song of the river


Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - Paul Wei­de­man

THE COLORADO, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cin­ema, 3.5 chiles

In his mu­sic for a seg­ment of the new film The

Colorado, John Luther Adams was in­spired by the voice of the little canyon wren. In fugue-like recita­tions, the mem­bers of the Room­ful of Teeth en­sem­ble re­peat the call “too-ree,” each phrase ris­ing up­ward and the se­quence of ut­ter­ances go­ing down the scale, quite close to a slowed-down ver­sion of the wren’s de­light­ful, ethe­real song. The mu­sic com­ple­ments a mon­tage on the big screen: his­toric movie clips of the gor­geous, col­or­ful walls of Glen Canyon and more re­cent un­der­wa­ter images of the pale canyon, which has been sub­merged since the 1957-1964 build­ing of the Glen Canyon Dam and the 186-mile Lake Pow­ell reser­voir. The con­struc­tion of the dam was an im­mense project with huge im­pacts to the en­vi­ron­ment, in­clud­ing flood­ing thou­sands of Ances­tral Pue­blo sites, and Room­ful of Teeth’s omi­nous vo­cals rad­i­cally trans­form the sweet sound of the canyon wren. “In my trip to the Grand Canyon, ev­ery morn­ing it was the first thing you heard — so beau­ti­ful,” said the film’s di­rec­tor, Mu­rat Eyuboglu.

The Colorado, a portrait of the Colorado River from the moun­tains of Wy­oming to its delta in Mex­ico, pre­mieres in New Mex­ico with two screen­ings at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thurs­day, May 11, at the Jean Cocteau Cin­ema. This is a film of con­trasts, but its mu­si­cal el­e­ment is not sub­servient. “This is a film of po­etry. You have to be ready for a dif­fer­ent kind of nar­ra­tive style, el­e­vated for mu­sic in your at­ten­tion,” said Santa Fe au­thor and con­ser­va­tion­ist Wil­liam deBuys, who co-wrote the text with Eyuboglu. “The tra­jec­tory of the nar­ra­tion can be kind of ele­giac, but the mu­sic is al­ways op­ti­mistic, which is an in­ter­est­ing pair­ing.” DeBuys will in­tro­duce the first screen­ing of the film on May 11.

Cel­list Jeffrey Zei­gler is the project’s mu­si­cal di­rec­tor and a per­former. Glenn Kotche, the Grammy Award-win­ning per­cus­sion­ist with Wilco, is both com­poser and per­former in the film. The a-cap­pella octet Room­ful of Teeth, which sup­plies vo­cals, won a Grammy in 2014. The other com­posers for the film and for live per­for­mances of The Colorado in­clude Adams (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014), Wil­liam Brit­telle, Shara Nova, and Paola Pres­tini, whose com­pany, Vi­sionIn­toArt, pro­duced the film.

The Colorado of­fers star­tlingly beau­ti­ful videog­ra­phy by Sylvestre Campe of the river’s up­per reaches in the Rocky Moun­tains. We see dizzy­ing aerial shots, awe­some elec­tri­cal storms, wa­tery river-surface views, and ma­jes­tic win­ter scenes of bi­son, all ac­com­pa­nied by op­er­atic vo­cal­iza­tions. Those con­trast greatly with black-and-white footage of the con­struc­tion of the Hoover Dam — the river be­com­ing “a de­liv­ery sys­tem for liq­uid prop­erty” — and of the Sal­ton Sea dis­as­ter. Footage for the lat­ter comes rather bizarrely from the

1926 silent movie The Win­ning of Bar­bara Worth. The ro­mance star­ring Ron­ald Col­man, Vilma Bánky, and Gary Cooper in­cludes film from the 1905 Colorado River flood that com­pro­mised an ir­ri­ga­tion in­take struc­ture, de­stroyed towns and fields in the Im­pe­rial Val­ley, and cre­ated the largest lake in Cal­i­for­nia. The Sal­ton Sea was a ful­crum in the story of the mak­ing of The Colorado.

“A few years ago Mu­rat shot a mu­sic video near the Sal­ton Sea,” deBuys said. “He was so struck by the land­scape, and when he got back to New York he won­dered if any­one had writ­ten about it. Then he found my book, Salt Dreams: Land and Wa­ter in LowDown Cal­i­for­nia, that came out in 1999 and never got much read­er­ship. Ini­tially, Mu­rat asked me to be an ad­vi­sor to the film, to im­prove their chances at get­ting the his­tory right. At the point when Mu­rat de­cided he did want to have a tex­tual voiceover nar­ra­tion, he asked if I would help. So we did the nine pas­sages that [actor] Mark Ry­lance reads.”

Af­ter see­ing the Sal­ton, Eyuboglu said he thought that “there were def­i­nitely sto­ries to be told, but it also sounded like it would be part of a big­ger story, and I found that in Bill’s book. Salt Dreams ba­si­cally tells the story from the Hoover Dam all the way to the delta, and when we were work­ing to­gether we both de­cided to in­clude the river all the way to the source.”

