Raven Chacon is a composer, performer and installation artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation. As the current Artist-in-Residence here at SPACE, he will be performing this Monday, April 1st in collaboration with two other local artists Sterile Garden and Nadia. In this interview, Raven speaks about community, collaboration, and pushing the boundaries of music.
What brings you to Portland Maine? Can you talk a little about your plans and intentions with this residency at SPACE and the upcoming collaborative performance that is happening here on Monday, April 1st?
I was approached by Elizabeth Spavento from SPACE, and we started a conversation about me doing a residency here and presenting some work in Portland eventually. It worked out that I had some time this month in between working in Toronto and heading towards New York for an experimental noise show called Ende Tymes with my good friend Jacob DeRaadt who is a local musician under the project Sterile Garden here in Portland and who will be performing with me on Monday along with Nadia. I’m always on the road, so I like to take advantage of residencies that offer a studio with a quiet space where I can work all hours of the night and make sound if I have to. Right now I am working on an opera that will be premiered in Los Angeles in November. This has been a project I’ve been working on for two years now. The Opera is called Sweet Land, and I think that is all I can talk about right now because it’s not announced yet, but that is what I am working on up here.
Music seems to be the backbone of your practice even when there are other elements involved in your work. Can you talk about your relationship to the medium of sound?
It’s kind of the only thing I know how to do. I don’t even really know how to play instruments. I first learned how to play piano, and eventually guitar. I actually studied piano formally, or uh, classically, and that really gave me an understanding of how other instruments work and how to read music. Soon after that, I tried composing for other instruments, and that led to other experiments with cassette tapes, building my own instruments and taking speakers and guitar pedals apart. This led to experiments with how music can function in performance, sculpture, and the moving image.
How did that play into opportunities for you? I know you started off very D.I.Y in the sense that you really took the initiative to find shows for yourself and was willing to travel all over to play.
I think at the time my expectations for my own music were low, so I was happy to play for anybody! This was during a time period and usually in a location where not many people were making experimental music. Mainly I started playing around the Southwest, New Mexico and some of the rural parts of Arizona. It is just something I stuck with and eventually found a community of people who also do that. Later on, I moved to Los Angeles and found a very large community of people who were doing that, and this is when my work started making sense to myself. It was always an opportunity to collaborate. I think musicians can see that more sometimes than other artists.
I am in school right now for visual art, and I find many visual artists being afraid of collaboration in some ways. It is something that’s a large part of my own practice, but there is definitely rewards and challenges that come along with such a path.
Yes, there are pros and cons. I think sometimes there are very personal ideas or gestures that you can only do alone. I acknowledge that every artist has pieces like that. On the other hand, I think when we label art as experimental, there is a process where you might not know the outcome. I am interested in that with collaboration. You know the people, but you don’t know what they will bring to the project. You trust them enough that the end result, through a series of filters will be something that you both agree upon.
I understand you are involved with many different ways of making and engaging with communities such as your involvement with Native American Composer Apprentice Project, being a part of various different bands, or even your independent collaborations with others like the one you will be performing here at SPACE. How do you maintain fluidity between these different parts of your practice?
For me, when I have all these different projects, it is important that each has their own identity. What keeps me involved with my various projects is the unique world view that each can hold. They do not need to correspond or contrast. They can live as independent. I think it can get messy when these things start to overlap or when I try to combine them or force a relation. That hasn’t been a need for me.
With NACAP I fill a teaching role. I am teaching young people to compose, and I am mediating their compositions with the string quartet that is going to play their music. Other than that, I like to step back once they are done with the composition. I help them advance their skills in articulating what they want through music and language.
Do you find that it opens a door for kids in what they think is possible or even just providing access to musical equipment?
I hope so. They are given an opportunity that wouldn’t exist otherwise. A lot of these students don’t have music class in their high school. I am also there to remind them that they do not need to write in a genre of classical music. They are using European instruments, but the outcome can sound like anything. Occasionally I play my own music for them, and they ask if it is even music because it sounds horrible like a horror movie or weird. I think actually once they hear something like that they start to understand their own music can sound like anything. It’s allowing them that freedom and understanding that they can make something that is indecipherable or doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just music.
Haven Douglas is in the process of receiving their BFA at Maine College of Art. They work in the mediums of photo, video, installation, drawing, and tattoo. They live and work in Portland, Maine.