An Interview with Raven Chacon

By · Photography Courtesy of Raven Chacon · Date 4/5/2018

I met the composer Raven Chacon one afternoon in the library of the American Academy in Berlin, where he is currently a fellow. Normally based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chacon creates stereophonic, tactile music, as well as sound and visual installations. Over coffee, we talked about small town touring, the definition of composing, and negotiations with drug cartels. His next performance will take place in Berlin on May 12 (the location will be announced here).

VAN: When I was listening to your music, I found myself wondering if you enjoy Mozart or Wagner.

Raven Chacon: No.

Did you ever?

No, but I really respect the instruments of classical music. And I studied formally at school, so I had to ingest that stuff.

So you listened to it, but not with pleasure?

I wouldn’t say that, it’s just not anything I’d listen to more than once.

What did you learn from studying with the composer Michael Pisaro?

A lot of it had to do with these very long-form, sparse pieces he wrote. I had already been interested in music providing an opportunity for shared experience. Studying with him, and performing with his other students, really solidified the idea that you can have these experiences, at least with music. I’d had those experiences in ceremonies or other kinds of gatherings. But to do it in music: I believed it was possible, but I’d never seen it enacted.

How do you get a sense of ceremony and shared experience in your own music?

The sense of ceremony is not something that I’m striving for. But when you play experimental music and noise, and go on tour to, say, Lawrence, Kansas or Flagstaff, Arizona, two people might show up [laughs]. So already there’s not going to be an audience; and you get used to that. And those become other kinds of shared experiences of making music.

Those are where I find these nice moments of being able to share what I do; having other people contribute to that. And it affects the music, lets you stretch time, or realize that time is being stretched, in a way that’s different from being onstage with a set time, sound person, and all of that.

“Neezna,” from Raven Chacon’s album “Overheard Songs” (2010)

I admire that, and often think about how classical music groups, even young ones, tour so rarely to small towns and play for tiny audiences.

I didn’t have a choice. On the east coast of the U.S., you have all these cities within an hour of each other, but on the west coast it’s like eight hour drives every time. You have to play these little spots—you can’t pass them up for the big city, because you have to sleep there anyway. But that helps these things spread to these corners of the U.S. They should have the opportunity to listen to experimental music as well. It doesn’t have to happen in the big city.

If someone gave me a list of musicians to check out, and the musicians were from, say, New York, Berlin; and then Montana or some little town in Mexico, I’d go to the latter first.  

Why is that?

Because I think I know what New York and Berlin sound like. I don’t want to generalize, but I really don’t know what Billings, Montana sounds like. I want to see if there’s a sound of the actual place.

In a lot of feedback I get, people say, “I can hear the landscape in your music. I can hear the desert.” Maybe they can—that’s not something I’m trying to put in. But maybe there is something you can hear of this place where the music’s being made.

I’m also not really interested in hearing an accumulation of influences, which you might get in a city. I don’t want to hear what a city sounds like. There are so many other interesting places besides cities.

You did a piece on the U.S.-Mexico border called “Repellent Fence” in 2015. We’re talking a lot about border walls now. How do you look back on that work?

That was a piece with my collective Postcommodity. We’d actually started working on it seven years earlier. This issue of the border, migrants in the borderlands and desert of the southwest U.S., is not a new discussion. The news had caught up with what people were already talking about: the crisis of people moving into the United States and the dangers of that; the separation of families who weren’t separated before but increasingly are because of the presence and encroachment of the border. And the discussion often hadn’t included the fact that these people who are crossing the border are indigenous people of the Americas. I’m happy we were able to help add that to the discussion.

I was listening to your album “Overheard Songs,” and it struck me that many of the high, electronic lines had something melodic, almost familiar about them.

It’s been a long time [laughs]. But I think I know what you’re talking about. I don’t quote Navajo music in any of work. But there are a few instruments I use that might recall some of the music from where I live. One of them is a whistle made out of a bone, that can only play a few pitches—maybe that’s why there’s a melody that comes out of that right away.

High pitch is something I really like. It might be so high up that you can’t discern what the line is. At that frequency, it’s kind of eliminating things like volume and pitch. I’m interested in that, in what happens when I eliminate parameters of music: if I don’t have a choice of volume or pitch.

I did a piece in 2001 called “Report,” for eight firearms. That piece came about for that very reason—to try to make a piece that could only have the parameter of rhythm, because pitch and volume would be eliminated, and timbre mostly, which becomes more like tuning, because of the different calibers of the firearms. But then that piece became another thing, because of the—no pun intended—loadedness of the instruments [laughs].

Are the high notes supposed to be painful sometimes?

They’re not supposed to be. I have some pieces where they’re very prominent, but for the most part I’m trying to keep them like a floating presence up there, or a sheen to the whole thing. It’s not meant to be an oppressive tone.

