By Carol J. Oja
Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Although hardly a household name, Colin McPhee (1900-1964) deserves far greater credit than history has given him for the crucial role he played in opening Western composition to the sounds and philosophies of the East. Today, in our polyglot, postmodern society, we take such mingling for granted. But sixty-four years ago, when McPhee set sail for the island of Bali, he began an odyssey that no composer had ever before attempted. It lasted nearly a decade and resulted in a significant series of compositions and writings about Bali that helped inspire a whole generation of American composers to broaden their cultural focus.
McPhee left for Bali after launching a career among a vigorous community of young modernists in New York during the 1920s. A native of Canada, he studied composition in Toronto, as well as in the United States. Like most of his generation, he also went to Paris, where he worked with the composer Paul Le Flem and the pianist Isidor Philipp. After settling in New York in 1926, McPhee became a pupil of Edgard Varése and was among a select group of young North Americans to have his compositions performed by Varése’s International Composers’ Guild. At some point late in the decade, restless with the elitist impulses of modernism, McPhee began exploring other modes of musical expression and chanced upon rare recordings of the Balinese gamelan. As he later recalled, “the clear, metallic sounds” of this percussion orchestra “were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering.” Lured by exotic artistic potential and emboldened by the anthropological passions of his new wife, Jane Belo, McPhee set sail for Bali in 1931 and ended up staying nearly a decade. While there, he and Belo built a native-style house in the small mountain village of Sayan and immersed themselves in the local culture. Among their Western colleagues and personal friends were the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. With a composer’s attention to musical detail, McPhee explored Bali’s alluring repertories. In the process he uncovered a complex web of traditions, many of which were then on the wane. Working daily with local musicians, either in his Sayan home or on frequent field trips to remote corners of the island, McPhee transcribed hundreds of works and founded ensembles to revive dying repertories. His one attempt at making sound recordings failed. Audio technology of the time was far from advanced enough to deal reliably with on-site field work in a tropical climate.
Driven reluctantly back to the West in 1939 by the advancing war, McPhee devoted the remainder of his career to championing the culture he loved so intensely. Among his many writings about Bali, two books stand out: A House in Bali (1946), a poetically evocative memoir of his experiences on the island, and Music in Bali (1966), still the principal scholarly treatise on Balinese repertories. A series of gamelan-infused compositions also resulted, beginning with Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), one of the earliest works by a Western composer to meet the East on its own terms, and continuing two decades later with his Symphony No. 2 (1957) and Nocturne for Chamber Orchestra (1958). With the first and last of those works, McPhee’s career intersected significantly with that of Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the long-awaited American premiere of Tabuh-Tabuhan in 1953, as well as the world premiere of the Nocturne, which had been commissioned by Stokowski’s Contemporary Music Society at the suggestion of Oliver Daniel.
Written, as it was, nearly two decades after leaving Bali, McPhee’s Nocturne evokes the gamelan with a hint of nostalgia, replacing the vibrant ebullience of Tabuh–Tabuhan with a subtler, more pared-down approach. The piece opens with a limpid flute solo, recalling the sounds of a Balinese suling. Throughout, flute sections alternate with ones for “nuclear gamelan,” a core unit of piano, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, and small gong. All of McPhee’s gamelan-inspired orchestral works use this Western approximation of an Indonesian ensemble. Other principles of gamelan construction prevail, from the work’s ever-present multiple layers of activity, so characteristic of Balinese textures, to its use of recurring melodic nodules — the latter a kind of proto-minimalist pattern music. As was typical of his gamelan-inspired works, McPhee based the Nocturne on Western translations of Balinese scales, opening with a four-note unit drawn from the repertory for gamelan angklung, an ancient ensemble which he had helped revive in the 1930s. At the same time, though, he incorporated modernist practices of his youth, especially by combining two or more indigenously inspired scales simultaneously.
Disdainful of impressionistic idealizations of exotic idioms, McPhee sought in his orchestral works to retain the essence of the gamelan’s integrity. Yet he did so with Western instruments. By the late 1950s, when he composed the Nocturne, others had begun taking even bolder steps toward authentic approaches to Eastern repertories, whether John Cage in his brittle experimentations for prepared piano or Lou Harrison in his works incorporating actual Asian instruments. The Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung once said of McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan, “although it might seem outdated, at the time it was one of the most distinguished scores of that nature, using the Western orchestra to express the music of another culture.” Such a historical lens is essential in assessing McPhee, for the same judgment can be extended to his later works, including the Nocturne. Somewhat conservative for the 1950s a decade when serialist orthodoxy consumed American composers and Cage undertook his then-shocking odysseys into chance composition–the Nocturne nonetheless stands out both as an important contribution to the solid center of American symphonic literature and as a major step in achieving a respectful, cross-cultural musical union.