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Left: Pew Fellow-in-Residence Raven Chacon, photo by Neal Santos. Right: Pew Fellow Jacob Cooper, photo by Ryan Collerd. 

Pew Fellows Chat: Experimental Composers Raven Chacon and Jacob Cooper on Their Evolving Musical Practices

The act of creation takes on a multiplicity of forms. In our ongoing artist interview series, we illuminate the distinctive artistic practices, influences, and creative challenges of our Pew Fellows, who represent a diversity of perspectives and creative disciplines.

In this installment, experimental composers Raven Chacon and Jacob Cooper discuss their musical origin stories, the role chance plays in their work, and the environments in which they make music.

Chacon’s interview was transcribed from an audio recording and edited for length and clarity.


About the Artists

Chacon, who is currently living and working in Philadelphia as a Pew Fellow-in-Residence, is a composer, performer, and installation artist whose works combine contemporary chamber music with self-made electronic and acoustic instruments while conveying the perspectives of Indigenous people.

Cooper blends classical and popular music influences, often in dialogue with traditional religious repertoire, to create expansive sonic palettes that evoke a sense of timelessness through electronic, studio-recorded processes and experimental instrument and vocal techniques.

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?

I grew up playing the trumpet in school bands. Sometime in high school, I realized I had an abnormally strong love for music. I shot up like eight inches my junior year, and along with this physical growth spurt, my passion for music exploded. But I don’t come from a musical family, and I never considered music as a career until my senior year of college, when I took a music composition class. I remember specific works, like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Michael Gordon’s “Industry,” blowing my mind that year and opening me up to a whole new musical realm. I thank my music mentors at Amherst College, like Lewis Spratlan, for encouraging me to pursue a career in composition even though it was so new to me.

I had an opportunity to learn the piano when I was 9. This not only gave me a chance to learn an instrument, but it also provided me with the knowledge of learning notation, Western notation, classical notation. That gave me some kind of foundation for at least understanding that genre of music, how music was composed, and maybe even applying that system to the learning of other instruments. I don't know if there's a turning point. It just became an awareness of having an artistic practice. I think it was more so working in the field of music and trying to experiment with everything I could regarding making sound and composing, and eventually that deviated from notated music and got me interested in building instruments, improvising with other musicians, making noise, making recordings. I think it wasn't really until I pursued an MFA that I started understanding how this can overlap with a broader art context, which I had no awareness of intersecting with music at all.

Jacob Cooper, 2020 Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.
Jacob Cooper, 2020 Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

You both use experimental instrument techniques in your compositions. What role does chance play in your work? Do you see it as part of the experimentation process? 

On one hand, I make scores that can be very precise and exact. On the other hand, there's a full spectrum of possibilities allowing other kinds of interpretations, other kinds of agency, and even the opportunity for people who don't consider themselves to be musicians to undertake performance of the score. In any of that, even the precisely notated ones, there's always an opportunity for unplanned things to happen, unplanned sound events. A lot of my scores and a lot of my work is interested in the variation that happens when different people play these compositions.

I'm interested in the unplanned parameters that might affect music. I'm interested in location, site specificity: either the venue itself producing an outcome that I didn't anticipate or something about the city, the place where it's played, the community of musicians or non-musicians who are gathering to enact it. Is there going to be a different speed or pace to a gesture that I've written? Are there going to be different instruments that are brought to the table? So, there's a lot of room, even in the most precisely notated scores, that might allow for something by chance to happen, some kind of unplanned parameter that's going to affect the music.

Ah, I’m too controlling to have chance play a real role in my compositions! Improvisation is important to my work, but only when I’m workshopping material with musicians. I record it and then pick the exact passage or gesture I liked out of an extended inventory. In a sense, the music is created by chance, but not ultimately left up to chance.

Raven Chacon, 2020 Pew Fellow-in-Residence.
Raven Chacon, 2020 Pew Fellow-in-Residence. Photo by Neal Santos.

What images or objects keep you company in the space where you work? 

I actually find myself seeking solitude and silence rather than any sort of company, animate or not. I mostly work from a studio room in my South Philly rowhome, and I feel blessed when there’s not construction across the street or a dog barking next door. That being said, I do appreciate the mood offered by a painting, made by my talented friend Kris Benedict, that hangs above my desk.

I keep a classical guitar if I can, but a lot of my studio is mobile: the laptop. It might end up being that I have to work on the airplane or in the hotel room, so I don't always have the luxury of my home studio available. However, if I do, there is a classical guitar that's always in there, and that's for pitch reference, but also just for when I'm working on a composition. But it's also for rest, for me to take a break from whatever I'm working on and keep my practice of being a guitarist active.

In the winter, I try to build a fire. I have a fireplace in my studio now, and so sometimes I have a fire going when I'm working in the wintertime.


Is there a question you’d like to ask one another about your practices?

Raven, it’s remarkable how you consistently work in a variety of media and genres—"contemporary classical” chamber music, noise music, art installations—and it’s hard for me to think of others who work in so many different areas so effectively. Are there particular artists with similar overlap who inspired you to approach your own practice this way?

Alvin Lucier is definitely a big influence. I'm sure it was through learning about his work and understanding that the music (or the musical experiment) might need to be presented in other forms than the concert stage. I finally got to see him perform in 2017 in Athens, Greece, and sure enough, the performance was in a basement because that was going to be the best room to get the sound he wanted. The formalities of music performance should never interfere with the soundwork.

How have you worked differently over the past couple of years? Was there a different focus, a different motivation, or just a different kind of pace or environment that either helped or hindered what you do?

Yes! Since COVID hit, I’ve been considering recordings—rather than live performances—as the end goal. Part of this is of course because of all the canceled shows, but I’ve also just found, for whatever reason, that my ear is way more drawn to music produced in a studio than music presented acoustically on a stage. Right now, I’m actually dipping a foot into producing melodies for hip-hop, something I would never have imagined pursuing just two years ago.

Where to See the Artists' Work

Arcana New Music Ensemble will perform a portrait concert of Chacon's work on June 2, 2023, at University Lutheran, presented by Bowerbird.

Cooper is enjoying his sabbatical from West Chester University by working on a variety of projects, from a recent COVID-delayed mini-tour celebrating the release of his album Terrain to ventures in hip-hop production.