'Water Songs' will chart the Colorado River

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NORTH ADAMS -- Over the course of the Colorado River's 1,450-mile journey from La Poudre Pass in the Rockies to the Gulf of California, gathering water from a basin encompassing seven states, it picks up many stories. It weaves through layers of geology and geography, becomes a crucial part of ecosystems and economies, and includes breathtaking natural and engineering wonders. Its flow affects the lives of millions.

And for a diverse group of filmmakers, composers, singers, and educators who are gathering at Mass MoCA this week, it is the guiding theme for a multimedia project to explore a visually stunning part of the world that is not only central to US economy, but surprisingly delicate and with an uncertain future.

"This is a sensory gateway into that region, portrayed in a rich and nuanced way," said Murat Eyuboglu, the director and filmmaker who is driving the project. "We're providing the tools for people to learn more, experience more, and become more engaged."

The end result is planned for late next year, but Mass MoCA will host a "work in progress" screening of the project, called "Water Songs: Ha Tay G'Am" from name for the river in the native Havasupai language. The showing on Saturday will include footage from the film and music composed for it, performed by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, who are familiar faces at Mass MoCA.

The project is still taking shape. While the dozens of collaborators involved have begun sketching out the project online, their brief residency at the museum this week marks the first time they have met in person.

On Monday, eight of the project members gathered in Club B-10 at Mass MoCA for a series of presentations. Sitting in aluminum chairs with a projector whirring overhead, notebooks and laptops scattered about, they listened as writer and conservationist William deBuys discussed the ways climate change is affecting the River basin. Many decisions about water over the past century were made during a time of relative water abundance, he said, and that times are changing.

The project will tell different stories from the river's run. The river lies at the intersection of European and native cultures, as told by the story of Padre Eusebio Kino, a 17th-century Jesuit priest who founded a number of missions in the region. The project will look at engineering in the area, at the workers who built the Hoover Dam in the heart of the Depression, and at construction of the Glen Canyon Dam decades later, which drew the opposition of the emerging environmental movement.

Another segment will look at the lives of the undocumented migrant laborers who harvest the crops of the enormously profitable agriculture industry in the region, made possible by the control of water.

Eyuboglu, a filmmaker originally from Istanbul, and said the idea of the film first came when he visited the Imperial Valley of southeastern California for a different film project. He was struck by a visit to the Salton Sea, a body of water created by accident from flooded canals along the Colorado in 1905.

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"It has become an unbelievable ecosystem," he said. Today, it is a hauntingly beautiful spot in the middle of the desert -- both an important stopover for migrating birds, and an increasingly brackish and toxic puddle thanks to huge amounts of agricultural runoff that gathers there.

He wanted to learn more, and in his research he became interested in land use and water management in this area. That led him to deBuys' book, "Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California," which tells the story of this unique ecosystem. deBuys is now an advisor to the project.

From there, other collaborators were brought on board. He had known and hoped to work with composer Paola Prestini, who co-founded VisionIntoArt, an interdisciplinary arts collective that specializes in collaborative, multimedia work.

"This completely fits into what we do," Prestini said, working with artists and other professionals to "find places we can bring together their knowledge and our knowledge to cross-pollinate."

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Others have also come on board, including composers William Brittelle, John Luther Adams, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Shara Worden.

Prestini said she was especially excited to work with Roomful of Teeth. The group was founded and is directed by Brad Wells, who teaches music at Williams College, and it explores a dizzying variety of vocal styles and traditions. Last month they won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble, and are well-known to MoCA audiences thanks to their annual residencies at the museum.

"The can bring across so many styles," Prestini said. "They have an unbelievable palate of sounds."

So far Eyuboglu estimates that over the past two years he has filmed a third of the material he will need. He and several other project member are planning an 18-day boat trip around the river in April.

He hopes to finish with a documentary film, a live performance piece and an album.

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"This is the most extensive collaboration I've ever been a part of," Eyuboglu said. "This is a very big story. It shouldn't have the individual stamp of any one particular artist."

And its importance will continue to grow. The region is becoming more and more dry, which raises concern because a huge amount of the nation's food supply is irrigated with water from the river.

"We all have molecules of the Colorado River in our bodies at any given moment," he said.

If you go ...

What: 'Water Songs: Ha Tay G'am' work-in-progress live film screening with live music performed by Roomful of Teeth

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1

Admission: $15 general or $10 for students

Information: massmoca.org


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