COMPOSER RAVEN CHACON TRACES coordinates in the air above the dining table of his Albuquerque bungalow. He triangulates the house his father built in Corrales in the early 1970s; the Navajo Nation of northeastern Arizona, where his pregnant mother moved the family to give birth to him; and the transit of Route 66 through Albuquerque, where many of his musical influences took root.

“You had Buddy Holly playing on Central back in the day,” he says, smiling. “There have always been bars and clubs here.”

Chacon is relating different parts of a complex and often personal narrative that he continues to investigate through the musical concept of dissonance, via compositions that make use of the tension between sounds—or noise—rather than conventional harmonies. Created with Chinese-born composer Du Yun, his 2020 opera, Sweet Land, for example, critiques colonialism and Manifest Destiny by phasing through chaotic and discordant sequences to find moments of serenity in the midst. The Los Angeles Times called it “an astonishment.”

In 2022, Chacon became the first Native American artist awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music for his Voiceless Mass. As Joy Harjo was completing her tenure as the first Native poet laureate of the United States, Chacon’s achievement similarly elevated extraordinary Indigenous Southwestern talent into the nation’s mainstream cultural and academic circles.

On February 24, Raven Chacon: Three Songs opens at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos. While his work has graced the Kennedy Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibition marks Chacon’s first solo show in Taos and pays tribute to Indigenous women via sound, video, and visual art. “It holds immense significance for the Harwood Museum of Art,” says curator of exhibitions and collections Nicole Dial-Kay.

The three pieces—Silent Choir (2016–2017),  For Zitkála-Šá (2018), and Three Songs (2021)—explore Native identity, histories, and resistance while investigating the personal impact of sociopolitical landscapes. “Three Songs showcases Chacon’s adeptness in combining sound, space, and narrative to create an immersive experience that transcends conventional artistic boundaries, inviting viewers to consider the interaction between the female musicians and the stories of the lands they occupy for their performance,” Dial-Kay says. “These artworks exemplify his mastery in blending traditional storytelling with contemporary expression, stimulating dialogue and introspection.”

Raven Chacon's "For Carina Escobar: For Zitkála-Šá," 2017–2020, includes 13 lithographs. In "Silent Choir (Standing Rock)," 2017–2022, protesters kneel during the No Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL) resistance. Courtesy of Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts and Raven Chacon.

NOW 47, CHACON GREW UP LISTENING TO THE Beatles and heavy metal. Combined with his Diné ancestry in the contested landscapes of the Southwest, these influences led to a passion for making exploratory and documentary noise.

His work continues a musical lineage that includes Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Japanese noise artist Merzbow, and No Wave composer Glenn Branca, with flickers of Bertolt Brecht’s theatricality.

For his part, Chacon cites American composer and music theorist James Tenney among his influences, especially for the Silver City native’s “system of thinking about composition generatively.” Tenney, whose works experimented with song sampling and early computer manipulations, advocated for starting with a rule or a prompt that could be applied continuously, regardless of the composer’s intentions. “It can just branch out into its own thing,” Chacon says. “I’m interested in the accidents that can happen.”

Yet Chacon’s introduction to uneasy listening was less esoteric than these names suggest. “We forget how much anybody is exposed to experimental music,” he says, pointing to the noisy dissonance one might find as the soundtrack in a horror film. “But the context of somebody doing that as a performance,” he adds, “I didn’t realize that was something you could do.”

Sitting on the counter behind him are a Soviet-era tape delay effects processor—essentially a white, plastic echo box—and a handheld cassette player with a variable speed dial. For decades, Chacon has experimented with tape technology to disrupt time and narrative in music. As with other parts of his practice, it began with the Beatles.

“I loved the Beatles when I was a little kid,” he explains. “I had all those albums on dubbed cassette. But I got tired of that band by the time I was 15. I wanted more.” So Chacon would cue up Beatles songs at a dual tape deck to create his own dubbed versions. “On the recording side, I would keep pushing the pause button,” he says, imitating a frantic staccato. “I ended up with a glitched-out Magical Mystery Tour. That was actual composition to me. I knew there could be an audience for this. I didn’t know who it was. But I had a focus for making these sound collages.”

Raven Chacon, who was raised on the Navajo Nation and attended the University of New Mexico, counts the Beatles and heavy metal music among his influences.

And it wasn’t just the Beatles. Chacon even became disillusioned with the distorted, antiestablishment chords of heavy metal music. “I started losing interest in heavy metal the more it focused on virtuosity and who could be fastest,” he recalls. “I kept thinking that it should get uglier and uglier, fidelity-wise.” Rather than more polished, he wanted metal to be even noisier. “It shouldn’t sound tight,” he adds.

