Trained as a composer, Chacon (Diné) often starts from musically notated scores to create conceptually rich artworks across creative categories. Since scores are inherently fluid, even when they take fixed form in a video or print, the works based on them retain the possibility for further interpretation, collaboration, and reanimation in new contexts.
A performance of his 2001 composition of the same name, the 2015 video-installation Report (to the right), recasts guns as musical instruments, rather than as instruments of violence. Having no flexibility in tone, pitch, or volume, the firearms used in Chacon’s score create a sonic complexity through the rhythmic staggering of different caliber shots. Location, casting, and framing for each performance, however, dramatically shape understandings of the shooters and their actions. In this video, musicians of various backgrounds and genders fire across a New Mexican landscape, offering musical resistance to the myth of an uninhabited American West and a reminder that gunfire has long been the soundtrack of this land.
In his print portfolio series For Zitkála-Šá (to the left), Chacon recognizes Zitkála-Šá (Yankton-Dakota, 1876–1938), an Indigenous and women’s rights advocate and the first Native composer to use Western musical notation. The series of score-portraits celebrates contemporary Native women musicians in his circle. Each striking graphic is accompanied by performance instructions, inviting all to imagine how they might activate this legacy.
Please note: The gallery to the right features the sights and sounds of extended gunfire.
Audio Note: Opens with sounds of wind and rustling paper followed by silence, a count off, and then a rhythmic staggering of pops, bangs, and wind noises in the pauses between volleys, which can be felt through the bench.
Raven Chacon, born 1977, Fort Defiance, AZ
Report, 2001/2015, single-channel video (color, sound; 3:48 min.), and printed score shown on music stand
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2020.61A-C
To the right of the section text is a doorway into a darkened video room. There is a bench to your right and the video projection filling the far facing wall. When seated on the bench, the view of the bottom of the screen is slightly obstructed by a music stand with sheet music of the score in the middle of the room. The video begins with people of mixed genders and backgrounds preparing a variety of gun models, adding bullets and checking the chambers of rifles, shotguns and pistols. They stand in line, each with a music stand holding sheet music before them, surrounded by scattered desert trees and bushes on dusty ground. After a man closest to the camera gives a soft countdown, they all raise their weapons and begin shooting. They appear focused, serious, and somber throughout. The camera cuts to various close ups and group views that silhouette them against an open blue sky. Intermittently, people reload their firearms. The screen is sometimes divided into two perspectives on the same scene, shown side by side, so it appears the mirrored line-ups are shooting at each other.
Exit the video room and make a left to return to the hallway. Now on your right is the long wall lined with the framed prints and a downward angled display railing approximately three feet above the floor.
Raven Chacon, born 1977, Fort Defiance, AZ
For Laura Ortman
For Joy Harjo
For Ange Loft
For Candice Hopkins
For Olivia Shortt
All from the series For Zitkála-Šá, 2019-20, lithograph on paper
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Julia D. Strong Endowment, 2022.7.1.1, .5, .10–.12
Along the wall to the left of the section text are five letter-sized sheets of tan paper in individual black frames hung in a line. Each has its title in black block letters on the top right corner with a graphic design at the center. Below each print on the reader rail is a letter-size interpretive instructions for each of the scores provided by the artist. From closest to the wall text to the exit of the hallway, these show:
1. “For Olivia Shortt” written above a twelve-sided circular shape made up of twelve black arrows. Each arrow’s thin base connects at an angle to the arrow before it so that each triangular tip points off into a different direction.
“For a performer with any instrument
surrounded by an audience of at least 11 people
Start by facing any audience member. Watch or listen or learn
from their actions or patterns of their dress or small sounds they make.
Respond with sounds/music based on the information you receive.
While nearing the end of that response, look to an audience member to the right of
the previous one and read more information.
Crossfade into a new music response.
Continue pivoting clockwise, reading and responding until you have learned
enough from the room.
For seven of these responses, timbral effects should be used.
At the four directions, play very quietly.”
2. “For Candice Hopkins” written above nine thin gray lines arranged in six rows to form a diamond shape.
At the top is a word.
Translate it into two other languages.
Then each of those into three other languages.
Then those three into two.
Then those two into your own.
3. “For Ange Loft” written above a four-row grid of sixteen symbols. The top two and bottom row have matching geometric shapes shaded differently. The third row has vertical arrows and horizontal lines.
For voice and two drums
(Hand drum and one floor drum, on stand if needed)
Position the floor drum in the center of the room or performance space.
Hold the hand drum in your left or right hand and beater in the other.
Perform 8 sound events consecutively with seamless transitions.
A sound event is composed (pre-composed or at the moment) by choosing:
1.) One hand drum position from the first set of symbols: (above front, above left,
above right, above behind, side front, side left, side right, side behind)
2.) One voice quality from the second set of symbols: (low voice, wavering voice,
steady droning voice, high voice)
3.) A body position in relation to the floor drum from the third set of symbols: (in
front of, to the left of, to the right of, behind)
A sound event is performed by alternating beating both drums with the beater
(pendulum-like) while singing words of your choosing or vocables.
Oscillations caused by the drumbeat(s) affecting the voice, or by the voice
influencing the tempo, are encouraged.
4. “For Joy Harjo” written above a grid of tiny symbols; the line at the top of the grid has slightly larger drawings of a U-curve, a right-arrow and a cross of directional arrows.
To be performed with voice (sung, spoken or read) or played on any horn
Follow the sixteen diacritic event markings in any order or path.
Perform each sound event in one of three ways:
-Singing, reading or playing to yourself
-Singing, reading or playing to another
-Singing, reading or playing to everyone
The event inflections are:
/voiceless / more rounded / half-long / aspirated/
/long / lowered / long until / accented/
/mid-centralized / extra short / creaky / labialized/
/no audible release / noisy / breathy / raised/
If sung, spoken or read, any words may be used including the name of the
5. “For Laura Ortman” written above dainty handwritten thin black music notes with extra flags arranged in four rows.
For any stringed instrument
At each note of any duration, activate the string at the indicated speed (example:
tremolo bowing, plucking, picking).
The direction of tremolo slashes also indicates one of two contrasting ways to
embellish or approach the performing of the note.
When there is a smaller note above another note, activate the string in an even
more different way at its indicated speed.
Or you may perform a secondary action at those times, related or unrelated to the
playing of the instrument.
As you exit the hallway, with the prints on your right, take a right turn. On your right, about ten feet away, will be the next section text with QR code and a glass doorway to the next video room to the right of that text.