Carol J. Oja’s Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds

colin-mcphee-ojaThe music of the East, particularly the gamelan of Indonesia, and even more particularly that of Bali, has a longer history of interaction with the music of the West than many might imagine. Claude Debussy first encountered the gamelan in Paris in 1889, and it may very well have had an impact – more than most other composers, Debussy is known for his shimmering textures. Terry Riley and Lou Harrison were tremendously influenced by the music of Bali in the 1970s and 80s, in Riley’s case giving rise to American minimalism, with its restricted tonal range, repetitive structure, and subtle variations in instrumentation and rhythm, all identifiable as outgrowths of Balinese gamelan. The eighty-year gap is largely filled by Benjamin Britten and Colin McPhee, and McPhee had by far the longer and more profound contact with the music of Bali.

McPhee was born in 1900 in an area known as Campbellville, about twenty miles outside of Toronto. The bare bones of his life read like those of many another artistic personality of the twentieth, or perhaps any other century. He showed an early talent for music and enjoyed a fair amount of recognition early in his career, both as a pianist and composer, but was prone to massive self-doubt of his abilities at any setback. Even after finally settling in New York and becoming an American citizen, McPhee, like so many of the American composers of his day, suffered from a lack of recognition: his most important work from before World War II, Tabuh-Tabuhan, a masterful adaptation of Balinese songs to a major orchestral work, was given a brilliant premier in Mexico City in 1936 by his friend and fellow composer Carlos Ch&#225vez; it was first heard in the United States in a truncated version broadcast by CBS in 1947 and was not performed in a full version in the United States until 1953, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski – ironically enough, in a program of music by Canadian composers.

McPhee was, in large measure, simply not constitutionally able to handle this lack of interest in his work. The only truly happy period of his life seems to have been the decade of the 1930s, which he spent mostly in Bali, traveling there with his wife, Jane Belo, in 1931 and again after a brief return to the United States to build a house, a stay broken by a visit to the United States and Mexico that lasted less than two years, in 1935-36. He was completely fascinated by the music and culture of Bali, and did very valuable work in transcribing and recording a large number of the traditional works being played by the various gamelan, and, in fact, founding a children’s gamelan anklung and resurrecting the gamelan semar pegulingan, a court style gamelan that had all but disappeared under Dutch rule, in the village of Sayan, where he lived. (The Sayan gamelan still exists.)

McPhee and Belo made significant contributions to anthropology during their time in Bali, and in fact worked closely with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. When he returned to the U.S., McPhee also had a second career as a musical journalist, writing reviews and articles – never enough to keep him above the poverty line, and his later life was pretty much a hand-to-mouth affair. His marriage to Belo had dissolved before he left Bali in 1938 – his affairs with men had apparently finally gotten to be too much for her, although she had known that he was homosexual when they married. Nor, by his own admission, was McPhee an easy person to deal with, although his friends remained loyal to the end, no matter how much he frustrated them.

It is somewhat difficult to evaluate McPhee’s impact on the music of the twentieth century. On the one hand, he was approaching music from a global perspective long before “world music” was a concept, was a proponent of jazz and African-American music and culture in general, and even created arrangements of Iroquois dances and sea shanties. On the other hand, his output as a composer was spotty and he was prone to destroying manuscripts, so that very little of his early music survives. One will look in vain for an analysis of the influence of McPhee’s music on later generations; the consensus seems to be that his major contribution was the monumental Music of Bali, published in 1966, two years after his death, and still a standard reference.

This is not a sparkling narrative. It is, in its essentials, a scholarly work, the second edition of a biography that seems to have grown out of a doctoral dissertation. As such, it is concerned mainly with McPhee’s reaction to Balinese music. Carol Oja is an historical musicologist, and the book is replete with technical discussions of McPhee’s compositions and transcriptions, heavily illustrated with passages from his works, and somewhat thin on personal details. Part of this is because McPhee was prone to dispense with letters and scores – almost none of his early compositions exist in any form, and even lists that he made up himself are scant on dates and contain errors. (The rest of this lack of juicy parts, of course, is because that is not the purpose of this book.) Oja has done a remarkable job of filling in the outlines of McPhee’s life from interviews and his papers, but I’m not sure I can really consider this a “biography” in any real sense – it is much more about the music than about the man, and valuable for that. McPhee was, after all, a problematical character: forward-looking, to be sure, but ultimately, more influential as a source than as an example.

(University of Illinois Press, 2004)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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