Raven Chacon’s Sound-and-Art Symphony

A single work of art can get into your system and stay there. I’ve been living with — haunted by — one by the Navajo composer and sound artist Raven Chacon since encountering it in the 2022 Whitney Biennial.

Titled “Silent Choir (Standing Rock),” it had no visual element. It consisted entirely of an audio recording Chacon taped in 2016 of a voiceless protest by hundreds of No Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrators facing off with the police near Standing Rock, N.D. You could easily have missed the piece unless you stopped and let your ears adjust to its liminal audibility. Even then, the only sound was the rustle of breathing, of bodies shifting and of the high-up buzz of surveillance helicopters.

The same year as the Biennial, Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music for a different, more traditionally “musical” piece, “Voiceless Mass” (2021). Scored for a church pipe organ and a chamber music ensemble, it did have a visual component: the majestic interior of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, where it was first performed.

What both works shared was a conceptual grounding in the politics of history and place. The witnessing silence at Standing Rock read as an anthem of resistance to the long-continuing colonialist desecration of Indigenous land. In an ecclesiastical setting, the music of “Voiceless Mass” became an orchestrated remembrance of the Christian church’s attempt to expunge Native American spiritual culture. (Chacon has described himself as having been raised “halfway in the Catholic Church.”)

“Silent Choir (Standing Rock),“ 2016. Raven Chacon made an audio recording of a silent vigil by people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock, N.D.Credit…via Raven Chacon

Neither piece is included on the lucidly spartan exhibition titled “Raven Chacon: A Worm’s Eve View from a Bird’s Beak” at Swiss Institute, which is about as object-filled, object-focused as a sound artist’s survey can get. And the show’s selection of 11 other early and current works, stretching over disciplines and encompassing printed scores, video installations, and a mural, gives a sharp sense of what makes this artist’s output so remarkable.

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