5 Plain Questions: Raven Chacon
Released August 2022
Total: 32:13 minutes
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[00:00:06] Joe Williams: Hello, and welcome again to another episode of 5 Plain Questions, a podcast that proposes five questions to Indigenous artists, creators, musicians, writers, movers and shakers, and culture bearers; people in the community that are doing great things for their communities. I’m Joe Williams, your host for this conversation.
I’m the director of CANAA, the Native American programs at the Plains Art Museum. My goal is to showcase these amazing people in our indigenous communities from around the region and country.
I want to introduce you to Raven Chacon.
Raven is a composer, performer and installation artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation. As a solo artist, Chacon has exhibited, performed, and had other works performed at LACMA, The Renaissance Society, the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, REDCAT, Vancouver Art Gallery, Ende Tymes Festival, The Kennedy Center, and so on, and so on.
As a member of Postcommodity from 2009-2018, he co-created artworks presented at the Whitney Biennial, Carnegie International 57, as well as the 2-mile long land art installation Repellent Fence.
A recording artist over the span of 22 years, Chacon has appeared on more than eighty releases on various national and international labels. His 2020 Manifest Destiny opera, Sweet Land, co-composed with Du Yun, received critical acclaim from The LA Times, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and was named 2021 Opera of the Year by the Music Critics Association of America.
Since 2004, he has mentored over 300 high school Native composers in the writing of new string quartets for the Native American Composer Apprenticeship Project (NACAP). Chacon is the recipient of the United States Artists fellowship in Music, The Creative Capital award in Visual Arts, The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation artist fellowship, the American Academy’s Berlin Prize for Music Composition, the Bemis Center’s Ree Kaneko Award, and in 2022 he served as the Pew Fellow-in-Residence.
His solo artworks are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and National Museum of the American Indian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Getty Research Institute, and the University of New Mexico Art Museum, and various private collections.
Let’s jump into this interview with Raven.
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[00:02:20] Joe: Raven, thank you so much for joining us at 5 Plain Questions. It’s really an honor to have you here.
[00:02.26] Raven: Thank you, Joe.
[00:02:28] Joe: Would you be able to introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds, where you’re from…
[00:02:34] Raven: Yeah, my name’s Raven Chacon. I’m a composer and artist. I’m talking to you right now from Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is where I’ve been based most of my life. But I also grew up on the Navajo reservation in a town called Chinley, Arizona. And so the family was between there and Albuquerque through my youth, but eventually the family ended up here, and I’ve been in Albuquerque most my life. I lived in Los Angeles for a little bit, and somewhere in there I was always on the road.
[00:03:09] Joe: What was, um… So the work that you do – it’s based both visually, but also in sound and music. Can you talk a little bit about your inspirations to the work that you’ve created?
[00:03:28] Raven: Ah, yeah I would say that it’s entirely sound. All of it is meant to be sound and music. That’s the background I come from. That’s the training I was involved in, and the schooling that I had gone through was all for composing music, and learning about sound, learning how to record sound. And somewhere in there, I started making work that didn’t fit on a stage, and maybe didn’t even fit on a score, and maybe even didn’t fit on a recording. I used to put out CDs, or records, you know. Even cassette tapes. And even that wasn’t the correct medium for the work, so it started being that there were ways to exhibit this kind of work in more kind of visual art contexts. You know, art exhibitions, or even other kinds of actions, maybe performance, or video. But I think it always starts with an idea about sound – about making sound, playing music. And thinking about sound.
[00:04:52] Joe: Can you talk about your biggest influences? Both growing up and today.
[00:04:59] Raven: Well, it was… It wasn’t that I had an influence, and then I wanted to replicate it, or anything like that. It was that I was completely, maybe… disappointed in the music I was hearing? You know, I appreciated playing music. I surrounded myself with people who played better than me. I played guitar and piano. This huge fascination with instruments, all of the instruments you find in the classical genre – the western classical genre – which of course come from other places. They come from Asia and they come from Africa. They come from all over the world! But the way that they’ve been developed in the genre of classical music was something that was surely an influence, and something that I wanted to work with. So, to find music that used those tools as their generator for sound, was an influence.
But I didn’t have access in rural New Mexico and Arizona to a lot of what we would call experimental music, let’s say. And, you know, there was a lot of other kinds of musical influences: rock music, thrash metal music… I played in the mariachi group for a while. I also played in a group with traditional Pueblo and Navajo singers. So, any opportunity I could find to play music I would take it, but for my own music, I think it was I was not hearing what I wanted to hear, so it really came out of that – just wanting to make sound and hear something that I’d never heard before.
[00:06:41] Joe: How have you developed your career – both in college and post-college?
[00:06:49] Raven: It was told to me somewhere that I should go to… if I wanted to be a serious musician, I should study music in the university. And so that’s what I did. I went and got a degree in music composition from an undergrad degree at the University of New Mexico, And that was… I mean, I appreciated that because that did give me this foundation for understanding things like orchestration, and the canon of western classical music, and before recording techniques. And also that was the first time maybe being exposed to the music that was happening in the Twentieth century – the experiments with electronics, with atonality.
But still, I think, I didn’t – I wasn’t in an environment that showed me that there was a potential to do this as a career. At best, maybe one got a degree, and then went and taught this stuff to others, and that was not what I was wanting to do either. And so it took some time. It took me realizing I wasn’t going to find this community, or this kind of artwork in New Mexico. At the time, this was in the year 2000, 2001. And so that’s when I went to Los Angeles and studied at CalArts with some phenomenal composers who were becoming heroes of mine. I mean, I can’t say that there were heroes of mine as a youth or anything, but people like James Tenney, or Wadada Leo Smith – composers who who were completely radical and groundbreaking in what they do, and having the opportunity to not only study with them, but be surrounded with other other musicians and composers and artists. And a place like CalArts is interesting because you’re in this building that actually doesn’t have that many windows and goes about 6 stories under the ground, and everybody’s in there together – dancers, filmmakers, visual artists, sculptors, composers. Anybody who’s interested in art is all in this building together. There’s huge potential to collaborate, and see a lot of work.
And after that, I still got an MFA, but I still didn’t really know people could do this kind of thing. And that was when I decided to start playing a lot of music – of my own music. Which is, kind of… noise. And had found some other collaborators in Los Angeles, and we would go and tour the United States together in the car. You know, put our custom-built instruments and custom-built microphones and load up in the car, and go driving all across the country and playing for five people in every town we’d encounter. And, you know, you start to develop your own sound, but you get to meet others who are doing this kind of thing, who are fans of this kind of music. This very kind of… noise-abrasive, not-mainstream-at-all sound. And so I did that for years and, you know, I was doing other kinds of work on the side too. I mean, I was- I’ve always composed music, the dots on paper, writing for classical musicians, and I was also getting commissions at that time. So, this is a whole separate track of work that I was doing that would be more in the kind of chamber music genre.
And also, like I was saying, I had ideas for works that didn’t fit in either. They were maybe ideas for sound installations or video works. And so it was around the time, maybe it was 2008, I was asked to join this collective Post Commodity that was just forming. And they asked me to found the group with them. And I actually couldn’t do that because I was on a panel that was awarding a grant for their first project, so I said, “I can’t do the first project with you, but let’s get back after you’re done with that one.” And so it was the second project they did… I believe it was our second, where we cut the hole out of the floor in a museum to expose the earth underneath. And part of the idea there, as I- as we were working on this, would be to amplify the ground. So, I have a microphone hanging from the ceiling that would pick up whatever we thought the earth was saying to us. And this is an idea that’s been a part of my work ten years previous – making filled recordings of quiet places, the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and amplifying those you know to their maximum.
And so that – joining that group and working with that group – I think that was for me a learning trajectory in understanding how the art world works. You know what budgets can be like, thinking up a proposal, installing work… I mean, I’ve always- I’ve never been afraid of doing that kind of work. I thought that was the funnest part actually was to go get out a drill and get out some speaker wire, and go make something. And so, those three areas of what I do all all came together in some way, but also they continue to stay in their own kind of separate line of work that I do.
