Pulitzer winner to perform at CUCC on Sunday

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

This Sunday, October 30, Claremont will host Raven Chacon as he presents the West Coast premiere and just the third live performance of his composition “Voiceless Mass,” which received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Written for pipe organ and chamber ensemble, “Voiceless Mass” includes solo strings, winds, percussion, and recorded sine tones. It will be performed during a special Sunday worship service at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 Harrison Ave., said David Rentz, co-director of music and fine arts at the church. Rentz and Alexandra Grabarchuk, who is the church’s other co-director of music, will be the conductors. The event is free and open to the public, though space is limited.

“The piece, which was premiered by Present Music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on November 21, 2021, is a meditation on the meaning of voicelessness, both in the context of grand physical spaces (churches and cathedrals) and instruments (the pipe organ), as well the historic and ongoing silencing of oppressed peoples by those in positions of privilege,” according to the CUCC website.

Because the composition was written specifically for pipe organ and large open spaces, the soaring sanctuary at the Claremont United Church of Christ with its stunning Glatter-Goetz/Rosales organ is an ideal venue.

“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 in his Pulitzer application. “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.”

The Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ, Plymouth Church UCC and Present Music commissioned “Voiceless Mass.” The premiere took place at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

During a performance of “Voiceless Mass” the musicians are spread throughout the space, including along the sides and back of the sanctuary, presenting a technical challenge for the conductors. However, Rentz says the piece has been specifically designed to be laid out that way.

The staging also means the music will be somewhat different for members of the audience depending on where they are seated. For example, if the bass player were quite close, that instrument could overshadow, or at least command more attention, than the sounds coming from other musicians.

Orchestra Collective of Orange County and the Scripps College Music Department have provided additional artistic and production support for the performance.

Diné-American composer Chacon was born at Fort Defiance, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation. He was raised in Albuquerque, took piano lessons beginning at age three and started writing music by the time he was 12. He taught himself how to play guitar and then began experimenting at creating his own compositions, according to an interview he recorded for the Kronos Quartet.

“I grew up listening to whatever was on the radio, and my grandfather was a singer of traditional Navajo music so that was always present,” Chacon said via Kronos.

Kronos commissioned Chacon to write a piece for them to perform as part of its Fifty for the Future competition in 2018. The resulting piece, “Journey of the Horizontal People,” incorporated a number of changes in the music’s timing that pretty much guaranteed that the performers would lose their places, and then part of the journey was for them to find their way again.

Chacon decided to pursue music full time while a student at the University of New Mexico. Following his graduation in 2001, he earned a master’s in fine arts degree from California Institute of the Arts. He is the first Native American composer to win a Pulitzer in music.

A recording artist for 22 years, Chacon is the recipient of the United States Artists fellowship in Music, The Creative Capital award in Visual Arts, The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation artist fellowship, the American Academy’s Berlin Prize for Music Composition, the Bemis Center’s Ree Kaneko Award, and in 2022 will serve as the Pew fellow in residence.

He co-composed with Du Yun the opera “Sweet Land,” about Manifest Destiny, the 19th century doctrine that white expansion through North America was inevitable and justified. The opera was named 2021 Opera of the Year by the Music Critics Association of North America.

In addition to music, Chacon is an installation artist whose solo works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Museum of the American Indian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Getty Research Institute, and the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

Chacon created a new solo “voice and electronics” work for the CUCC event and will perform it as a musical homily or sermon. Taken together, the Sunday service will be unlike anything the church has done in the past.

The public is welcome to this free event which takes place at 10 a.m. Sunday October 30, in the main sanctuary of Claremont United Church of Christ on the corner of Harvard Avenue and Sixth Street. The sanctuary is large, but seating is limited.

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