5 Questions to Raven Chacon about Radio Coyote

Raven Chacon, born in Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation, lives today in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he is a composer, performer, and installation artist. The recipient of numerous honors and residencies, Chacon has staged performances for The Whitney Biennial, documenta 14, REDCAT, Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal, San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Chaco Canyon, Ende Tymes Festival, 18th Biennale of Sydney, and The Kennedy Center. From 2004 until 2019, Chacon was a composer-in-residence with the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, an outreach program of the Grand Canyon Music Festival dedicated to teaching Native American youth to compose concert music.

From April 1 through June 30, 2021, the California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute is presenting Radio Coyote, a 24/7 live audio stream fully conceived by Chacon with a host of guest collaborators. Radio Coyote is currently streaming simultaneously from radiocoyote.org and on 88.1FM in San Francisco’s Protrero Hill neighborhood.

First of all, congrats on this exciting project! How did it come about and what inspired you to explore radio as a format?

This idea probably came about entirely due to Covid. With everyone under lockdown, staying at home, and working in isolation, I too found myself with the radio on often, which tends to be a rare occasion when I’m traveling or when I am in the studio working on recording or mixing or just making sound. When I do seek out new music or anything to listen to, I’m not one to turn on an algorithmic program that tries to guess my preferences and let it play music for me. With radio, I am comforted that someone is on the other end choosing the music or whatever content I am listening to. So personally, I found a new appreciation for the format, and this experience was shared by Anthony Huberman and Diego Villalobos at Wattis. But also, there are projects I have done in the past, or collaborated on, or released on my small record label, Sicksicksick Distro, and radio was a good way to make a temporary archive to revisit and share with others these sounds that have been made over the past 20 years and originally had very limited distribution.

Radio Coyote logo

Radio Coyote logo

Much of your work uses profound visuals to inspire musical and performative creativity, from graphic scores to large installations. Here in Pittsburgh I was lucky enough to experience the sculptural musical score From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home, which you created with Postcommodity for the Carnegie International in 2018. Do you anticipate a shift from this paradigm due to the nominal anonymity of radio?

My work has always prioritized sound, but sometimes a sculpture or a score or a video are the carrier for a composition. But an unfortunate outcome of working on those large-scale installations is that they don’t always allow me to work in the recording studio as often as I would like, making work that is solely audio. I was traveling too much, spending too much time away from home. But of course Covid ended that, temporarily or maybe not. Likewise, I have done anonymous projects, or projects under other names. Radio Coyote has been an extension of this practice for me. I would never call myself a curator; I’ve approached this project still as a composer: organizing blocks of time, repeats, voices, and noises.

From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home was deeply rooted in the history and narratives of Pittsburgh’s African American community and the synthesis of the Pittsburgh jazz sound. What kinds of narratives does Radio Coyote endeavor to illuminate, and are they peculiar to the San Francisco area?

Radio Coyote started with an initial idea to bridge the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona) with the San Francisco Bay Area. There are already many musical links: musicians from California who come through Albuquerque on tour and vice-versa. Other collaborations and friendships have evolved since. But also in our individual isolations, we all have recognized our shared concerns about the outside world. What is happening in our neighborhoods, or in other neighborhoods, or in the nation’s capitol? I wanted Radio Coyote to be a vehicle for sharing these thoughts, whether through music or interviews or other live radio actions.

Michael Begay--Photo courtesy Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)

Michael Begay–Photo courtesy Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project (NACAP)

In Anthony Huberman’s curatorial essay on Radio Coyote, the author refers to a burden you feel for your work to “explain or show the influence of” your Native American heritage. Does this struggle manifest in your role as a mentor to other Indigenous people aspiring toward visibility in the arts?

I don’t have that burden these days, but it was there when I first started making music. But the burden does exist for other artists of color. So my approach in mentoring, specifically when teaching the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Project, is to allow (or assign) the students to write whatever music they want with respect and understanding of the tools they are using. There is an opportunity for total experimentation. Sonically, we try to disrupt the anticipated essentializing of who they are, or who they represent. The burden of needing to escape who you represent when it conflicts with art-making is an ever-present obstacle.

Your lineup of guest DJs includes many artists and educators with whom you have collaborated in the past: Michael Begay, Ginger Dunnill, A. Smiley, Mark Trecka, and Zachary James Watkins. What will they be bringing to the table?

Michael Begay is a Dine’ composer based in Tuba City, AZ and co-teaches the Native American Composer Apprenticeship Project with me, and he is doing a series called Original Score. Original Score features interviews with some of the young composers in the program, giving them a chance to speak about their string quartet compositions while also describing their influences and thoughts that went into the work. Michael also has a program on Radio Coyote called Something Savage, which showcases Indigenous heavy metal being made around the world, as well as on the Navajo Nation. Both programs have a beautiful alignment in that they give listeners an insight into the land where this music is being made, which can be the most telling handles for the music we hear.

Ginger Dunnill is based in Santa Fe, NM and has been producing a podcast called Broken Boxes for over a decade, and Radio Coyote invited her to create new episodes for the three months of broadcast. Broken Boxes interviews various artists, activists, thinkers, and leaders from marginalized communities. The questions are always challenging but knowledgeable about their subjects. I was once a Broken Boxes interviewee, and it remains one of my favorite experiences of speaking about my own work.

Ginger Dunnill--Photo courtesy of the Wattis Institute

Ginger Dunnill–Photo courtesy of the Wattis Institute

A. Smiley is based in Oakland, CA and was a collaborator on my Tremble Staves oratorio performed at Sutro Baths, San Francisco in 2019. Their program Oh Really?! is an interview show with a focus on Bay Area BIPOC artists. Oh Really?! presents itself like a freeform talk show where the conversation might jump to multiple topics in minutes. This program and Ginger’s give beautiful insight into real-world work being done in the time of Covid-19.

Mark Trecka is currently based in New York state, but my memories of him are always as a musician and artist who is constantly mobile and traversing the country. His show, Correspondence as Shelter, moves the same way. It falls somewhere between a collage and a generative narrative sound work; a bending of the traditional radio experience. The show blurs original content and archival recordings, then interacts with itself through real-time comments in the Radio Coyote comment bar. It truly feels like you have time traveled 45 minutes or a week ahead or backward in time when listening to his show.

Zachary James Watkins is a composer who is also based in Oakland, CA, and I first became aware of his work with his former duo Black Spirituals. Zachary’s show is also an archive of his projects, documenting his compositions, scores, recordings, collaborations, and influences through the timeline of his career. The show gives rare insight into the process of a composer who works cross-disciplinarily. I’m a huge fan of his music.


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