Indigenous composer, backed in part by UCC grant, wins Pulitzer
Navajo composer Raven Chacon has won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in music for a composition made possible in part by a grant from a regional body of the United Church of Christ.
The piece, “Voiceless Mass,” for organ and instrumental ensemble, was commissioned by the Wisconsin Conference, Plymouth Church UCC in Milwaukee, and Present Music, a Milwaukee ensemble. A video and audio recording is here.
It premiered in 2021 at Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. The prize was announced on May 9, 2022.
Access to spaces
In his Pulitzer entry, Chacon wrote that he waived a self-imposed rule for the November premiere.
“As an Indigenous artist, I make a point not to present my work on this holiday, but in this case I made an exception,” he said. In an interview with NPR after his Pulitzer victory, Chacon said he was drawn to the project by the opportunity to write a piece for the organ, something he had never done before.
“This work considers the spaces in which we gather, the history of access of these spaces, and the land upon which these buildings sit,” Chacon wrote. “Though ‘mass’ is referenced in the title, the piece contains no audible singing voices, instead 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.”
Funding for creativity
The Wisconsin Conference’s Catalyst Grant program provides grants of up to $5,000 to support innovative ministries that push beyond church walls, engaging the wider community in work that’s often aligned with the Conference’s social justice mission.
That mission in recent years has included an emphasis on honoring Indigenous land and voices. For example, just a month before “Voiceless Mass” premiered, United Church Camps Inc. renamed its former Pilgrim Center on Green Lake near Ripon, Wis. The new name, Daycholah Center, uses the original Ho-Cak (Ho-Chunk) name for the lake. The renaming culminated a years-long initiative to honor the land and the people who first called it home.
The “Voiceless Mass” project was a good fit for that emphasis, said Wesley McDermott, who chairs the Conference’s grantmaking committee. “In applying for a grant, folks from the Plymouth UCC Milwaukee congregation noted that the plan included conversations with the composer, other Native Americans and local students, with involvement encouraged for members of Plymouth UCC as well,” he said.
“They made clear that this Catalyst grant was a creative way to nurture healthy community conversations about the lived experience of diverse local peoples … plus the creation of beautiful music reaching out to a wider local audience.”
Conscious of history
New Yorker editor David Remnick, a member of the Pulitzer board, praised the composer, saying, “Chacon goes deep in his musical thinking, and when he sits down to compose he calls on diverse traditions and modes of musical expression.”
In the NPR interview, Chacon acknowledged the spiritual dimension of the piece.
“A lot of native people have also grown up in the Christian church,” he said. “For a lot of us in the Southwest that was the Catholic church.
“For myself, on a personal level, there is something that happens in these spaces, something that despite the words being spoken in that space, despite the history of the congregation of that space, there’s still, at least for me, an urge to recognize those buildings as places to reflect, places of some kind of sacred gathering.
“So anytime anybody’s gathering under the purposes of hope, under the purposes of prayer, that for sure becomes something that’s going to influence music inside of these spaces. I was, of course, conscious of that, and that is something that I acknowledged as I was writing the piece.”
Mark Baldwin is communications director of the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC.
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