To that end, Chacon gathered a young band, which would eventually acquire a generator and one driver’s license between them, to haul their drums, guitars, and improvised instruments into the desert for apocalyptic noise jams.

That setting helped Chacon understand mythmaking and honed his search for authentic definitions. “I was very aware that if not enough music was made by people who are from here—or knew the land or knew the place—that it was going to get replaced by people seeking spiritual tourism,” he says.

One of his first pieces was called Field Recordings, which sampled sounds from quiet places in the Southwest and cranked them up to 11. “It was a way to resist,” he says. “A lot of it starts from there. I’m not here as a tourist. I’m not here to meditate. I’m here to bring this place and its complexity to the surface.”

Sage Bond (Diné) sings during "Three Songs" (2021). Photograph courtesy of Raven Chacon.

THIS BRINGS US TO VOICELESS MASS, THE composition for which he earned the Pulitzer. The piece was meant to be haunting, in every sense of the word.

At its premiere at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, in Milwaukee, the orchestra was spread about the building, unsettling the audience, raising questions via sound and the spaces between it. The core of Voiceless Mass is the sonically, spiritually, and politically powerful church organ, which is played more “unmusically”—in conventional terms—than any other church organ before it.

The award came as a shock. “As I was working on this piece, I was only thinking about the church organ,” Chacon recalls. “I was also working on the Three Songs piece and the snare drum. Those instruments had been associated with institutions of power, institutions of colonization.”

He concentrated on who those instruments might represent and who they might be replacing. “To begin there with the church organ meant that the composition would always have to be played in a church,” he says.

Raven Chacon prepares for a performance of "Dispatch."

The organ could not be separated from its architectural body, and so architecture and soundscape conspired together, as they always have. “I wanted to think about the form of music, the church, my own semi-Catholic upbringing, remembering the protocols of the church, the mood that is set within the building, the lighting, the idea of something floating above you,” he says, considering the interwoven ideas of faith and music.

“I figured it’d get played once, like all my pieces pre-Pulitzer. But now this piece is being played more, and the audience or the congregation always has to acknowledge what it’s about,” he says. “They program discussions around their roles in this history. I’m really happy to have those conversations about how this history pertains to New Mexico and the Diné population. But this is also a shared history all over the Americas.”

Events following the success of Voiceless Mass have sometimes felt surreal. Chacon got invited to give a sermon, for example. “I recited my sermon using the word She instead of He,” he says. “I wanted to talk about the land itself, the earth someday forgiving us for all the things we’ve done. Meanwhile, I’m playing noise. A guy dragged his wife and family violently out of their seats and stormed off.”

Then, of course, there are the cultural assumptions that haunt the image of the Indigenous composer. “They thought I just go out there and play flute hooked up to reverb, you know?” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I hit a drum. They had an assumption about the music—which, in fairness to them, there is a market for.

"Dispatch" was composed with Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish) and performed at SITE Santa Fe in January.

“But there are a lot of stories that have never been told, never resolved,” he says more seriously. “Some of the work that I’m making has to address that. Whatever it is that I’m working on should be an attempt to resolve that history for myself.” Chacon’s Three Songs subverts the military history of the snare drum by placing it in the hands of Indigenous musicians who use it to sing traditional Diné, Seminole, and Yuchi songs. They are performed on ancestral lands.

I ask him what the idea of resolution means to him. Chacon sets down his cup of coffee and considers the question. “I don’t know,” he says. “But if I think of the technical musical definition of resolution, it’s some kind of dissonance that becomes a unison. But I’m not sure I’m talking about that. I like it floating in the area of dissonance—two tones that are too close to each other, and somebody else might need to resolve that, but for me it’s at least acknowledging the oscillation of the dissonance.”

Chacon embraces contradictions, gray areas, accidents, and moments of doubt and uncertainty in our contemporary life and in our shared and contradictory histories. These underpin his music—and can generate discomfort in his audiences. Yet that discomfort contains the promise of resolution, either tantalizingly close or located across an aching distance.

Artists who take risks occupy these spaces in which we might discover the sublime and the transcendent. Part of Chacon’s mission is to open access to these places for young Indigenous musicians—for classicists, for noise makers, for anyone who is curious about the possibilities of sound and new music.

“I had no idea there was a job opening for what I do,” he says, “make noise out in the desert!”

Read more: Al Hurricane Jr. continues a tradition that moves our feet—and our souls.


Raven Chacon: Three Songs is on display at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos, from February 24 through July 9. Raven Chacon’s work can be found at