Toward an Ecological Understanding of Music: The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)

CD Review of The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture)

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Roomful of Teeth, Glenn Kotche, and Jeffrey Zeigler. The Colorado (Music from the Motion Picture). Recorded 2016. VIA Records, 2016. CD.

The “ecology of music,” a concept central to the American composer John Luther Adams, refers to music that incorporates sounds around us – sounds of everyday life and nature – and that contributes to our awareness of the environment and the need to protect the planet. Both understandings of ecological music are at play in this album of music from the documentary film The Colorado. The film, which received its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 18 and will appear at select theaters in the United States, is about the Colorado River’s history and its current ecological situation. The river is no longer able to reach its delta, which up until the 1950s was a thriving wetland. Directed by Murat Eyuboglu, the film is both an educational resource and a call to action to protect the river from climate change and further abuse.

Music plays a central role in this film, which was created to accompany musical works by John Luther Adams, Paola Prestini, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, and Shara Nova. All nine works included on the album are performed with great energy and virtuosity by Roomful of Teeth, a Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble that specializes in unconventional types of singing. (See, for example, the ensemble’s 2012 debut album Roomful of Teeth, which incorporates African pygmy yodels, Inuit throat singing, and Appalachian hymns.) Also featured on the Colorado album are the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and the percussionist Glenn Kotche, the latter of whom also composed two of the works performed here. Each of the pieces depicts a time period of the Colorado River’s history, though not in a literal way. The second track (“A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope”) refers to the 17th-century Jesuit explorer Eusebio Francisco Kino, the third (“An Unknown Distance Yet to Run”) to the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869, and the seventh (“El Corrido de Joe R.”) to a young track star who turns down an opportunity to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in order to take care of his sick mother.

My favorite part of the CD is the first number, Glenn Kotche’s “Beginnings” (see above). Though primarily known as the drummer of the alternative rock band Wilco, he is also an accomplished composer. Glenn Kotche and John Luther Adams have been collaborating for some time now (see this article on NewMusicBox), and the latter’s influence is evident in this composition. Like Adams, Kotche has an ecological understanding of music, in both of the ways described above. Kotche depicts a prehistoric landscape before the advent of language. The work begins with an a cappella section that has the playful, exuberant quality of a madrigal. Percussion and cello are added (1:27), and the music grows in intensity, leading up to exchanges between the cello and voice. A more rhythmic section follows (3:36) incorporating electronics. The final section (4:43) is more reflective in nature, and the music fades away until only the cello and percussion remain. Kotche’s music captures the energy and playfulness of a primordial scene in which there is no hierarchy between man and nature – the two are in balance. On Kotche’s ecological view of music, see his 2012 essay “The Thunder That Smokes,” which treats rhythm and percussion as sonic landmarks and as a way to keep the music grounded in a setting of place and time (119).

I have not yet seen the film The Colorado. But judging from the project’s early teaser clips, it is influenced by Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, which features the powerful music of Philip Glass. While Reggio’s film had a message about mankind’s destruction of nature – its title means “life out of balance” in the Hopi language – this message is even more pronounced in The Colorado. I sense that Eyuboglu’s film is shaped by John Luther Adams’s ecological view of music, which calls for environmental activism. (See Alex Ross’s excellent article on Adams in the New Yorker.) More importantly, though this message plays an important part in the film and music, the music nonetheless stands apart as an artistic vision of the joy and energy of life and nature in general. In other words, the music cannot be reduced to the political message. In conclusion, I highly recommend this CD and look forward to the future projects alluded to on the team’s website.

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