Big news came for the Southwest today as multi-disciplinary artist and Albuquerque-based composer Raven Chacon (Diné) won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his 2021 piece, Voiceless Mass—for the pipe organ of all instruments. Chacon is the first Indigenous composer to do so, and the first from New Mexico.
“I was pretty caught off-guard,” Chacon tells SFR. “I’m in here, in my studio, and I’m getting texts from people telling me I got this thing, and [the Pulitzer Prize people] haven’t sent me an email or phone call, but that’s cool—I’m just excited they recognized this work, and that my chamber [music] work is acknowledged; that’s only one of the things I do, but it’s the thing I like to think is the main part of my practice.”
Voiceless Mass was commissioned by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, Plymouth Church UCC and Present Music, an ensemble-based nonprofit organization in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dedicated to music education and premiering new musical works, for its annual Thanksgiving concert, which has been performed since 1996 in Milwaukee’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Chacon’s Pulitzer-winning composition premiered at that church last November.
A lifelong visual artist and musical instrument researcher with previous compositions for strings, voice and even foghorn under his belt, Chacon says he was drawn to the Wisconsin church’s pipe organ and, more broadly, how cathedrals were designed and built to amplify sound naturally. Interestingly, Voiceless Mass can run between 17-20 minutes depending on how it is performed.
“My pieces aren’t improvisational, but there’s agency in how long things will last, and given there’s a conductor…maybe they can determine how many times things repeat,” Chacon explains. “I like to put these things into the work to make it more fluid, more malleable in terms of time and duration; stretching time like that is also going to affect the volume, spacialization and the mood and the tone of the piece. I like to put these things into the work to make it more fluid, more malleable.”
Chacon earned his degree in composition from the University of New Mexico and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He’s also known for works in visual mediums, as well as in noise and experimental composition. For Voiceless Mass, he says, the real challenge was in composing during lockdown, when he was unable to visit the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
“The obstacle there was that each of these organs are specific and particular,” he says. “They’re unique and site-specific to the building they’re housed in. I’d already completed the piece, but once things eased up enough, we were able to have a live concert.”
That Chacon even premiered the piece for a Thanksgiving event at all is notable.
“As an Indigenous artist, I make a point not to present my work on this holiday, but in this case I made an exception,” Chacon wrote in his Pulitzer entry. “This work considers the spaces in which we gather, the history of access of these spaces, and the land upon which these buildings sit. Though ‘mass’ is referenced in the title, the piece contains no audible singing voices, instead using the openness of the large space to intone the constricted intervals of the wind and string instruments.”
The piece is, “a mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact,” according to the Pulitzer citation.
In 2018, Santa Fean Caroline Frasier was the last New Mexican to earn the prize, hers for a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder.