Pulitzer-winning composer performed honored work at Milwaukee cathedral

By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service | May 23, 2022

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

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When somebody is awarded a Pulitzer Prize, it’s usually one of those stop-the-presses moments to honor compelling, groundbreaking journalism.

Not quite so for Raven Chacon. He won the Pulitzer for music with his work “Voiceless Mass,” which received its world premiere last November at St. John the Evangelist Cathedral in Milwaukee.

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

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

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

In an interview with Present Music, which sponsored the cathedral performance, Chacon said while he had the cathedral’s organ in mind, he had never played the instrument before, and there was some back-and-forth between him and cathedral personnel so he could get a sense of the sounds that would emanate from it.

Chacon had received the commission to write “Voiceless Mass” early during the coronavirus pandemic, and composed the bulk of it while being locked down.

The Pulitzer jury, in making the award, called “Voiceless Mass” 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.”

Chacon has described the work as an exploration of the “spaces in which we gather, the history of access of these spaces and the land upon 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 were feeling injustices around them,” he said to the Times. “Lockdown was this time of quietness where there was an opportunity for those sounds and cries to emerge.”

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

Music is not Chacon’s only stock in trade. He also is a fabric artist, an installation designer and makes videos. It might have been his multiplicity of talents that obscured others’ view that his greatness was close on the horizon.

And, just as it’s unlikely for some cub reporter to cop a Pulitzer Prize, few composers will win a Pulitzer with their first song. But in hindsight, one could tell from his early reviews the kind of talent he possesses.

In 2020, Chacon co-wrote an opera, “Sweet Land,” that had its debut in a Los Angeles park. His fellow composer, Chinese-born Du Yun, already has a Pulitzer to her credit. Of the two librettists for the opera, one is of Ojibwe descent and the other is an 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 wraps in Manifest Destiny and man’s inhumanity to man, all in 80 minutes.

And in January: The Whitney Biennial, a big deal in cultural circles, chose 63 artists from a variety of disciplines to spotlight. And Chacon was one of them.

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