Sounding Decolonial Futures: Decentering Ethnomusicology's Colonialist Legacies

Centering Indigenous Voices: Raven Chacon

Raven Chacon (Dinè) is a multidisciplinary experimental artist. He primarily operates in the fields of noise performance, composition, and art installation. Raven was born in Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation, Arizona and now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Raven’s artistic versatility and strikingly innovative composition style have garnered international attention. He has earned several awards including, most notably, the American Academy in Berlin Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Raven’s current body of work represents quite a wide variety of styles, narratives, and artistic approaches. From meticulously notated string quartet pieces to scores composed for an octet of rifles, Raven constantly innovates upon multidisciplinary artmaking. In a curatorial essay by Anthony Huberman for the Wattis Institute, Raven discussed feeling the burden of the tokenization of his Dinè identity. There is a lingering expectation that he must demonstrate the influence of his own Indigeneity within his compositions. As Huberman says, “All those well-intentioned white people, myself included, want to feel like we are listening to, making space for, and empowering others, after all, and certain boxes need to be checked in order for that to count” (Huberman n.d.)  False characterizations and expectations are born out of the continuous centering of one’s own whiteness. This results in the assumption that the subject of Raven’s artmaking must be his own Indigeneity which neglects any narrative, intricacy, or nuance within his work. Conversely, Raven “uses his own Indigeneity only as a lens—it is not the subject of his work but it reflects, colors, and filters how he sees the world”(Huberman). 

Tinged with reflections and narratives of Raven’s Indigeneity, his string quartet, Journey of the Horizontal People, exemplifies community: the absence, search for, and subsequent development of it. Journey of the Horizontal People was commissioned by the Kronos String Quartet in 2016 for their 50 for the Future series. Raven envisioned Journey as a sort of “future creation story telling of a group of people traveling from west to east, across the written page, contrary to the movement of the sun, but involuntarily and unconsciously allegiant to the trappings of time” (Chacon 2016).  

Movement is a main theme of Journey and it manifests itself in several ways. Raven talks about designing Journey, so that each player will inevitably lose their place at some point in the piece.  Circular bowings, scratch tones, and double stop ‘seagulls’ are a few examples of how movement is sonically realized. Circular bowings indicate clockwise or counter-clockwise bowing patterns which may vary in speed, volume, or bow placement. Scratch tones indicate a build up of pressure or weight in the bow, so that one may achieve an unpitched, scratching sound.

Finally, double-stop seagulls indicate artificial harmonics to be played on 2 strings at the same time while sliding up and down the fingerboard. 

In the performance notes for Journey, Raven outlines that “the quartet performing this work should contain a female player. This player will be the guide when all others are lost”. The guide initiates realignment. In moments of realignment, signified by the symbol below, the guide cues the quartet to resync at the next section. Raven likens the process of losing one’s place, then re-syncing to a journey. “With their bows, these wanderers sought out others like them, knowing that they could survive by finding these other clans who resided in the east, others who shared their linear cosmologies. It is told that throughout the journey, in their own passage of time, this group became the very people they were seeking” (Chacon 2016).


Full score and images from it available at both Raven Chacon's website and on Kronos Quartet's 50 for the Future site


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