[00:13:22] Joe: When you were on the road, was there anything out there that really surprised you, or changed the way you looked at the way you were doing things out there?
[00:13:35] Raven: You mean from others?
[00:13:37] Joe: Yeah!
[00:13:37] Raven: Well… I can’t say all positive, I mean – an abnormal amount of men doing this. You know, more than women, not always folks of color. So, that in a way influenced me.
You know, when I’d come back to New Mexico I would… I opened a venue with some other folks. I’ve had this record label, also, actually since the year 2000. It started off as a fake record label just to release my own work, so it looked like I was on a legitimate label.
But around this time, every time I’d be done with one of these trips, I’d come back to New Mexico and encourage people to make music, show people that they can make these contact microphones, or we were getting involved in playing things. Like John Zorn has this game called “Cobra.” It’s kind of an improvisation game. Doing things like that! Maybe demystifying experimental music, or providing opportunities for people to get involved. And like I said, women and folks of color. Native folks. Chicano folks. And so, that’s what started happening around here, was a scene kind of emerging of people doing this. And so I would say that was an influence – of going out there.
And not to say that every place was like that. I remember some very diverse scenes in San Francisco, and Miami, and other places. Texas! But it was something very rare, I think. Still very male-dominated. But some of the good things, I mean, just wild experimentation that is not in an academic setting, people building their own instruments, making- building costumes. Every style, every little city, was different. And a lot of reciprocation. When those folks would be on tour, I’d host them in Albuquerque. And starting to just appreciate this genre. And it’s existed for a long time, it’s just I found myself- I finally found the people that I think I make music similar to.
[00:16:06] Joe: The next question is about opportunities. Earlier in our careers, when we’re younger, we seek opportunities. We really… We hunt for those. And as we move along those opportunities eventually come to seek us. And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? How, maybe, those have changed over the years.
[00:16:29] Raven: Yeah… That’s a good question. I got to think on that one for a second. I know that when I first started doing this, there were probably… you could count the number of Native American composers on one hand. There was not that many of us. And there was an initiative – I think it started in about 2004 – where a group of us got together just to seek out others who were doing this kind of work. At least as it relates to chamber music. So there were people like Brent Michael Davids, Jarod Tate, Lewis Ballard – who’s elder, one of the first recognized native composers – and Barbara Croall, some other folks. But this was kind of a time when the internet was still… definitely wasn’t like it was now. Not everybody had a webpage. You still had to find who these people were, who was working out there.
And so, that was one of the goals that we did. And that’s how we ended up awarding Postcommodity this grant. But I think back then, one really had to go out there. Like I said, literally go out there, get in the car, and go play a gig somewhere 8 hours away to 5 people, and maybe sell some cassette tapes, and then make some gas money, and get to the next one. And I don’t know if that kind of thing is necessary anymore. One can upload their music. One can share what they’re doing on Instagram, and everybody sees it, and becomes aware.
I’m not the type of person who has a mailing list or anything like that. I feel guilty for doing that, you know? For if I had one, I feel like I’d be spamming people. Some of this social media seems to make it more digestible. I appreciate seeing my friend’s work! You know, when they’re doing something, that’s how you find out. “Oh yeah, Chanupa has this thing going on over here! I’m going to see it!”
So, I think that’s changed. I mean, that’s been huge. That’s given visibility to people, and what they’re doing. And, of course, as we’ve seen its impact on how it can relay our urgencies. What concerns us. The whole thing that happened with Standing Rock – that encroachment and that pipeline – wouldn’t have had the legs without these connections that happen on the internet, and the visibility that’s been provided.
