theater, maybe it’s something else.”
Chacon’s three-channel video installation of “Three Songs” (2021), “Silent Choir (Standing Rock)” (2016-2017), and “For Zitkála Šá Series” (2019) is on view in the Whitney Biennial through September 5, 2022, and he will debut new chamber music in New Mexico, commissioned by Chatter, in August 2022.
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