Colin McPhee was born in Montreal but moved from Canada to the USA in 1926. He studied in Toronto, in Baltimore, then in Paris with Paul Le Flem and in New York with Edgard Varèse. In New York he achieved some success as a composer in a spare and punchy neo-Classical idiom. In 1931 he heard some recordings of the virtuoso gamelan (percussion) orchestras of Java and Bali, and was so fascinated by them that he decided to experience and study this music at first hand.
What started as a short field trip to Bali became a stay of several years, during which he and his wife, the anthropologist Jane Belo, built themselves a house and McPhee worked closely with Balinese musicians, transcribing hundreds of their pieces. McPhee formed a gamelan of his own, learning to play each instrument; he also helped to revive interest in styles of playing that had fallen out of fashion. The most famous fruit of his Bali period was the orchestral toccata Tabuh-tabuhan (1936).
McPhee was eventually forced to leave Bali after he and his wife divorced, and in 1939 he returned to New York. It was there in 1941 that he and Benjamin Britten recorded McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos. He published a fascinating account of his time in Indonesia, A House in Bali (1946), and for the rest of his life he strove to write up and codify his researches, which eventually resulted in the monumental pair of volumes Music in Bali, only published in 1966, two years after his death.
Besides his many transcriptions of gamelan music for western instruments, and a suite of four Iroquois Dances (1944), McPhee’s surviving output of original works is fairly small, including a Concerto for piano and wind octet (1929), a Second Symphony (1958; the First is lost), a Concerto for wind orchestra (1960) and a few other short orchestral pieces. Yet he wrote much more than this – over 50 works are known to have existed that subsequently either disappeared or were destroyed by McPhee because he ceased to believe in them. His later career has, indeed, elements of tragedy. He was always poor; the after-effects of malaria picked up in Bali left him ill and in pain for much of the time; and his health further deteriorated through heavy drinking. He also suffered a creative crisis, feeling himself unable to write any new music of his own that was not in thrall to the rhythms and idioms of Balinese music. Yet in 1960 he secured a teaching position at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), where he remained until his death. Through his teaching and his writings he did much to disseminate knowledge of non-western musical techniques that had a palpable effect on the ‘minimalist’ style that began to be developed by young composers in the late 1960s and 1970s. One composer who enjoyed his friendship and did much to develop his ideas was Lou Harrison.
Profile © Calum MacDonald, 2004