Pulitzer Prize-winning composer performed honored work at Milwaukee Cathedral

St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee is seen in this 2002 file photo. (CNS Photo by Sam Lucero, Catholic Herald)

Marc Pattison
Catholic Press Service

WASHINGTON — When someone receives a Pulitzer Prize, it’s usually one of those press-stopping moments to honor compelling, groundbreaking journalism.

That’s not quite the case for Raven Chacon. He won the Pulitzer for Music with his work “Voiceless Mass,” which premiered last November at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee.

Neither Chacon nor his audience knew then that he would win the prestigious prize. With his award, Chacon became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer in Music.

Chacon had the cathedral organ in mind when he wrote “Voiceless Mass”, a 16-minute piece for organ and ensemble.

Chacon said: “By exploiting the architecture of the cathedral, ‘Voiceless Mass’ considers the futility of giving voice to the voiceless, when giving up space is never an option for those in power. “

In an interview with Present Music, which sponsored the cathedral performance, Chacon said that although he had the cathedral organ in mind, he had never played the instrument before, and there was back and forth between him and the cathedral staff so he could get an idea of ​​the sounds that would emanate from it.

Chacon had been commissioned to write “Voiceless Mass” at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and composed most of it while locked up.

The Pulitzer Jury, in awarding the prize, called “Voiceless Mass” an “original and compelling work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with visceral impact obsessive”.

Chacon described the work as an exploration of the “spaces in which we gather, the history of access to these spaces, and the land on which these buildings sit.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Chacon said he was inspired by the silence of days spent in lockdown to compose “Voiceless Mass.”

“During the pandemic, we were able to focus on some of the cries of people who felt injustices around them,” he told The Times. “The lockdown was that period of calm where there was an opportunity for those sounds and those screams to emerge.”

Chacon, 44, a member of the Navajo Nation who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided to use the sounds of the organ, along with winds, strings and percussion, to explore themes of power and the oppression.

Music is not Chacon’s only business. He is also a textile artist, designer of installations and makes videos. Perhaps it was his multiplicity of talents that clouded others’ view that his greatness was near on the horizon.

And, just as a small journalist is unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize, few composers will win a Pulitzer with their first song. But looking back, you could tell from his early reviews what kind of talent he possesses.

In 2020, Chacon co-wrote an opera, “Sweet Land,” which debuted in a Los Angeles park. Fellow composer, Chinese-born Du Yun, already has a Pulitzer to her credit. Of the opera’s two librettists, one is of Ojibwa descent and the other is African-American.

The opera’s four co-creators called “Sweet Land” “an opera that erases itself”. In 80 minutes, the work distills the tensions between the two groups of people in North America – known in the opera as the Hosts and the Arrivals – and culminates in Manifest Destiny and Man’s Inhumanity to man, all in 80 minutes.

And in January: The Whitney Biennial, a major meeting place for cultural circles, has chosen 63 artists from various disciplines to highlight. And Chacon was one of them.

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