The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Raven Chacon premiered Voiceless Mass in Milwaukee. Ordinarily, Chacon – an indigenous artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation – would not perform on Thanksgiving, but for this Present Music concert that gives a “voice to the voiceless” he made an exception. And on May 9, he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in Music for that piece.
Chacon specifically composed Voiceless Mass for the Nichols & Simpson organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. And while the word “mass” is used, there are no vocal parts in the 16-minute piece. Instead, Chacon used the organ and an ensemble of wind and string instruments to fill the cathedral.
“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 wrote in the program of the concert. The Pulitzer Prize Board described the concert as “a mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact.”
Voiceless Mass was commissioned by Milwaukee organization Present Music – with support from Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and Plymouth Church UCC – as part of the ensemble’s 40th-anniversary season. The music organization has always been known for its imaginative performance experiences – once putting musicians on boats for a concert that floated down the Milwaukee River.
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“We talked to him [Chacon] and we were pretty much offering him any concert of the year, and we were very shyly tiptoeing around the Thanksgiving concert,” Co-Artistic Director for Present Music Eric Segnitz says. “But once he heard about the big cathedral space and the organ, he wanted to do it in November. He was very drawn to the instrument.”
The piece itself is a contemporary work. Chacon uses non-traditional techniques to get new sounds out of the instruments. For example the cellist used a lot of percussive techniques – something that’s not common on a string instrument – and even the organist used subsonic base tones, which Segnitz says is pretty unusual. What’s more, the concert wasn’t your standard single-file rows with the audience and the instrumentalists facing each other. For Voiceless Mass the artists surrounded their listeners.
“I think this performance experience especially was unique because the audience really, they’re in the middle of all of this, and they became part of it,” Segnitz says. “It didn’t feel like 12 musicians, more like 512 musicians.”
Segnitz says it’s pretty rare for such a contemporary piece – especially one like this that takes imagination to wrap your head around – to receive an imeediately warm response from audiences. Voiceless Mass received a standing ovation on Thanksgiving Day. “We should’ve known,” Segnitz says about the Pulitzer.
“It certainly surprised me! I was delighted that his work has been recognized,” says Jessica Franken, Present Music’s president. “The level of public recognition for this composer and this piece of work will allow us to sort of reinforce that this is an important part of our mission to support artists that are creating new music, both on the composing side as well as the performance side.”
Along with Chacon, Present also collaborated with UW-Milwaukee’s Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education and Ho-Chunk Nation Artist Sky Hopinka for the concert. Chacon was also very involved beyond the concert hall. He visited Present Music’s education partners, led sessions for local students and did a pre-concert talk to provide insights before the show.
The win has brought national attention to Chacon and Milwaukee’s Present Music – even if some national publications covering the groundbreaking concert mistakenly said the group is based in Minneapolis. This is the first of more than 80 commissions in Present Music’s 40-year history to win the prize. Chacon also made history as the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music.
“We did this because we love Chacon’s work, and its perspective, and that’s something that we wanted to see and to support and to bring to our community,” Present Music’s Co-Artistic Director David Bloom says.
And while Bloom is glad Present Music was able to bring this piece to a Milwaukee audience, he is thrilled that Voiceless Mass will now have an even bigger reach. “This is the kind of award that guarantees that,” he says.