The film’s nine seg­ments add up to a mul­ti­di­men­sional portrait. There are fo­cus pieces on farm­worker Joe R. Her­nan­dez, who al­most be­came an Olympic ath­lete; on Je­suit mis­sion­ary Euse­bio Francisco Kino, who mapped the re­gion and in 1701 proved er­ro­neous the con­ven­tional think­ing that Cal­i­for­nia was an is­land; and on Civil War veteran John Wes­ley Pow­ell, who led a party down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in 1869. Nova was the com­poser for this seg­ment, “An Unknown Dis­tance Yet to Run.” As Eyuboglu takes us video­graph­i­cally down the river, male and fe­male voices in­tone, “One thou­sand miles, one thou­sand miles,” “We may con­jec­ture many things,” and “What rocks be­set the chan­nel.”

The di­rec­tor de­scribed his process of work­ing with Nova and the other com­posers. “There was a cer­tain amount of back and forth, with me giv­ing them some ex­ist­ing footage so they could un­der­stand what it was about, and even lit­er­a­ture to read,” he said. “So they worked with ma­te­ri­als like that and es­tab­lished their own mu­sic, the char­ac­ter and the pac­ing and so forth. We wanted to have a group of com­posers and have them choose seg­ments they res­onated with the most. Some of them re­ally jumped on that — for in­stance, Paola Pres­tini, who grew up in the area where Fa­ther Kino evan­ge­lized. Glenn Kotche was the last com­poser to join us and it made sense to as­sign him the book­ends.” Those are the film’s first sec­tion, “Be­gin­nings,” and its last, “The Pal­ette of a New Cre­ation.” The film was edited to the mu­sic, “more like a mu­sic video,” Eyubaglu said, which is a re­ver­sal of the usual re­la­tion­ship of film and sound­track.

In the Grand Canyon sec­tion, the di­rec­tor suc­cess­fully con­veys fright in the story of Pow­ell’s first-ever run­ning of the Grand Canyon, dur­ing which his nine­man crew came out at the end as just “five starv­ing men.” DeBuys said he and the di­rec­tor did the run twice. “On the sec­ond trip, one of the par­tic­i­pants was Mark Ry­lance, who was tak­ing a break dur­ing the film­ing of Bridge of Spies. He was un­der the di­rec­tion of Steven Spiel­berg not to get a sun­tan.” It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble not to be af­fected by sun­shine in a small boat when it comes at you from above and also from its re­flec­tion off the wa­ter, and Ry­lance did not suc­ceed. “For some of the Grand Canyon shots I was hold­ing on to Mu­rat to keep him from fall­ing out of the boat,” deBuys laughed. “The trip leader on both trips was Christa Sadler, a good friend of mine who is writ­ing the book to ac­com­pany the movie.”

Noth­ing is bla­tantly said in the film’s text about man-made cli­mate change, al­though at one point we are in­formed that cli­mate mod­els tell us that the land of the Colorado River will be­come hot­ter and drier. The river basin is no stranger to drought, the nar­ra­tor says, but new ones will be more se­vere be­cause the earth will be hot­ter and there will be more evap­o­ra­tion. Ry­lance nar­rates, “The peo­ple of the Colorado start with an ad­van­tage: they al­ready love the desert. That’s good. There’s go­ing to be a lot more of it.”

“That is one of the themes,” deBuys said, “and one of the rea­sons it’s so ele­giac is there is no con­tra­dic­tion in the sense of el­egy and at the same time rev­el­ing in the beauty of the land, and cel­e­brat­ing the beauty.”

When the story takes us to the river’s end in the Gulf of Cal­i­for­nia, we hear that there are a few Co­co­pah In­dian el­ders who re­mem­ber the delta as a lush wet­land. But very little river wa­ter ever reaches the gulf any­more be­cause of the Hoover, Glen Canyon, and sev­eral other dams, along with the im­pact of the Sal­ton Sea stor­age. Eyuboglu here presents the viewer with a stun­ning se­quence of aerial pho­to­graphs of the delta. The scene is al­ter­nately spec­tral, daz­zling, ugly, and phe­nom­e­nal. While Campe did the film’s aerial shots in Utah and Ari­zona, the di­rec­tor cap­tured these him­self. “It was filmed from a small, fixed­wing Cessna and it was ac­tu­ally an en­tirely sim­ple process: You open the win­dow and take the pic­ture.” The re­sults some­times look like an ab­stract paint­ing, deBuys said. “You could hang a se­ries of prints of those in a gallery or a mu­seum and no­body would think it was in­ap­pro­pri­ate.”

The first live per­for­mance of The Colorado was in May 2016 at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York. Soon af­ter speak­ing with Pasatiempo on April 20, deBuys headed to Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia, where Zei­gler, Kotche, and Room­ful of Teeth would per­form the mu­sic live with two screen­ings at Stan­ford Univer­sity. DeBuys said he would love to see such an event in Santa Fe, but it could be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. The next sched­uled per­for­mance is in March 2018 at the John F. Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“The Colorado” screens at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Thurs­day, May 11, only. Wil­liam deBuys will in­tro­duce the film at the 6:30 p.m. show­ing.

Top, Rocky Moun­tains where the Colorado River orig­i­nates, 2015; opposite page, top, Hoover Dam shown dur­ing a late phase of its con­struc­tion, circa 1934, cour­tesy Im­pe­rial Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict; bot­tom, tidal wa­ters in the delta re­gion of the Colorado River, 2015; pho­tos Mu­rat Eyuboglu

Wil­liam deBuys

Top left, the Sal­ton Sea, 2015; right, Ino­cen­sia Gon­za­lez Sainz vis­it­ing the delta area of the river, which she knew as a lush wet­land in her child­hood, 2015; pho­tos Mu­rat Eyuboglu

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