One of the projects that I do is teaching young folks on the reservation, high school students, to write string quartets, and they have a task of having to write these with music notation. That’s that’s the rule. And I’m trying not to impose another kind of Western language on them. However, it’s the best language that can relay to the people that are going to be playing the music. And to the accessibility of that, I don’t think- I haven’t seen a change in that in twenty years necessarily. The schools are still in the same situation where arts are not prioritized. The resources aren’t always there to allow us to come in. Sometimes even the attitude of us coming in is not always well received in that they want the students to focus on something they can have a career in and not art.
And I always say – people ask me this question often is – “Are there any music programs on… Let’s say, the Navajo reservation?” And yes. The answer is there’s a couple really good ones. But the reason why is that there’s probably a really good football team, or basketball team, at those schools, so they need a marching band. So that’s when they said, “Okay, now let’s have a music teacher who can show them. Because we’re winning.” And if that’s what it takes, that’s great, but unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of accessibility there. A lot of opportunities. And that’s why I continue to do what I do is at least I can get in there and teach them. And I’ll continue to do that until I can’t anymore.
[00:21:04] Joe: I think that’s great. You know, that seems to be the case all over in the arts. For accessibility, it really needs to come from outside the school system. Unfortunately. For myself, there was an art program… That was my only art education in school. My high school didn’t offer art classes. And as a way to pay-it-forward in the work that I do now is I have a summer art program for high school students. And so, we create that opportunity for those young people to be able to come in and learn from really accomplished artists. So, that’s great. Hearing what you’re doing and the efforts you’re making I can fully appreciate that.
[00:21:47] Raven: Yeah, yeah, and you know, at a certain point… what I should say is that: the technology has been able to help out a lot. We’ve witnessed this during COVID, and lockdown, where sometimes we’ve been able to do these lessons online for some of the students. But again that divide is definitely apparent on the reservation where you have students who don’t even have electricity, or let alone internet. So, we were trying to accommodate those students as well. But it does impress me that we can do that – that I could teach a student across the country on the internet. And it’s not ideal but it can happen, and maybe that’s going to provide some kind of relief to our carbon footprint, to other accessibility of having artists be able to reach more people via Zoom or whatever. I’m not going to advertise Zoom or any company.
[00:22:56] Joe: Right.
[00:22:57] Raven: Just streaming. Let’s say the streaming art talks and podcasts. All of this. It’s wonderful to be able to learn about who’s making work out there, and see an artist talk.
[00:23:11] Joe: So, for the eighteen to twenty year-old that’s listening to this. What would you want to say to them?
[00:23:17] Raven: Well. If you’re an artist… I actually cannot give any good advice to those artists. Let me say that over. I’ll start with, if you’re a musician. Any advice would be to do like I did, and it’s: if you make music, you can’t just wait around and expect somebody to hear it. You can upload things onto the internet, and so forth. Like I said before. And people will hear that. But I think at a certain point you have to go out there and perform the music, and not be afraid to, like I said, play for two people that show up.
There’s been many times I performed music and I only played for the other people who were on the same bill, or the door guy. And you just do that over and over and over, and hopefully you develop your own identity as a musician. And you do whatever it takes to get out there. Borrow a relative’s car and go play in the next city. Don’t just perform in your own city over and over again.
For visual artists, I’m not sure. I didn’t go that route. But I think it’s a bit of the same thing is that, if you’re not finding opportunities coming to you then one can always make their own opportunities. One can go in with a group of other artists and make a space, open your own gallery, or your own artist project space, and share resources. That’s a big one. That’s something that Postcommodity did early on is we all came from different skill sets; we made work that none of us could have made on our own. The sum of it was greater than the parts. And not only in our skill sets, but also in our shared resources. One of us had a video camera. I had a bunch of microphones. The other had a space. A studio. And so you find collectives that you know you can work with and collaborate with.
[00:25:39] Joe: One thing I’ve learned through starting this podcast was really discovering the community of artists getting together and creating collectives like this. You know, the urban 5 out of Oklahoma, Postcommodity, and there’s so many others. But it’s always exciting to hear groups getting together and working together. Even the comedians, you know, like the 1491s, and the group that- I mean, they’re all getting together and creating TV shows now, creating opportunities in entertainment that didn’t- really wasn’t available for us fifteen… even ten years ago.
