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Signal and Noise

Scoring Tulsa’s history of forced migration



The graphic notation of American Ledger No. 2 will be on display on the billboard at Archer Street and I-244 in downtown Tulsa.

Raven Chacon

Gunshots, foghorns in a harbor, coins thrown against concrete—Raven Chacon hears music everywhere. The Albuquerque-based artist, composer and performer does many things, among them writing scores to tell stories of places and the people who make them. On Dec. 6, an ensemble of local musicians will play Chacon’s American Ledger No. 2, a site-specific score he composed with Indian Country’s painful history of forced migration in mind. 

For centuries, black and brown people have been shuffled from place to place by the violent hand of white supremacy. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Cherokee, Creek and other indigenous tribes across the continent to the Great Plains. Not a century later, white Tulsans invaded the prosperous black community of Greenwood and burned it to the ground, displacing families and destroying the businesses that were their livelihood. Today, undocumented immigrants are being detained and deported from David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center, continuing the region’s dark legacy of forced removal.

Chacon had just finished American Ledger No. 1 at the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College in Ohio, when the duo behind Tulsa Artist Fellowship curatorial platform Atomic Culture approached him to do a piece specific for Tulsa. “I started thinking about Tulsa as a place of migration, most of it forced migration,” he said. “[It’s a] microcosm of what I was working with the first piece: What brings in your industry to these places? What was the commerce? What was the conflict that happened in this place?” 

This was right around the time the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen aired, educating millions of viewers about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. “That was something that I had already been thinking about as well in making this piece,” Chacon said. “So that went along with the continuation of thinking about migration, forced migration, Native people being forced to move to the area to relocate. And then, the black community being there and then forced out—so [there was] a circular motion I wanted to work with.”

That circular motion is evident in the graphic version of the score. Chacon uses his own notation when composing, resulting in a visual work of art that is both aesthetic and utilitarian. 

“There’s still nods to Western notation,” Chacon said. “There’s still opportunities to morph these symbols into symbols that that might interest me—especially as a Navajo artist and indigenous artist—or some iconography is in these, you know, arrows and different kinds of symbols that can be both sonic ideas and also other kinds of ideas of movement or time.”

The graphic score for American Ledger No. 2 is currently on display at I-244 and Archer Street. Atomic Culture, the curatorial team made up of Mateo and Malinda Galindo, chose the area for its history and because it’s the intersection of Greenwood and the emerging arts district. 
The pair have known Chacon for years and have enjoyed watching the development of the artist’s idiosyncratic notation. “It really became interesting when he started to use things you could visually recognize—like American ledger No. 1 had this interesting aspect of a cityscape involved, but the outline of what would look like a cityscape,” Mateo Galindo said.

Chacon explained how using a modified notation to tell a story makes the music more accessible to people from various musical backgrounds. “Early on when I was working with notation and experimenting, trying to understand the symbology of all of these symbols that have been developed throughout Western notation, [I found] some of them are very interesting,” Chacon said. “Some of them relate the sonic idea in their aesthetics or in their design … something like a trill, or maybe a crescendo line, just very literally saying this gets louder or this tone vibrates. And also drawing my own kinds of notations to relay to musicians who maybe weren’t versed in this notation.”

Atomic Culture and Chacon are still working out who will play in the ensemble for the Dec. 6 performance, but they plan on having people of all ages, from high schoolers to experienced improvisors. Chacon will be here Dec. 5 to teach and rehearse the score with the ensemble. The sunset performance will be at 5:30 p.m. at the site of the graphic score. 

While Chacon emphasizes sound and composition in his practice, happenings like the upcoming Tulsa performance—with its roots in the pain of our shared history—are as much about social connection and possibility. 

“Sometimes the music is just the excuse … to get people together for a shared experience,” Chacon said. “People [might assume] it’s a protest, or they get worried when they see a lot of people on the street with, let’s say, a drum. A bunch of trumpets even. And they’re going to assume that people are up to no good or people are angry … when that’s not always the case for gathering. There’s a lot of reasons people gather, and I’m interested in testing that.” 

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