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Native composer helps Indian students create musical pieces for string performance

SANTA FE, N.M. — Experimental musician Raven Chacon is composing a piece for the renowned Kronos Quartet. In one of his previous works, two caged zebra finches interacted with a theramin and made varying sounds from the electronic instrument by moving their bodies.

Another Chacon project called the Kleptones mashed Beatles tunes together with electronic effects.

In Santa Fe these days, he’s working in another medium: teenage students from the Santa Fe Indian School.

Chacon, of Chinle, Ariz., but living in Albuquerque, has for 12 years taken small groups of Native American students from Arizona or Utah – some with musical training, some not – and given them lightning-fast training in musical composition. The resulting pieces are performed by professional string quartets annually at the Grand Canyon Music Festival.

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His Native American Composer Apprentice Project is the winner of an award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He’s come to Santa Fe to work with students here for the first time as part of SITE Santa Fe’s current exhibit, “much wider than a line.”

Composer Raven Chacon, right, works with Larry Rosetta, 17, from Kewa Pueblo at SITE Santa Fe on Tuesday. Chacon is working with students on music composition, and the pieces created by the students will performed by a string quartet next Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Composer Raven Chacon, right, works with Larry Rosetta, 17, from Kewa Pueblo at SITE Santa Fe on Tuesday. Chacon is working with students on music composition, and the pieces created by the students will performed by a string quartet next Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A concert next week – Thursday evening at the Armory for the Arts – will feature works that the Indian School students are creating over about a two-week period and will be performed by the Huntress Quartet from Albuquerque.

At SITE, visitors can listen to a few of Chacon’s favorite pieces from his previous youth workshops – some discordant, others melodic and atmospheric, one with a deep riff inspired by the young composer’s love of heavy metal, all translated to sheet music (also on display) and the instrumentation of a string quartet.

“They have a wide variety of influences,” Chacon said of the students he works with. “A lot is pop music, or they have an assumption that I want classical music. But it can sound like whatever they want, like a soundtrack or tribal music. They really do find the freedom to do whatever they want.”

SFIS student Larry Rosetta jots down notes for a composition he’s working on for a string quartet performance next Thursday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SFIS student Larry Rosetta jots down notes for a composition he’s working on for a string quartet performance next Thursday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

He’s worked with more than 200 young people over the years.

“A lot of schools don’t have music programs or arts programs,” said Chacon. “That’s true all over the country, but more so on the Rez. There are schools, maybe because of the sports teams, they have a marching band, or they may be very fortunate and have a music teacher, so the students can read musical notation and work that way.

“But when there’s been no music program, we find ways that they can get what they want down on paper. I teach them very quickly some simple music notation, or maybe I transcribe the sound they want. Other times, we do it more creatively, like with text or a graphic notation. It produces some interesting results.” Sometimes, the students take themes from nature or sounds from Native singing. Other compositions are more avant-garde, Chacon said.

“It’s kind of a crash course – you squeeze it in and see what comes out,” he said at SITE this week. “There’s no expectation of how it needs to sound. You have these few days and then you’re done. That’s exciting. It’s very close to improvisation.”

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At SITE on Tuesday this week, four of the Indian School students were working with Chacon on pieces that they had just started a few days before.

“Music is my passion,” said Larry Rosetta, a senior from Kewa Pueblo (formerly Santo Domingo). He creates electronic dance music using a computer and his sessions with Chacon are the first time he’s used musical notation. “I’ve learned a lot since the first day,” he said.

Rosetta hopes his composition will create an atmosphere “and feel a little different, with a modern side, as well. I’m trying to make up the sounds in my head.”

Dominik MorningDove, an SFIS junior, searches for sounds on a violin at SITE Santa Fe as he works to create a musical piece for string quartet. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Dominik MorningDove, an SFIS junior, searches for sounds on a violin at SITE Santa Fe as he works to create a musical piece for string quartet. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Dominik MorningDove, a junior from San Felipe Pueblo, was drawing a bow across a violin, searching for a sound. He usually plays guitar and enjoys classical music. “I like music with feeling,” he said. “… To me, music is almost like a being.”

“I’m trying to figure out how to make my own music and make it my own style,” he said.

Isaiah Chinana, 14, from Jemez Pueblo, a self-taught pianist, holds down his sheet music in the wind Tuesday. He’s working on music that he’s creating as part of a project by composer Raven Chacon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Isaiah Chinana, 14, from Jemez Pueblo, a self-taught pianist, holds down his sheet music in the wind Tuesday. He’s working on music that he’s creating as part of a project by composer Raven Chacon. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Isaiah Chinana, a ninth-grader and self-taught pianist from Jemez Pueblo, was looking for a piano and headed over to use one at nearby Warehouse 21 to work on his composition, which will be “slow and then, later on, a little faster.” Chacon was also working with Adelaina Othole, a senior from Santa Clara Pueblo, on how to get her ideas down as sheet music.

Arlene Huber, a teacher in the SFIS gifted and talented program, said the group of students talked excitedly on the way back from their first session with Chacon about their ideas and how to translate them for a performance. “The interest level has been non-stop,” she said.

This coming Tuesday, the students will work with the all-female Huntress Quartet “to work out the bugs,” said Chacon. He said the quartet members – violinists Jessica Billey and Rosie Hutchinson, viola player Heather Trost and cellist Ariel Muniz – will offer ideas on the flow of the pieces “and tightening them up to get the students’ concepts down.”

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