[00:26: 20] Raven: Oh yeah.
[00:26:21] Joe: I think there’s strength in numbers in that sense. Where we come together and work collectively for the greater good.
[00:26: 30] Raven: Yeah, you know there’s some other newer ones too. There’s a collective called New Red Order, which is another indigenous arts collective. I like to think they’re the ones taken over from where Postcommodity left off. And you also have some curatorial collectives. There’s one called COUSIN, which is a filmmaking collective that has a regranting project where they’re helping other filmmakers, emergent filmmakers, make projects happen, they’re putting together screenings, helping folks make work. And I think that’s very interesting, in a way, as you say to pay it forward.
[00:27:15] Joe: So where can our listener find your work, and be able to connect with you online? Where can they go?
[00:27:24] Raven: I have several Bandcamp pages up. I’ve always been funny about organizing these things. I have a website: spiderwebsinthesky.com and from there one can find almost all of the projects that I’m involved in or have been involved in.
There’s some on there that I haven’t put up, and it’s because they’re either anonymous or I don’t talk to the people anymore. Maybe? Or it’s just some other other thing. I have a group of works called “Black Works.” And I don’t know if anybody will ever see those. They are just different. They might not even be me. But… So I have some Bandcamp pages under my name – Raven Chacon. I have a project called the Endlings. It’s a duo with myself and then musician John Dieterich of the band Deerhoof. There is… I have another project called “White People Killed Them,” with John, and an amazing drummer named Marshall Trammell, who’s based in Oakland California. And what else? Yeah, Instagram. You can find me on there. I post a lot of upcoming gigs on there more than I’ll put them on the website.
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[00:28:50] Raven: I think that’s a better way to find out if I got something going on live. But of course, you know, it’s a weird time for live events. Not much is planned. I do have, as of on this Saturday – I don’t know when this will air – but this Saturday, I’m playing a concert with Cannupa Hanska Lugar at the Albuquerque Museum.
[00:29:11] Joe: Okay!
[00:29:12] Raven: Chanupa wouldn’t consider himself a musician, but he has made some instruments we’re going to play.
[00:29:21] Joe: Thank you so much for this. This was really great having you on here. I’ll put links in the show notes to your website and to your IG page, and all that, so people can connect with you there.
[00:29:31] Raven: Cool. Thank you, Joe.
[00:29:37] Joe: And that does it for this episode of 5 Plain Questions. I want to thank Raven again for his time, and sharing his story with us.
What is so great about having an artist like Raven on, is that he demonstrates that you don’t have to be strictly a visual artist or a musician, per say, when being creative. He combines the concepts of the two and creates something so unique and so… really incomparable, one, in Indian country, but across the U.S, too. He’s so unique in what he does, and so thoughtful, and I really enjoyed this conversation with him. But I think combined with all of that is his efforts to collaborate with other artists, which I think is an amazing example for many to follow. His ability to move within groups, to share space and creativity with groups, and doing it in good faith is so important and so inspiring. It just created one really great conversation, but he’s also creating a network and a legacy of work that is so appreciative and so important for all of us. And so yeah, you know, it was great to be able to sit down and to share some time with him, and I really appreciated that.
So, there are some links to his works. If he’s in your area, go check him out, support him. He’s an amazing individual. I look forward to connecting with him down the road here when I’m able to get down south, or if he manages to find himself up in Fargo, that would be great too, to able to link up with him and see what he’s doing. So, I look forward to that. So Raven, thank you so much.
I also want to thank you for joining us and spending your time listening to what I feel is a very important story and perspective from our community. So, please join us next time as we speak with another incredible individual.
I’m Joe WIlliams. You can find me on CANAA, that’s C-A-N-A-A. Creativity Among Native American Artists on Facebook. And at the plainsart.org website. There you can see our programming, past videos, and these podcasts. If you have any suggestions for someone for me to talk to, please find me on Facebook, and message me! I’d really love to hear from you. So, that’s it. You take care. And we will see you next time.
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