Granite Rapids seen under moonlight, Grand Canyon, mile 93.
Documentary filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu, who conceived The Colorado—presented on April 21 and 22 at Bing Concert Hall—shares the vital significance of the Colorado River Basin to the American West, the story of how he became captivated by the river and its ecological challenges, and the genesis of his artistic project.
The Colorado River, which originates in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado at an altitude over 10,000 feet, runs 1,450 miles from source to sea. Its river system includes 35 perennial tributaries and countless ephemeral streams. It joins forces with its largest tributary, the Green River, in a dazzling display of S curves in the Canyonlands region of Utah. Stretching 277 miles across Arizona and embodying two billion years of geological history, Grand Canyon, that “rock-leaved Bible of geology” (in the words of explorer John Wesley Powell), occupies a unique place among the canyons carved by the Colorado and in the wider imaginary of the American West. Beyond what can be simply described as “beautiful,” it is a natural phenomenon that inspires awe, fear, and exhilaration all at once. Grand Canyon is sublime in the aesthetic sense of the word.
Though only the seventh largest river in the United States, the Colorado is crucial to the mostly arid regions through which it runs. Nearly 40 million people in seven states and an impressive agricultural empire rely on its waters. In recent decades, because of ever-growing demands on its waters and declining levels of snowfall in the high mountains, the river has reached its delta only during exceptionally wet years.
My interest in the Colorado River began through a detour. About seven years ago, I took a trip to the Salton Sea, a large body of water in Southern California roughly equidistant from the borders of Arizona to the east and Mexico to the south. Unprepared as I was for the Salton Sea and the towns on its shores, I experienced this first encounter as a disorienting blend of dystopian dreamscape and ethereal vision. Seeing all those abandoned and dilapidated beachfront homes and the aborted dreams they represented on the one hand and the celestial spectacle of migratory birds on the other was indeed a dissonant juxtaposition.
The Salton Sea, California.
The Salton Sea was created when an industrial-level effort to divert the waters of the Colorado River went horribly wrong. The river burst through a poorly built gateway in 1905 to flood, for two years straight, what was then called the Salton Sink. The vast body of fresh water the river left behind was characterized as a “miracle in the desert” by real estate speculators. The salt-coated ruins of their short-winded initiatives still stand today in some places, cryptic messages waiting to be deciphered.
Waves of human settlement in the Colorado River Basin have crossed paths with the Colorado River and its tributaries over millennia. The Salton Sea was one of the most ruinous episodes in the long history of our efforts to capitalize on the river, a confrontation between human greed and the river’s rage in which both parties suffered.
Back in New York, I continued to wonder about the larger narrative in which the Salton Sea appeared to be an especially poignant cautionary tale. I spent some time at the library and discovered Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, William deBuys’s eloquent account of human interaction with the environment in Southern California and Mexico, from the time of the native Yuman tribes to the present day.
Red Hill Marina, Salton Sea, California.
I met Bill at a Buddhist temple in Santa Fe where he was discussing his book A Great Aridness. He first agreed to be the project’s advisor, then coscriptwriter, and eventually its lyricist. We agreed that the Colorado River Basin, a vast area roughly the size of France, would be the backdrop for our story of the Colorado River. With no pretension of providing a complete history, we sought to isolate a handful of significant moments and topics.
We eventually identified as our main stories the earliest settlements in the region, which go back twelve thousand years; European and Anglo-American explorations in the 18th and 19th centuries; the dam-building era and its consequences; agriculture and immigration; the impact of climate change on the region; and the fate of the river’s delta in Mexico.
Tidal waters in the delta region of the Colorado River.
Music in The Colorado is a primary voice, rather than something that performs an illustrative or underscoring function. Our composers have strong connections to the stories with which they chose to engage. For instance, William Brittelle’s recent album, Television Landscape, was inspired by the Salton Sea; what seemed like remote history was personal and deeply inspirational for Paola Prestini who grew up in the same Colorado River Basin region that Padre Kino—a Jesuit missionary and explorer who founded many missions in Arizona and Mexico—mapped more than three hundred years ago; and John Luther Adams’ career-long exploration of landscape and the natural world has been an inspiration for all of us.
With the addition of the compelling compositional voices of Glenn Kotche and Shara Nova, we arrived at a stylistic diversity to match the irreducible geographic and historical scope of the project. The expressive vessel for this diversity is the bewitchingly protean vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, under the direction of Brad Wells. The ensemble is joined in performance by the great sound sculptors and instrumental storytellers Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler. In addition to interpreting the works of the project’s composers, Glenn and Jeff offer their own music during the narrative sections, functioning as a continuous foundation throughout.
Glenn Kotche and Jeffrey Zeigler performing at the New York premiere of The Colorado.
The project was filmed over four years and 20 separate trips to the region, including two descents of the entire length of Marble and Grand Canyons in different seasons. (You will notice the marked difference in the river’s color.) Both of these river trips were expertly led by geologist and educator Christa Sadler, who is also the writer of the project’s companion volume. On one of the river trips, I met Mark Rylance, who kindly and superbly narrated our script. I made multiple trips to Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, where Imperial Valley resident John Hernandez was indispensable in helping me navigate the region and generously shared his father’s story with us. Thanks to him, Imperial Valley has become a personal space for me.
I was very fortunate to be joined by the extraordinary cinematographer and film producer Sylvestre Campe and cameraman Dean Eldridge for a 10-day shoot in Utah and Arizona. They fearlessly and beautifully captured aerial images from powered paragliders. (No drones were used in the production of this film.) Accompanied by John, I made several trips to Mexico to explore the Cucapah lands and the delta restoration areas and to take a long and memorable flight over the delta region. The film was edited during an intense period of nine weeks in Chicago. Telling a story actually happens at the editing table, and I believe our stories benefited greatly from the eloquence of our editor David Sarno.
I consider this project to be a sort of eye contact or handshake between the Colorado River Basin and the audience, and I hope that as such it will mark the beginning of a long relationship. Caring for the land, the water, and the people of a region requires knowledge, love, and perseverance. In bringing art and research onto the same platform, this project’s aspiration is to instill the knowledge, inspire the love, and encourage action on the region’s behalf.
Murat Eyuboglu is a photographer, filmmaker, and music historian. The Colorado is his first feature-length documentary.