Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

"Indigenous+art music" and Raven Chacon's Journey of the Horizontal People

Raven Chacon, who visited Oberlin in May 2022, is a DinĂ© composer, performer, installation artist, and winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Music. His work has been performed and displayed extensively in the U.S. and abroad -- and even between borders, such as the two-mile-long installation Repellent Fence / Valla Repelente along the line of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora that Chacon created with Indigenous installation art collective Postcommodity in 2015. 

Chacon’s piece Journey of the Horizontal People was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet/Kronos Performing Arts Association’s project 50 for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, which seeks to commission fifty new pieces designed especially for the contemporary string quartet. The first stipulation for performing this piece is that Chacon asks that there be a woman in the ensemble to serve as the guide for the quartet (and if this is not possible, the man who most identifies as a woman should occupy this position). Though the score uses Western notation, including the 5-line staff and notation of time signatures, the score is unconventional in other notational aspects, including “Realign” points in the music, and uneven measure length at times. These realign points occur after sections with intentional variability; Chacon asks for passages to be repeated “7-9” or “6-8” times until the realignment, and it is for this reason that the piece can take anywhere from seven to nine minutes to perform. The requirements for a woman to be leading the group, the variability of each performance, the necessity of getting lost and needing to realign, and the piece’s narrative of a creation story are aspects specific to an Indigenous epistemology (and getting lost, the inclusion of women, and the fluidity of the performance are traditionally also not valued aspects of the Western classical canon). 

In his book Hungry Listening, Dr. Robinson explains the concept of “Indigenous+art music” (2020: 9). This framing of inclusionary music practices both resists the integration of Indigenous arts into Western performance traditions and allows for there to be a point of contact between the two, and explicitly a contact point that is on Indigenous terms. The “+” signifies this encounter and also is a marker of separation and Indigenous sovereignty. Chacon’s string quartet, I think, is an appropriate example of this idea. There are specific rules to the performance of this piece: there must be a guide, and she will preferably be a woman. This specific honoring of an Indigenous matrilineal epistemology, in contact with the Western form of a string quartet written in Western notation, demonstrates how “Indigenous+art music” should be the example for inclusionary artistic and performance practices. Poor examples will not be analyzed here, as they will hopefully not be part of our future. 

Additionally, part of the philosophy of the Kronos project, as well as a practice held by Chacon, is that the score for Journey of the Horizontal People and every commissioned piece is available for free to download. On Chacon’s website, too, free PDFs of his pieces are available. This radical accessibility of music, especially contemporary music, is exciting and necessary to encourage musicians at every stage, and especially young students, to play works by Indigenous composers. 

Successful realization of the “Indigenous+art music” concept is the future for contemporary performers and composers to recognize Indigenous knowledge and tradition in artistic practices, and to avoid problems of inclusion that lead to elision and assimilation. Accessible literature, specific contexts and stipulations for performance, and inclusion of a density of identities in every program and concert are the future we can create and hope for.

This entry was written by Katie Galt in the spring of 2022.

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