Colin McPhee

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Colin McPhee photo taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1935

Colin Carhart McPhee (March 15, 1900  – January 7, 1964) was a Canadian-born Indonesian composer and musicologist. He is best known for being the first Western composer to make an ethnomusicological study of Bali,[1] and for the quality of that work. He also composed music influenced by that of Bali and Java decades before such compositions that were based on world music became widespread.

Early life and education[edit]

McPhee was born in Montreal.[2] He enrolled in the Peabody Institute in 1918, studying composition with Gustav Strube and piano with Harold Randolph; subsequently he studied with the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse before marrying Jane Belo, a disciple of Margaret Mead, in 1931.


McPhee joined the circle of experimental composers known as the "ultra-modernists" and was among those—along with the group's leader, Henry Cowell, John J. Becker, and Cowell protégé Lou Harrison—particularly interested in what would later become known as "world music." McPhee and his wife moved to Bali together for Belo's anthropological work. Once there McPhee studied, filmed[3] and wrote extensively about the culture and music of the gamelans, and in 1936 wrote an original musical score, Tabuh Tabuhan, in the Balinese style.

McPhee, who was gay,[4] divorced Belo in 1939. In the early 1940s he lived in a large brownstone in Brooklyn, which he shared with W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, among others.

In 1942 he arranged Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, a work for string orchestra, for two pianos, to be used for Lew Christensen's ballet Jinx.[5] McPhee was responsible for introducing Britten to the Balinese music that influenced such works by the British composer as The Prince of the Pagodas, Curlew River, and Death in Venice.[6]

In 1947 McPhee published a book A House in Bali, about Balinese culture and music during the 1930s.[7] Later in the decade, McPhee fell into an alcohol-fueled depression, but began to write music again during the 1950s. He became professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA in 1958 and was also a respected jazz critic. He died in Los Angeles.

On June 26 and 27, 2009, an opera about McPhee's life by the American composer Evan Ziporyn, entitled A House in Bali, premiered at Puri Saraswati in Ubud, Bali.

In 2017, an album Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music, performed Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly and partly based on McPhee's transcriptions, was released on the Nonesuch/Warners label.[8][9]

Published works[edit]

McPhee's A House in Bali, the chronicle of his life there, is still considered a valuable introduction to Balinese culture.[7] His posthumously published Music in Bali was the first comprehensive analysis of Balinese music published in English.

His best-known musical work is Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra, composed and premiered in Mexico in 1936. Its title translates as "collection of percussion instruments," and it combines Balinese and traditional Western musical elements. It is scored for Western orchestra but, in McPhee's description, the core of the ensemble is a "'nuclear gamelan' composed of two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba, and glockenspiel," giving it a percussive balance of sound. The orchestra is augmented by two Balinese gongs and cymbals. The work is in three movements: "Ostinatos," a flute-related "Nocturne," and a syncopated "Finale." Some of the themes in it derive from Balinese folk sources. In 2013 the piece was choreographed and performed by the American Ballet Theater Company.[10]

  • Angkloeng gamelans in Bali. (1937?)
  • Balinese wajang koelit and its music. (1936?, 1981) ISBN 0-404-16765-9
  • Children and music in Bali. (1938) Publisher: Overdruk Uit Djawa
  • A House in Bali. (1944) Publisher: The Asia Press with The John Day Company, New York
  • Transitions for orchestra. (1954)
  • Music in Bali: a study in form and instrumental organization in Balinese orchestral music. (1966, 1976) ISBN 0-306-70778-0
  • A House in Bali. (1980) ISBN 0-404-16766-7 (introduction by James Murdoch)
  • Club of small men : a children's tale from Bali. (2002) ISBN 0-7946-0074-3


  • 1985: Colin McPhee: The Lure of Asian Music (dir. Michael Blackwood)


  1. ^ Pamela Karantonis; Dylan Robinson (13 May 2016). Opera Indigene: Re/presenting First Nations and Indigenous Cultures. Routledge. pp. 296–297. ISBN 978-1-317-08542-3.
  2. ^ Bali and Indonesia on the Net, retrieved 2007-11-18 CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ "Bali's biggest street party". Wayan Juniarta, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar | April 6, 2017
  4. ^ Oja, Carol J. (2004), Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-07180-8
  5. ^ Michael Kennedy; Joyce Bourne (22 April 2004). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 759. ISBN 978-0-19-860884-4.
  6. ^ Brett, Philip (1994), "Eros and Orientalism in Britten's Operas", in Brett, Philip; Wood, Elizabeth; Thomas, Gary C. (eds.), Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, London: Routledge, pp. 235–256
  7. ^ a b "The Best Travel Books About Bali". National Geographic, February 24, 2016, By Don George
  8. ^ "‘Balinese Ceremonial Music’ by Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly: Slow-burning beauty". Irish Times, Cormac Larkin, May 18, 2018
  9. ^ " Album | Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly – Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music". For Folks Sake, by Lorenzo Righetto • 5 June 2018
  10. ^ "American Ballet Theater's 'Sylphides' and 'Gong'". New York Times - Nov. 3, 2013 Allistair Macaulay

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]