Colin McPhee

Colin McPhee, composer, ethnomusicologist, pianist, professor (b at Montreal, 15 Mar 1900; d at Los Angeles, 7 Jan 1964).
Colin McPhee, composer, ethnomusicologist, pianist, professor (b at Montreal, 15 Mar 1900; d at Los Angeles, 7 Jan 1964).

Colin McPhee, composer, ethnomusicologist, pianist, professor (b at Montreal, 15 Mar 1900; d at Los Angeles, 7 Jan 1964). McPhee's early musical studies were at the Hambourg Conservatory in Toronto. He went on to study at the Peabody Conservatory and with Arthur Friedheim. In 1924 he performed with the TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA his Piano Concerto No 2 which, even though the Chinese wind chimes were not used as requested in the score, produced a violent reaction from the audience. Later that year McPhee went to Paris for further studies. He was involved with Varèse from 1926 on, as assistant in producing concerts of new music in New York by composers such as Aaron Copeland and Henry Cowell and as a composer/performer. Even by the age of 12, McPhee had been searching for certain sonorous sound effects. When he heard the first commercially released recordings of Balinese music, he was determined to learn about this culture. From 1931 to 1939 he largely lived in Indonesia, where he has become recognized as the saviour of the Balinese gamelan literature. Learning and absorbing the music from remaining master musicians of Java and Bali, McPhee discovered the basis of this music: nuclear melodic ideas that are built onto in layers of different types of repeating rhythmic and melodic variations. Through his ethnomusicological explorations of this music, McPhee developed in the mid-1930s a compositional structure in which the whole has as many parts as each unit has small parts, with both large and small in the same proportion. Thus, if the musical phrase has 10 bars, the whole piece would be 10 times 10 or 100 bars long.

His most highly regarded composition, Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), was a commission from and first performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, but did not receive attention until its performance in New York, 16 October, 1953, at a concert of Canadian works conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Virgil Thomson rhapsodized: "The whole piece is a delight for bright sounds, lively rhythms and lovely tunes." The work garnered a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1954. Now frequently performed in Europe and North America, Tabuh-Tabuhan was choreographed for a ballet titled Gong, which premiered in New York, 1 May 2001. In transcribing certain elements of gamelan technique to the Western orchestra, McPhee is considered to have made the first successful blend of East with West. Of the few remaining compositions that McPhee did not renounce or destroy, all are imbued with gamelan elements, but clearly merged within his own idiom. McPhee's books on Bali, A House in Bali (1946) and Music in Bali (1966), are considered to be classics on the culture. For the last six years of his life McPhee taught at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was among the founding fathers of ethnomusicological studies. A student there at the time was La Monte Young, who later became known for establishing minimalism as a compositional technique. This approach is an application of the essentials of gamelan technique which McPhee applied in his post-1930 compositions. Works by McPhee have been republished in volumes 6, 16 and 24 of the Canadian Musical Heritage (see CANADIAN MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY). An extensive Colin McPhee Collection is located at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.

Further Reading

  • Carol Oja, Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (2004).