On Raven Chacon

by Anthony Huberman
According to the Kogi, a South American Indigenous community, each generation knows a little bit less than the one that came before it. As ancestral wisdom flows downstream, with bits inevitably getting lost along the way, one must work to safeguard and pass on as much of it as possible—growth doesn’t come from acquiring something but from remembering and sharing it. Giving matters far more than taking.

When writing a score, a musician is making music but is also giving music. As a set of prompts, guidelines, or instructions, a score comes alive when it is read and interpreted, and, as such, it’s a language that begets others languages—it doesn’t tell people what to think as much as it asks to be transformed into something else. It’s a way to provide direction in the form of a question.

When conceived as a score, an artistic gesture doesn’t extract, it only pollinates. Like a renewable form of energy, it gives back more than it takes.

American Ledger no. 1 (2018)
American Ledger no. 1 (2018)


Raven Chacon listens to music, makes music, teaches music, writes music, remembers music, and gives music. He grew up hearing his grandfather sing traditional Navajo songs, and learned about his heritage via the metaphor of song, where history stays oral and fluid, safe from the many traps set by the written word. The radio stations he heard on the reservation played a lot of heavy metal and rock music, and he soon found himself starting thrash metal bands and launching a record label, SickSickSick Distro (“Loud Music from the Southwest U.S”), in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Chacon’s work flows in four directions: he teaches chamber music to high school students on Native American reservations as part of the Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP); he performs his own improvised music, often using instruments he builds himself; he writes music for others in the form of scores, sometimes using standard notation and other times using more abstract and invented graphic marks; and he creates sound installations and moving image works, as a member of Postcommodity for ten years, and now on his own.

Gauge (2013-2015)
Gauge (2013-2015)


An example: for his oratorio Tremble Staves (2017-2019), performed amongst the ruins of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths, Chacon and his collaborators use guitars, a bathroom sink, a floating cello, a narrator, dowsing rods, bird calls, amplified tiles, stirred broken mirrors, amplified fishing rods, a homemade feedback ukulele, an oxygen tank, student guitarists, and thirteen percussionists. The score allows the performance to take place within ruins that are near any large body of water.

Another: Report (2001/2015) is to be played by eight types of rifles. Or his American Ledger scores (2018 and 2019) are to be presented on a flag, a wall, a blanket, a billboard, or a door.

Tremble Staves (2017-2019)
Tremble Staves (2017-2019)


As a Diné (Navajo) artist, Chacon often feels the burden for his work to “explain” or at least “show the influence of” his Native American identity. All those well-intentioned white people, myself included, want to feel like we are “listening to,” “making space for,” and “empowering” others, after all, and certain boxes need to be checked in order for that to count. Instead, Chacon uses his own indigeneity only as a lens—it is not the subject of his work but it reflects, colors, and filters how he sees the world.

(With Chacon’s …lahgo adil’i dine doo yeehosinilgii yidaaghi [2004], a chamber orchestra is faced with a graphic score that has a Navajo title and abstract Indigenous symbols, but no additional or specific instructions. Should the [most probably non-Native] musicians choose to make it sound “Native American,” it will only be because they impose it on themselves.)

Whether it’s the Christian Bible or the Navajo’s Diné Bahaneʼ, any creation story is like a score—it’s a story that spans generations, told by countless different people in different ways, while maintaining a somewhat consistent narrative arc. Their paradox is that while they seem to outline a point of origin, the endless adjustments made to any creation myth, as they are told and interpreted over time, obstruct the very possibility of there being an “origin.” The process of forced migration changes the nature of the departure point, making it impossible to ever “go home.”

What does “home” actually refer to, now, for members of the Navajo nation? If it’s been colonized, can it ever go back to being pre-colonized? Can it be un-colonized or de-colonized? Or is it only ever post-colonized, with histories of knowledge, trauma, violence, oppression, and resilience weaving into one another, one no more “original” than the other?

For Zitkála-Šá (2020-21)
For Zitkála-Šá (2020-21)


Music, like history, is a collective activity. People make music with others and play music to others. A score, by definition, is for others, and musicians will interpret it differently when they play one together.

Each one of Chacon’s newest series of graphic scores, For Zitkala (2020-2021), is written for a specific Native American female composer—Ange Loft, Autumn Chacon, Barbara Croall, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Candice Hopkins, Carmina Escobar, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Heidi Senungetuk, Jacqueline Wilson, Laura Ortman, Suzanne Kite, Joy Harjo, and Olivia Shortt—and form musical “portraits.” They aren’t composed at a distance, like a tribute, but are made of what Chacon learned from his time spent carefully listening to and learning from each woman.

Radio Coyote
Radio Coyote


2020 and 2021, however, have been years when most of our activities haven’t been collective, or when forms of collectivity have been radically redefined.

For his residency at the Wattis Institute, unable to perform and collaborate in person, Chacon launches a radio station, Radio Coyote. He brings together five long-time collaborators, all of whom are fellow musicians and fellow educators, and, together, they create dozens of hours of original content, over the course of three months, for an online and FM radio broadcast—online because it bridges the social distances that now separate everyone, and FM because all forms of expression must necessarily be embodied and anchored by their physical site.

More than anything, Radio Coyote is a way for these collaborators to continue talking with and listening to each other, even at a distance.

Ginger Dunnill interviews Indigenous, activist, Queer, women-identifying, BIPOC, and lost/stolen heritage artists; A. Smiley’s program is rooted in the Bay Area’s community of artists of color; Michael Begay dives deep into the world of Indigenous metal; Zachary James Watkins explores forty years of his own musical compositions and influences; Raven Chacon himself broadcasts live from various locations across the Bay Area and plays every single release from his record label from start to finish; and Mark Trecka mixes popular and avant-garde music, archival recordings, field recordings, interviews, and original music, as well as fragments from the other Radio Coyote shows, as they happen, tying more knots into the knots.

Chacon interrupts the stream now and then to present Free Form, a spontaneous program reflecting his stay in the Bay Area and featuring programming from local artists and musicians.

…lahgo adil’i dine doo yeehosinilgii yidaaghi (2004)
…lahgo adil’i dine doo yeehosinilgii yidaaghi (2004)


When conceived as a score, an artistic gesture doesn’t extract, it only pollinates. Like a renewable form of energy, it gives back more than it takes. During his three months in San Francisco, Chacon won’t be extracting knowledge from the land but will be learning how to hear its voices, listening for what it chooses to share and what it prefers to withhold. His goal is not agreement, disagreement, or even comprehension, but establishing forms of solidarity where different perspectives gather, co-exist, make something with each other, and mutually adapt to a context as it evolves, like an ensemble.