Leaping Genres, Film Score Paints Winding Colorado


John Luther Adams, William Brittelle, Glenn Kotche, Shara Nova, and Paola Prestini, with lyrics by William Debuys: The Colorado. Roomful of Teeth, vocals, Jeffrey Zeigler, cello, Glenn Kotche, percussion, and James Moore, banjo. VisionIntoArt/New Amsterdam. 2016. Available directly from the publisher and via Naxos Direct.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – The Colorado River is the aquatic backbone of the West, running from the Rockies down into the California-Arizona desert and theoretically draining into the Gulf of California. However, since the West is congenitally bone dry, the river has been diverted for the benefit of large cities and agriculture to the point where the Colorado can’t even reach its delta anymore. With that in mind, VisionIntoArt’s documentary film The Colorado tries to place the current predicament of the river into its historical context.

Roomful of Teeth (Bonica Ayala)
‘The Colorado’ was written for the young new music vocal group Roomful of Teeth.
(Bonica Ayala)

Knowing all this isn’t necessary in order to get a charge out of the soundtrack album for The Colorado, which is primarily a tour-de-force for the young new music vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. The album is a genre-smashing work by committee, with five composers having written nine individual pieces for Roomful of Teeth, augmented by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and one of the composers (Glenn Kotche) on percussion.

The four women and six men of Roomful of Teeth (minus now-celebrated composer-member Caroline Shaw) deliver a beautiful, brightly blended ensemble sound, with spatial harmonies that sometimes remind me of the Hi-Lo’s, the innovative 1950s pop-jazz group. Sometimes there are words, yet five of the nine pieces don’t bother with them at all, and the music is sometimes treated and bent by electronic processing.

The composers operate in specialized sound worlds of their own. Shara Nova’s pieces – “An Unknown Distance Yet To Run” and “Welcome to the Anthropocene” – have propulsive rhythm tracks running beneath the voices. In electronica-minded William Brittelle’s “Shimmering Desert,” the voices are warped, echoing in the desert as electronics seem to simulate shimmering heat waves, while his “The Colossus” is an aural kaleidoscope of contrapuntal voices and electronics with rich, deep bass vocal harmonies.

Paola Prestini deals in storytelling from the desert. “A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope” finds the voices stacked spatially against each other, and thunder rolls as soprano Esteli Gomez cries out in Cochimí (a now-extinct language of Baja California) the words “Santa Maria gouyibaham” (Rejoice, Holy Mary). Voices cascade and the cello mourns in “El Corrido de Joe R.,” a moving ballad about a Mexican boy in the Imperial Valley circa 1936 who is offered a chance to run in the Olympics but chooses to stay behind and help his impoverished mom in the burning hot fields.

The piece that works least well is John Luther Adams’ rather creepy “Cathedrals in the Desert,” where the vocalises slow down and drop in pitch like dying birds and, when all action stops, a solo glockenspiel sputters out in similar fashion. Kotche’s “Beginnings” and “Palette of a New Creation” serve as atmospheric wordless bookends for the whole project, introducing the group and offering an epilogue, respectively.

Exactly how the music is supposed to illuminate the film cannot be determined by listening alone. Rather, the overriding impression is that this album is a joyous shout of youthful, fearless ensemble voices that doesn’t so much send dire warnings about the environment as celebrate how singing can make the world seem right for a little while.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.