Making soundwaves: Autumn Chacon takes her experimental opera to New York City
Autumn Chacon holds a lot of titles: mother, artist, activist. Sometimes, she merges these roles; whether it meant bringing her daughter with her in a cradleboard while installing a musical soundscape at a gallery, or making performance art rooted on a social justice issue she was struggling with.
Her art has been shown among First Nations communities in North America and abroad.
Chacon’s latest venture is creating an experimental opera, “Malinxe,” which premiered Jan. 20 in New York City as part of the Prototype Festival for opera and theater.
“There’s singing, there’s lyrics, there’s dialogue,” Chacon said. “But it won’t sound like a traditional opera.”
The 36-year-old lives in Albuquerque but has family in Chinle, and spent much of her childhood there with her older brother and sister, who are also artists.
They are Todích’íí’nii (Bitter Water clan) and born for Chicano people. Her brother, Raven, is the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize for music and her sister Nanibah ‘Nani’ is a prolific mural artist.
“We’ve had a lot of support from my parents and each other to really have careers that reflect our ideas and our true kind of self,” Chacon said.
Though her father is an attorney and mother was a medical doctor, Chacon said both of her parents are radical thinkers, rooted in activism and social justice, and it trickled down to her and her siblings.
“Malinxe” is a modern conceptual piece that Chacon said showcases “all of the burdens of colonization.” It is based on real-life historical figure La Malinche and folklore fatale La Llorona, aka ‘weeping woman.’ La Malinche was born in 1500, contributing to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. Sometimes deemed the mother of modern Mexican people, her complex story is often equated with that of La Llorona.
In Chacon’s interpretation, "Malinxe" embodies a contemporary woman who submerges herself into La Llorona’s dangerous realm and must make transformative decisions to save her own spirit from continuing down the destructive path of La Llorona.
Chacon wrote it for many mediums in three acts in 2011, in a response to frustration she felt with some events that happened in Albuquerque at the time.
“Back in 2011 a lot of things happened that were really painful to the community,” she said.
One incident was 11 female bodies being discovered in a mass grave in a new development in the far west side of Albuquerque.
“The news, really without any evidence, was portraying all of these women as prostitutes…not really alerting the community that there was a serial killer in Albuquerque,” Chacon said.
The other incident was a mother that murdered her child in a public park, witnessed by many. Though Chacon said this was devastating, she believes the mother was desperate with lack of resources and food, not pure evil as presented by the media.
Chacon said “Malinxe” is “a critique on how we portray women in desperate situations.”
Chacon wrote the arc of the opera in a poetic form, and said famed White Mountain Apache violinist Laura Ortman ran with it.
“It’s not verbatim dialogue that needs to be said — its emotions disguised as a metaphor — and (Laura) can somehow play that on a violin. She has a very unique style of also mixing electronic components with string instruments. So she wrote the composition that accompanies the entire piece,” Chacon said.
Musician and journalist Marisa Demarco sang lyrics, and both Demarco and Ortman’s instruments were filtered electronically.
“I wanted to show that these are women of color who have taken both of (their mediums) to a different level and almost like a futuristic out-of-context way of using their voice and their violin,” Chacon said.
Jeffrey Gibson, a famous Choctaw and Cherokee artist, played La Llorona, dressed in drag and lip syncing to the sound of the violin. Gibson intentionally does not have a voice in the performance.
It might not sound like a traditional opera, but then again, Chacon isn’t exactly what you would call traditional.
Media meets activism
She studied political science and media art at University of New Mexico, and worked at a public access TV station in Albuquerque for five years. It was there she found her true love of creating electronic sounds.
“I could only go so far in what I was doing in my job but with art I could really kind of expand the concepts of electricity and the idea of manipulating it,” Chacon said.
Chacon got hand-me-down equipment and set up shop. She often collaborates with her sister, incorporating the use of sound and radio frequencies into design-based electronic installations called HÓLÓ. Chacon also creates sound for the Death Convention Singers.
In 2011, Chacon used her background in public access television to help start up Federal Communication Commissions’-licensed community radio stations, including one in Gallup and Albuquerque.
“At the time I was very excited for small communities to have a type of autonomy, which is what I think radio is and can be for communities,” Chacon said. “The philosophy around radio is very community-oriented.”
She worked on the board of directors, and helped with the application and filings, getting grants and figuring out how to pay workers.
“I’ve had legislative experiences on the state level and the federal to have community radio,” she said.
This experience would come in handy in 2016, when she went to fight against the environmentally risky Dakota Access Pipeline being built on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land in North Dakota.
“Being that there was like 10,000 people at that camp at one point, living outside through winter in North Dakota and fighting the police every day, (it’s a miracle) that nobody died, nobody froze.”
The thousands of protesters eventually reined victorious, but not without hundreds of injuries due to police brutality.
“The Bank of North Dakota was about to loan $8 million to the local police to fight unarmed water protectors,” Chacon recalled. “It didn’t take $8 million to fight it. We literally had like drums, sage and feathers and that’s it. That entire fight was fought with prayers.”
Chacon and some other women wrote a letter to the bank explaining that. They were offered a meeting with the bank manager, and when they went there at the time listed at the letter, the police shut down the bank, she said.
“They just kind of stopped us in our tracks in every way possible,” she said. “The criticism is that activists are too radical, that we should just chill out and you know, talk civilly, we might get somewhere rather than chaining ourselves to a bridge … that ‘why can’t we be more peaceful and write a letter, or go sit down with the bank manager, try to see eye to eye. What happened to civil discourse? And my point is that we’re not allowed. But that got the attention of someone and they were like, do it again but with a huge bank, and it worked, it worked a little bit.”
Eventually, Chacon said, she helped divert $3.8 billion from the Dakota Access Pipeline.