The Colorado
VisionIntoArt / New Amsterdam Records

Though it's still fairly early in Roomful of Teeth's career, the Grammy Award-winning group has received so much deserved acclaim, it's hard not to regard it as an American treasure. In fact, so quickly have listeners become attuned to the outfit's artistry, there's a danger in losing sight of just how remarkable its vocal polyphony is. That prowess is on full display throughout The Colorado, a visionary project that attempts a re-imagining of documentary film possibilities. In this case, music is as integral as visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Sylvestre Campe), but in its film form narration (by actor Mark Rylance) also appears. Further to that, the project was conceived for both live presentation (it received its NYC premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 18, 2016) and as an educational resource.

Not only does the project honour the majesty and history of the Colorado River and the surrounding area, it also aims to raise awareness about the particular ecological challenges the region currently faces. The film guides the viewer on a 1500-mile journey that encompasses awe-inspiring locales such as the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, but also areas plagued by drought and suffering the catastrophic effect of climate change.

Though The Colorado was conceived as a film project primarily (a DVD version, by the way, is scheduled to be released at a later date), the aural component holds up exceptionally well as a stand-alone; in fact, it's in its album form that one most naturally experiences the work as a Roomful of Teeth recording. Strengthening the impression further, the composers featured—William Brittelle (New Amsterdam Records co-founder), Glenn Kotche, Paola Prestini, Shara Nova (previously Shara Worden), and John Luther Adams—are ones whose works one might easily expect to find on a Roomful of Teeth release. Yet to designate it as such is also not entirely accurate, given the prominence with which percussionist Kotche and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler are featured.

Let's focus on the fifty-five minutes of music, which is fine indeed. With his opening and closing contributions, Wilco drummer Kotche continues to establish himself as a composer in his own right. Though pitched at a restrained level, his “Beginnings” nevertheless showcases Roomful of Teeth's magnificent vocal interplay, especially when the wordless setting allows their contrasting voices to be heard in all their glorious purity. Kotche and Zeigler also make their presences felt at this early juncture, as if to remind us that their cello and percussion (drum and kalimba, specifically) contributions are as integral to the music as the voices. Prestini's choral-tinged “A Padre, a Horse, a Telescope” exemplifies an epic reach, not only in presenting an intricate weave of voices, percussion, and strings, but in using Jesuit sources as the text (for the piece's second part) and in setting lyrics in Cochimi, an extinct Native American language. Yet as provocative and muti-faceted as such a blend is, it's the passionate, declamatory delivery by Esteli Gomez that ultimately registers most powerfully. A marked shift in focus follows when Nova's first of two settings, “An Unknown Distance Yet to Run,” engages the body with instrumental and vocal forces that push forward with a primal rhythmic thrust reminiscent of the river's own relentless movement.

The juxtaposition of pieces by Brittelle and “Cathedrals in the Desert” by Adams accentuates the broad scope of the musical terrain explored on the album. On the one hand, we have the daring sensibility of Brittelle manifesting itself in electronics-enhanced settings butting up against the understated elegance of Adams' treatment. On the aptly titled “Shimmering Desert,” electronic beats thread their way into a dazzling collage assembled from echoing vocal phrases and garbled radio clips; by comparison, Adams entrances the listener with cascading vocal and glockenspiel patterns that in gradually slowing intensify their hypnotic effect. The mood shifts once more on Prestini's “El Corrido de Joe R,” this time to folk territory via a touching tale of sacrifice, specifically a boy's decision to remain with his mother in the fields of the Imperial Valley rather than be lured by the prospect of running in the Olympics.

Admittedly, there is one particular problem with The Colorado, though it has nothing to do with the quality of the music but rather marketing. The release is being promoted as music from the film The Colorado, but in doing so it might fail to connect with a core group of potential listeners, namely Roomful of Teeth fans. Hopefully a carefully handled marketing campaign and reviews (such as this one) will help to ensure that the album doesn't miss this critical target, even if anyone happening upon the release for the first time in a store display could be forgiven for overlooking the Roomful of Teeth name vertically tucked away in the lower left corner of the album cover.

August 2016