Friedrich Nietzsche once called Richard Wagner a clever rattlesnake for his ability to manipulate feeling through sound. It wasn’t a compliment. Since Pythagoras, we’ve known that music has the ability to affect us in unpredictable and untraceable ways, for better and for worse. (Nietzsche would probably add “in sickness and in health.”)
Last night at the world premiere of The Colorado, presented by Da Camera of Houston in conjunction with Fotofest, I was reminded of music’s ability to complement, to enhance and raise the stakes of other artistic media.
The Colorado is a film that chronicles the history of the Colorado River with live and recorded music performed by percussionist and composer Glenn Kotche, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and the enigmatic vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. New music by composers Paola Prestini, Shara Worden, William Brittelle, John Luther Adams, as well as Kotche and Zeigler, graced the film with intent.
The film, directed by Murat Eyuboglu, begins with serene images of the Colorado River—beautiful, striking images that pull an audience in, that make an audience invested in its power and wonderment. It’s a smart narrative arc, really. It gives background, shows maps, makes us understand our role (humanity at large) in relationship to our environment before revealing that we are the ultimate villain. What seems wild and untamed, a strand the film slowly unfurls, can easily be domesticated. We know the tragic turn ahead.
Watching this multi-media event means choosing, at least in part, between narratives: The performers below the screen and the film. Zeigler, fingers sliding down the neck of his cello, and Kotche, dancing from instrument to instrument, are exciting to watch—brilliant performers with chemistry. But the film has its own draw, too, in this age of global warming, where despair and regret increasingly replace wonderment in regard to the natural world.
But there are times when the film and the music reach a harmonic zen together, where everything swirls in a new breed of Wagner’s total work of art. When the film introduces the Hoover Dam, ominous drumming starts quietly in the background. The rhythm picks up, scraping raw in new timbres and instruments: Zeigler, head down; Kotche, arms tensed. A chronological list appears on the screen of dams that followed the Hoover. Scrolling, scrolling, we know it means the beginning of the end, an act that painfully reveals humanity’s near-sightedness, a childish predilection for immediate fulfillment and a disregard for future consequences.
It’s this kind of feeling that makes The Colorado singular. Few classical performances have a subject matter that so easily falls into a didactic train of politics. It would have taken only a slight turn to become a sermonizing parable. But there’s something to be noted in music’s capacity to leave an impression and to leave what that impression is up to us. When the stakes are high, as they are in this performance, it’s a remarkable experience.
The film ends on a hopeful note, both literally and figuratively. The pulsing beat is still there, a remnant of the Hoover Dam scene, but it is joined by voices rising in a major key, higher and almost joyful. The optimism was a surprise, but it speaks to the capacity of music to usher a story into reality.