For 5 million years the Colorado River has carved some of the most majestic landscapes on the planet. It has become the lifeline of a vast portion of North America, providing the water that sustains nearly 40 million people, half a dozen major cities and an immense agricultural empire. On April 21 and 22, at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall, a new eco-documentary titled The Colorado – featuring music commissioned from five composers and performed live by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and percussionist Glenn Kotche – will take audiences on a journey through this river’s history.
The Stanford Live performances are part of the Live Context Imagining the West series, which is presented in partnership with the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
“The challenge of approaching a vast, stunning and complex region through multiple disciplinary perspectives is what animates our team-taught class, The American West, that the Lane Center sponsors,” says Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, professor of English and director of American studies. “This innovative blend of photography and music promises to help us experience the natural landscape in fresh ways – and help us understand its potential to nurture and inspire creativity.”
For filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu, the director and co-writer (with William deBuys), the inspiration for The Colorado began through a detour. A trip to the Salton Sea seven years ago left a deep impression on him. Roughly equidistant from the borders of Arizona to the east and Mexico to the south, the Salton Sea was created when an industrial-level effort to divert the waters of the Colorado River went horribly wrong.
Connecting landscape and music
“I experienced this first encounter as a disorienting blend of dystopian dreamscape and ethereal vision,” writes Eyuboglu in a program essay. “The Salton Sea was one of the most ruinous episodes in the long history of our efforts to capitalize on the river, a confrontation between human greed and the river’s rage in which both parties suffered. Back in New York, I continued to wonder about the larger narrative in which it appeared to be an especially poignant cautionary tale.”
He later met deBuys, author of Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, and the two set about isolating a handful of significant moments and topics in the river’s history that could provide a backdrop for a new project.
“Music in The Colorado is a primary voice,” says Eyuboglu, “and our composers have strong connections to the stories with which they chose to engage.” William Brittelle’s recent album, Television Landscape, was inspired by the Salton Sea; Paola Prestini grew up in the same Colorado River Basin; and John Luther Adams has had a career-long exploration of landscape and the natural world. “With the addition of the compelling compositional voices of Glenn Kotche and Shara Nova,” Eyuboglu adds, “we arrived at a stylistic diversity to match the irreducible geographic and historical scope of the project.”
The work, which premiered in 2016, also features recorded narration by stage legend Mark Rylance, who covers nine chapters through the prehistoric settlement of the region, the period of European exploration, the dam-building era, modern industrial agriculture and immigration, and the impact of climate change.
“Performances like The Colorado help illustrate the richness of the American West and advance our understanding of its past, present and future,” says Bruce Cain, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
Stanford Live’s exploration of the West will include two related events: a presentation by music scholar Beth Levy of the University of California, Davis, titled “Composing the American West” (April 19), and a conversation with renowned National Geographic photographer Pete McBride moderated by Stanford historian David Kennedy (April 21).