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1st Native American composer to win Pulitzer Prize on his experimental process


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Amna Nawaz: Last year, Raven Chacon became the first Native American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, bringing new attention to a composer known for his experimental sounds and explorations of place and history.

Jeffrey Brown has this story, the second of our pieces on contemporary Native art for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The setting, a church in Milwaukee at Thanksgiving, a large organ and musicians positioned throughout the congregation.

Titled "Voiceless Mass," it was conceived as a liturgical mass, but with a difference. Instead of a choir, there's an absence, the Native voices long silenced by the Catholic Church.

The piece was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2022, cited for evoking -- quote -- "the weight of history."

For composer Raven Chacon, it's an example of the idea of Hozho, from the Navajo Dine language.

Raven Chacon, Composer: That idea of Hozho means maybe things lining up with other things. Maybe it's ourselves and our position here in the universe and us finding ourselves inside of all of this and realizing that we are in a timeline of other occurrences that happen.

And, for me, that's what music is. It is when you hear something line up with something else, and you want to hear that again.

Jeffrey Brown: The 45-year-old Chacon, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent his early years on the reservation in Northeastern Arizona, before moving with his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he later picked up the guitar and other instruments, including electronic.

He now lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with his wife, Candice Hopkins, executive director of Forge Project, a contemporary Native-led arts organization.

Chacon is a collector and creator of sounds, constantly experimenting, expanding what music can be. He writes for traditional instruments, but has them played in unusual ways or places. He also composes for very different kinds of instruments, here, foghorns, in a piece performed by ships' crews in Bergen, Norway, and another titled "Report" written for different kinds of firearms.

Raven Chacon: They're all sounds. But they all have other meanings, of course. You wonder, what is on those ships? What are those ships bringing? Where are those ships from? How long are they going to stay?

Same with the guns. Who's holding the guns? Why are they firing? Where are they firing these weapons? Are they weapons or are they tools? That's the hope, is that somebody hears something inside of that, whether that is a story or an emotion.

Jeffrey Brown: The connection to the history of a specific place is often important to Chacon, as seen here in a piece performed on Alcatraz Island, the former prison and site of a Native occupation starting in 1969.

Sometimes, he conveys meaning in very direct ways, as in a work titled "Three Songs," three women sing in their indigenous languages, each standing in the original homeland of her ancestors, from where they were displaced, hitting a snare drum, the symbol of the U.S. Army.

So, music is sound, broadly defined, with meaning?

Raven Chacon: It can have meaning. It can tell story. It can relay a lot of information.

I think we go into musical situations wanting to be uplifted, no matter what that music is. But if something else can happen, I mean, if the piece can relay history, a history that's not spoken enough, then that surely is a beautiful thing. And so a composer should try to find all the tactics of being able to let that be expressed.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you're writing for a bird whistle?

Raven Chacon: Yes, for bird call.

Jeffrey Brown: Bird call.

Raven Chacon: Yes.


Raven Chacon: This will be one of the -- this will be line here, this little duh, duh, duh, duh.

Jeffrey Brown: Chacon does this visually as well. He uses traditional notation, but also makes his own graphic scores.

And these, like the videos of his work, have found their way into museum exhibitions, including the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Chacon has also been concerned to bring the world of sound and music to a new generation not otherwise exposed to it.

Since 2004, he's mentored more than 300 Native youth, helping them compose their own quartets. It's all part of a whole.

If I ask you, as I'm sure you have been asked before, do you see yourself as an indigenous composer? Is that how you think of yourself?

Raven Chacon: I don't know what an indigenous composer is. There's actually not that many of us out there. So, maybe, someday, there will be hundreds, and maybe it becomes some kind of genre.

But it's a label I'm not always -- I have to really think about -- about it before using that label, because people have a lot of assumptions. At the same time, I want people to understand that, even though there's a few -- only a few of us, there are indigenous people working in this medium, in classical music, chamber music, sound.

Jeffrey Brown: With the Pulitzer Prize, more people do now know.

Chacon says he next hopes to write a work for full orchestra.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York's Hudson Valley.

Geoff Bennett: That is fascinating. He is expanding the idea of what we consider music. You can find it among harmonizing cruise ships in a harbor, apparently.

Amna Nawaz: I love the foghorns...

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: ... and the idea it's a timeline. People will build upon it.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

Amna Nawaz: Great story. Great story.

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