Same with the gun piece, where the aim wasn’t just to make noise. I should clarify: Why make noise in the first place? Sometimes when you think of noise music you think of people being very angry at something. I would love to say it’s a cathartic scream at the white man or something, but it’s not [laughs]. I’m not interested in being a storyteller or an anthropologist. That’s not my task, to share things with people about who I am or where I’m from.

I took a look at your string quartet “The Journey of the Horizontal People,” for Kronos, and was very curious about the instruction, “It is preferred that the quartet performing this work contains a female player.”

The reason for that isn’t to make life difficult for all-male quartets [laughs]. There’s a real purpose to it. The piece is designed so that the musicians get lost. One will have the choice to repeat something six to seven times, another to repeat it 11 or 12 times, in the same measure. And the measures might not even be the same length, so there’s no way they can stay together. It needs somebody to realign them at the next measure or beat. And I decided that that should be the woman in the quartet.

Kronos loved the idea, but they said, “Part of this commission is that it will be learning repertoire and will be available to anybody in the world, so no matter what, everybody should have an opportunity to play it. No one should be excluded.” So I said, “Let’s compromise. Let’s have the man who most identifies as a woman take on that role.” That’s a part of a lot of indigenous societies.  

Classical music has a well-acknowledged diversity problem, and I thought it was an interesting way of having, say, all straight-cisgender-male quartets maybe not play the work.

Yeah [laughs]. I didn’t think that would be a subversive thing to put in a piece, since most quartets I’ve worked with have had one woman or more in them. So I think it might be rarer these days to have an all-male quartet—but now there’s a solution.

In an interview with the Broken Boxes Podcast, you said something that really struck me: that experimental music is different kinds of beauty that align.

Not just experimental music. I was asked once how I define music, and I was really trying to think about that. And the first thing was, is there music that doesn’t have sound? I think these odd coincidences that happen in the course of a day might be music.

For example?

Let’s say you’re thinking of a bird. And a bird flies by the window. And at the same time you look up and you see a book about a bird. That would be music to me. All these things aligning, where you don’t know why they happen that way. Maybe it was composed by something: the Creator, or you, somehow, put it all together.

There are people out there who do this with a cello and a piano: they make things happen together; things line up or not within that duration. That’s music, and to call it beauty is the positive hope.

The example you just gave was very beautiful. But is it still music if, say, a person misses all their trains by one minute in a day?

There’s a good piece in there actually [laughs].

When you do work that has a visual or physical component, do you enjoy the hands-on component? Or is it a means to an end?

It is a means to an end, I have to admit. I do like experimenting. I used to take things apart, try to build fancy electronic instruments, and they didn’t come out very well, but they came out like something else, and that was fun.

With a lot of my projects, though, like “Repellent Fence,” a lot of the hands-on work is more the negotiation of the space, the site visit. Or the logistics of, How do we put this balloon where this drug cartel claims land?

How did you solve that particular problem?

Oh jeez, that took seven years of very long-time negotiations, and a lot of help from both communities: Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora. It was very much a collaboration.

That’s all I’ll say about that [laughs].

You participate in the Native American Composers Apprentice Project, teaching string quartet composition to youth. When I see something like that, I feel a little skeptical. Why string quartet? Why this white, European tradition?

Good, I’m glad you have that skepticism. That’s probably why your first question was if I like Wagner and all of that. Now you know.

I actually didn’t come up with the idea to do this particular project, it came about as an education component of the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which already is a classical festival. So they asked me to develop a curriculum to teach these young people in the area to write for these instruments.

Now, I’m not going in and teaching them the canon of Western music. What I am sharing with them is my huge respect for these instruments. So the best I can do is give these students a task, and show them everything I know about these instruments and the things they can do, the things they can’t do, the things you’re not supposed to do but which make a really cool sound—and just let them have at it.

If I had more time, we would definitely get the students to a level of familiarity with their own tribal music. We’d also listen to experimental music, and the Western canon—to hear how these instruments have been used for hundreds of years—and folk music. But I only have a week with them. So I show them the instruments, and how to relay what they want played. Half these students don’t have any knowledge of writing a middle C or know what a treble clef is.

So you have to teach the students basically how to read music in a week?

Yeah. I try not to transcribe for them. A lot of them are heavy metal kids who play guitar, and they’re like, “I want this to be my string quartet,” [sings a fast solo], some shredding thing [laughs]. So I tell them, “I’m not going to transcribe that.” I say, “This is a middle C, this is a whole note. You’re going to write a three minute piece for middle C and whole note.” They’re like, “That’s lame. I’m gonna be laughed at by my friends.” So I tell them what they can do with that note: vibrate it, let it slide around, tremolo, and they start understanding all the timbral ways to make these pieces more interesting. And then they come back next year, and they’ve hopefully studied a little more. They get influenced by each other, and they start figuring it out. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.