Getting Heard: Indigenous Composer’s ‘Voiceless Mass’, Performed in Milwaukee, Wins Pulitzer Prize


Inside the nearly 175-year-old Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, the church’s Nichols & Simpson organ dominates the sacred space and ensemble below.

What is true of the organ’s imposing stature is also true of the weight of the sound that escapes from its pipes. He can bury other instruments.

That’s why Raven Chacon, a composer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, scattered her ensemble around the cathedral — including among the audience — during Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert last year. He redistributed the sounds to change what the audience could hear.

“So you have the viola in this case being probably the quietest instrument in the set and providing a space where that viola can have the same voice or voice power as, say, the organ”, he recently said on WPR. “Central time”.

Without words or words, Chacon’s piece, “Voiceless Mass”, told a story. He made a statement at a Thanksgiving concert at a Catholic church.

“There’s the idea that all voices have equity and have the potential to speak,” said Chacon, who is Native American. “But at the same time, there can be a lot of repression happening in those places.”

For “Voiceless Mass,” Chacon won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in May, becoming the first Indigenous composer to win the award. He called winning “a complete surprise and honor that the work was recognized and heard.”

Truth and reconciliation

Chacon’s connection to the Catholic Church began in his upbringing. He said many tribes adopted Catholicism to survive. He was born in Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation, and raised Catholic.

He said the Catholic Church has done more recently to recognize indigenous peoples and their history. For example, Pope Francis issued a formal apology on April 1 after uncovering abuse and deaths at residential schools in Canada.

“Listening to your voices, I was able to enter and be deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, especially in residential schools”, said the pope. “It is frightening to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots, and to consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to have: trauma unresolved that have become intergenerational traumas.”

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Sheila J. Feay-Shaw is an associate professor of music education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a deacon of the Plymouth United Church of Christ, which has commissioned Chacon’s work with Present Music and the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Feay-Shaw said his church and others are working to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept used to justify colonization, and instead embrace truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

She said it is not enough to acknowledge history. Today, churches can use their resources to provide more job opportunities for the Native American community.

“For me, the whole journey and journey of truth and reconciliation is trying to turn the tables and find ways to use my privilege – or our privilege as a church with a predominantly white population – to open doors and provide opportunities,” she said. said.

“Conflict Within”

David Bloom, co-artistic director and bandleader of Present Music, said the organization is in love with Chacon’s music and the ideas he puts into his art. Bloom said they basically wrote her a “fan mail” asking if they could work on a track together.

Chacon was interested. But he was initially hesitant to organize a show around Thanksgiving. He said it seems that he and other native artists are invited to respond to this holiday every year. And when it’s the only time they’re asked to play, it feels like a “symbolic gesture”.

“I think every native in this country has an inner conflict about what this anniversary means,” he said.

After speaking with representatives from Present Music, however, Chacon said he immediately knew they wanted to start a conversation through music. His hesitation didn’t mean he didn’t want to share. It is fortunate that marginalized communities are speaking out.

He is happy to finally be heard.

“If someone invites an Indigenous artist to respond to something like Thanksgiving, they should expect truth and a response that confronts the history that happened,” he said.


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