The Colorado River is a national treasure.
For the past 5 million years, the Colorado River has carved some of the most magnificent landscapes on Earth.
More than 33 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. The river supports a quarter million jobs and produces $26 billion in economic output each year from recreational activities alone.
But if the numbers alone don’t convince you, maybe the stories behind the river will.
VisionIntoArt teamed up with New Amsterdam Records to create The Colorado: a multimedia, music-based documentary that explores the Colorado River Basin from social and ecological perspectives across history. The project is conceived as equal parts eco-documentary film, live performance, and an educational tool for classrooms.
And just wait until you meet the team behind the music. For this one-of-a-kind album, the Grammy Award-winning contemporary vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth breathes life into compositions by Shara Nova, Paola Prestini, Glenn Kotche, William Brittelle, and John Luther Adams.
With color, charisma, tight harmonies, and striking shots of the river and its wildlife, the documentary presents the Colorado in all its majestic splendor—but it also tells a much bigger story.
Today, with a booming agricultural industry to support and nearly 40 million people dependent on its waters, the Colorado is overused, over-promised, and unable even to reach its delta. Add to that the impact of climate change on the region, and you begin to see why these are stories that truly need to be heard.
The Colorado explores vast terrain, both in terms of music and lyrical content. Lyrics by William Debuys navigate from the prehistoric settlements of the region to the current plight of the river’s delta, from the period of European exploration to the dam-building era and its legacy, from industrial agriculture and immigration to the inescapable impact of climate change.
As an additional educational component to the album and documentary, the team behind The Colorado is also in the midst of creating a full-length textbook, corresponding section by section to the film, which will allow students and audiences to explore these topics in greater depth. The goal is to create connections between art, ecology, and regional history while also educating audiences toward a better stewardship of resources.
The album begins—well, at the “Beginnings.” Composed by rock drummer Glenn Kotche (of Wilco), “Beginnings” sets the sonic scene of the prehistoric Colorado River through sparse instrumentation, evocative rhythms, and layered, wordless vocals. Almost ritualistic in nature, Roomful of Teeth’s voices evoke a deep spiritual connection to the river and its surroundings.
It’s followed by cross-cultural composer Paola Prestini’s “A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope.” Prestini, who is one of the co-founders of VisionIntoArt, takes a more Baroque-inspired choral approach. Setting Jesuit sources as the text for the piece (including a Hail Mary in Cochimí, an extinct Native American language), Prestini creates haunting counterpoint through echoing, intricately layered voices which speak to the religious symbolism of the river—both for Europeans and indigenous peoples.
The river’s relentless pulse comes alive in “An Unknown Distance Yet to Run,” written by composer, singer-songwriter, and mezzo-soprano extraordinaire Shara Nova (of My Brightest Diamond). Through steady rhythms, restless strings, and chant-style vocals, she tells a gripping tale of exploration and adventure.
Composer William Brittelle folds elements of electro-pop into his two contributions on the album. “Shimmering Desert” features breathy, wordless vocals in a kaleidoscopic collage of electronics, radio clips, and strings, while “The Colossus” recalls the drama and dangerous working conditions of the Colorado River dams.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams’ contribution to the album requires a bit more patience. Unfolding slowly across layered, softly cascading vocal lines, he creates a vision of a vast, organic river landscape populated by nothing but the soft sounds of nature—in this case embodied ever so delicately by human voices.
Prestini’s narrative-driven “El Corrido de Joe R.” tells a more concrete story of love and sacrifice along the river. Roomful of Teeth sings above trickling water and birds chirping as they tell one family’s story—an anecdote of the interpersonal relationships between people and the land they live on.
It’s followed by another Nova piece, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” a ghostly illustration of modern man’s massive (and dangerous) impact on the planet as we continue to abuse our resources and damage our world.
And yet, the album ends on a decidedly hopeful note: Kotche’s “Palette of a New Creation.” Roomful of Teeth paints an image of optimism through vividly colored harmonies and beautifully textured polyphony—a reminder of the meaningful change we can create when we lift our voices together.
Because together, through education, environmental activism, and effective stewardship of land and water, we can keep the Colorado flowing for generations to come. After all, there is 5 million years’ worth of music coursing through the Colorado River—for those who are willing to listen.