On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced that Voiceless Mass, by Raven Chacon, had won the 2022 Prize in Music. The work, for organ and ensemble, “considers the spaces in which we gather, the history of access of these spaces, and the land upon which these buildings sit,” as Chacon himself wrote. The Pulitzer committee called it “a mesmerizing, original work … that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact.”
Chacon’s description of it speaks of “using the openness of the large space to intone the constricted intervals of the wind and string instruments. 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.” Chacon, a member of the Diné (Navajo) people, claims yet another first, as he is the first Native American winner of the music Pulitzer.
The composer’s distinguished career includes co-composing Sweet Land, an opera presented by The Industry, which won the 2021 Music Critics of North America Award for Best New Opera. Last year, as part of a residency at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, he created a radio station, Radio Coyote. For San Francisco-based The Living Earth Show (guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson), Chacon created Tremble Staves, a work first performed in 2019, in the ruins of the Sutro Baths. His latest album is An Anthology of Chants Operations (Ouidah, 2020).
Chacon, who has a master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with James Tenney, Morton Subotnick, Michael Pisaro, and Wadada Leo Smith, teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts and has mentored scores of young musicians through the Native American Composer Apprentice Project. Voiceless Mass is one of a number of compositions Chacon has written on political themes related to Native American struggles against colonialism and racism.