Sharing the Same Air: Raven Chacon in Concert

Posted by on November 30, 2016

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Among all the invective, babble, and rage of this American election year, even someone with a deep concern for environmental politics could forget that 2016 is the centennial of the National Park Service. Maybe that sounds less important than the approach of a disastrously bigoted president-elect, yet our lands, and the way we treat them, underpin every aspect of our lives. A big anniversary marks a time for common reflection, and this one gave us no shortage of tough questions: Why preserve some lands and not others? When certain lands are designated for economic gain or protection, who does that benefit? When has tending to the land made our lives better, and when has it made them worse? What does it mean that questions of land ownership in America have deep ties to histories of colonialism and violence? Do we love our lands too much, and if we do, what does that say about us? Do our public lands belong to everyone as much as is claimed?

In this spirit, the Bay Area nonprofit Other Minds has spent part of 2016 holding an experimental concert series called The Nature of Music. On September 7 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, they hosted the chamber music composer and noise artist Raven Chacon. Originally from the Navajo Nation and now living in Albuquerque, Chacon’s extensive and accomplished career has often dug into tensions inherent to the concepts of land, borders, and ownership. These tensions get a lot of play in his work with the Postcommodity collective, which in 2015 ran a massive, haunting installation called Repellent Fence across the U.S./Mexico border. And they extended to his appearance at the Brower Center, where his performance called attention to the U.S. government’s imposition of highly defined borders in places where, before European contact, land and people did not adhere to such strict and strange dividing lines. The National Park Service, he explained in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, is complicit in the proliferation of these artificial boundaries. He stressed at the Brower Center that his music cannot resolve these tensions, but his performance offered the seeds of an alternative way to see the boundaries imposed on maps everywhere.

Chacon’s setup — a small network of sound processors, webs of multicolored cables, a lone handheld recorder, and a few mysterious objects, all gathered loosely on a small table — would have fit in perfectly at a neighborhood noise set. But this show took place in a 200-person theater with surround sound, and Chacon took full advantage of the space. The first of his two 25-minute pieces, “At The Point Where The Rivers Crossed, We Drew Our Knives,” began with hushed and spontaneous pops of noise, and as it grew in intensity, the looped and manipulated field recordings teetered on the brink of the natural and the bracingly mechanical. Chacon scraped a mule deer antler across resin-coated Plexiglas, and by blowing through an eagle forearm made a sound that sat halfway between a violin and a siren. Sounds removed from their initial contexts began to take on new identities. In the chaos I thought I heard a continuous parade of boulders rolling down a hill. Or I was in the middle of a factory floor or a mining site, knocked over by the whirring of trucks and drills.

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I went under fully during the second piece, “Air [Moving Somewhere Between The Navajo Nation and the Grand Canyon National Park (somewhere a line between the Dinetah and Hopitutskwa)].” Commissioned by Other Minds, “Air” wove together sounds of blowing wind that Chacon had recorded in the Hopi Reservation, the Navajo Nation, and Grand Canyon National Park. Chacon explained that these three places, even with their fraught and contested perimeters, “share the same air” with one another, in the same way that the geographic division between the Hopi and Navajo Nations is historically less a vivid line and more like a spectrum subject to the movements of time and nature. That dynamic sense of place came to life in the room.

Gusts, beginning softly and intercut with high-pitched tones and bird sounds, erupted from the speakers all around the theater, shifting locations and creating ever-changing borders of sound, splitting the room in thirds, drawing lines in the air that seemed almost visible. It was like observing a natural phenomenon from its center and from a distance at the same time. I felt omniscient, but I also felt vulnerable. I could track the shifting of the winds, but those shifts acted on me as they divided and reconfigured space in the theater. In a way, the piece gradually trained me to be aware of those alterations. Tidal waves of wind crashed through the room, casting forward and doubling back. Near the end, the surround sound field began to recede inward, shrinking gradually to whispers from the Hypersound directional speakers on Chacon’s table.

After the performance, Chacon held an on-stage conversation with Other Minds executive director Charles Amirkhanian. Despite a few somewhat stilted questions at the outset of the discussion, Chacon dug deep into his work and influences. He talked about his love of answering machine tapes, fielded a question from Black Spirituals guitarist Zachary James-Watkins, described his work as a teacher with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, and told a story about a chance meeting with John Cage when he was 11. (That meeting happened at a surrealistic recital given by his childhood piano teacher.) He revealed that he’d made the recordings for “Air” by driving around and sticking a recorder out the window of his car. He said, “I’m not trying to get a pristine sound or capture anything delicate. It’s all the same to me. I’m still trying to capture something.” Even as his renown as a composer has grown, that on-the-ground approach extends to all his work, especially his efforts to host shows and help foster artistic communities in Albequerque. In his words, “It’s inexpensive to rent a space out there, so I try to host shows for people coming through. I try to make things happen out there. That’s why I stay out there.” That impulse to “make things happen,” to seek chances for opening new interactions with the places we inhabit, held strong during his appearance in Berkeley. In this scary and surreal time, Chacon and Other Minds offered regrounding in the most literal way.