Albuquerque composer Raven Chacon conjures concerts from noise and recordings from massacres.
The multiple award-winning Diné artist will be showcasing his work at New York’s Whitney Biennial on April 6.
The show marks the second time Chacon has been invited into the prestigious event, seen as one of the most important of its kind in the world. Critics view the show as a barometer, both anticipated and debated, for the trends it reveals in American art. Participation can skyrocket an artist’s career.
“It’s quite an honor to be one of the new artists to get in twice,” said Chacon, who took part in the 2017 event as part of the collective Postcommodity.
Chacon is bringing works developed from 20 years of sonic research. He created 13 graphic scores dedicated to Indigenous women composers. His inspiration came from the life of Zitkála-Å á, a Dakota writer, editor, translator, musician and teacher who lived at the turn of the last century.
“She was an interesting woman,” Chacon said. “She was one of the first Native American composers. She wrote a piece called ‘The Sun Dance Opera.'”
At first, Chacon wanted to dedicate a symphony to her (he also writes chamber music). But the form seemed too grandiose.
Instead, he penned graphic scores for contemporary Native women composers, including artists such as Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek Nation), the current U.S. poet laureate; and First Nations singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Zitkála-Å á “was advocating for the right for Native American people to vote,” Chacon said. “Some people saw it as opting in to the oppressors. I think there was a lot of conflict across the board. I feel there’s some (alignment) between what these women had to navigate. I call them ‘Portraits.'”
The exhibition also features a three-channel video installation filmed on Navajo, Cherokee and Seminole lands featuring women singing the stories of massacres or removals in their native languages. Today these areas are contested again over mining and other uses. Chacon accompanied their songs with a snare drum to evoke the beat of the U.S. cavalry.
Born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Chacon grew up in Albuquerque, where he earned his bachelor’s in music degree at the University of New Mexico. He received his master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts. Today he teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has also taught at UNM, Bard College, Colorado College and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
His father was from Mora, while his mother came from Chinle, Arizona.
“They think like artists, but they’re not artists,” he said. “Our parents were very encouraging.
Chacon took piano lessons at a young age. Although he didn’t stick with the keyboard, learning to read music would prove critical.
His grandfather sang traditional Navajo songs. Chacon veered more toward heavy metal and experimental music, navigating the New Mexico band scene.
He describes his solo sets as “noise.”
“It’s the culmination of a lot of things,” he said. “It’s probably the heavy metal influence. It became something I’ve been developing into music.”
After the Biennial, he has been invited to a residency at Philadelphia’s Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.
The Biennial takes place from April 6 to Sept. 5. To date, more than 3,600 influential and innovative artists have participated in a Whitney Biennial or Annual. The event began as an annual exhibition in 1932; the first Biennial was in 1973. It helped launch artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Jeff Koons into prominence.
Chacon will fly to the Whitney in April “if COVID allows everybody to do such a thing.”